Why Lisa Bennington is abandoning Harrisburg

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It's been historically tough for women to reach the Pennsylvania statehouse, and now Rep. Lisa Bennington has announced she'll leave it after one term.

Rep. Bennington, 31, a divorce lawyer from Morningside fast with a quip, will finish out the year and then go back full-time to a line of work she finds less contentious and more rewarding. She settles about 90 percent of her divorce cases before the case reaches court but, in the House, "you can't negotiate with anyone."

"Until you reduce the size of the [253-member] Legislature and you make the impact of one vote count,'' she said, "I don't know that one person will make an appreciable difference.''

With fellow Democrat Chelsa Wagner of Beechview, Ms. Bennington became in 2006 one of the first two women elected to the state House to represent Pittsburgh. Deciding to quit Harrisburg this quickly, she confessed, had "scenes of Shannon Faulkner'' running through her head.

Ms. Faulkner won a long legal fight to become the first female cadet at The Citadel in 1995 -- and then quit after less than a week. At that time, Ms. Bennington had only recently graduated in the last all-girls class at Winchester Thurston, and was enrolled at all-female Chatham College. She'd eventually get her law degree from Duquesne University.

A year ago, she was eager to break up the old-boy network in Harrisburg, having defeated Rep. Frank Pistella of Bloomfield, who'd been representing the district since she was 2. So it's stunning to hear that she won't run a second time. One writer at The Burgh Report, a Web site that dissects Pittsburgh politics and politicians, put it this way:

"You just have to wonder about the real reason behind all this. Somehow, a burning passion to get back to the uplifting world of divorce law doesn't seem all that plausible.''

When I ran that by Rep. Bennington, she laughed and said she'd tell the writer: "Get a divorce, I'll represent you, and see how much fun we'll have.''

As one who has slammed America's Largest and Most Expensive Full-Time State Legislature for its cushy pensions, I won't fault anyone for leaving before she can cash in. The irony is that she went to Harrisburg to shrink the statehouse and then found its size the reason to split.

Rep. Bennington knew that her voice would amount to less than one-half of 1 percent of the 203-member House, but knowing something and experiencing it are different. In her law practice, "you are paid a billable hour and somebody is looking and can say, 'Did I get this service for what I paid?' " She can have that experience when she helps a constituent with an individual problem, but she is frustrated by the glacial pace of lawmaking.

Her most rewarding moment came when the House unanimously passed her bill to require that all Pennsylvania laws be available to the public free online. (The other 49 states already did that.) Her big disappointment came when the House didn't even vote on a bill to require hospitals to inform rape victims of the availability of emergency contraception.

Harrisburg remains a man's world. It is ranked 46th among the 50 statehouses in female representation, and all House Democratic leaders are men. Rep. Bennington publicly defended her party's besieged leader, Bill DeWeese, recently. But she also recalled that though a bill passed to ensure that a mother can nurse a child in public, some of the floor commentary seemed scripted by "Beavis and Butt-Head.''

"I think because the word 'breast' was in the bill,'' she said.

Gloria Forouzan, who led the "Run, Baby, Run'' group that backed female candidates in 2006, says Rep. Bennington's successful campaign will not be forgotten.

"She showed it can be done,'' Ms. Forouzan said.

Others are trying to advance the cause. Chatham University and the Pennsylvania Women's Campaign Fund will host a women's campaign school Jan. 25-27.

Nobody should think it's a glamorous job. Rep. Bennington says any candidate will knock on thousands of doors. Sometimes the pens will freeze before signatures are complete on the petitions. She's not going to miss that or the long drives on the turnpike.

Maybe Harrisburg is not the place for anyone who already has a fulfilling career, as our statehouse demands an acceptance of accomplishing not very much. That leaves an open seat in a district straddling the Allegheny River, and divorce never looking so good.

Brian O'Neill can be reached at boneill@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1947.


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