Progressive Democrat Hallam got personal in Allegheny County Council primary campaign
When Bethany Hallam set out to campaign for a seat on Allegheny County Council, she didn’t expect people to be interested in her personal life.
“At times it was hard because I wanted people to be focused on the issues I was talking about,” said Hallam, a Democrat from Ross who beat 20-year incumbent John DeFazio, 78, of Shaler in May’s Democratic primary for the at-large seat.
Hallam, 30, ran on a progressive platform intensely focused on issues like oversight of the county jail, improving access to public transit and improving transparency in local government. They were issues she was eager to talk about because they impacted her own life.
She quickly realized that they were the same issues many of her constituents were concerned about as well, and decided to share her story of addiction, recovery and experience with the county’s criminal justice system with voters.
“I can’t talk about who I am without talking about how I got here,” Hallam said.
How she ‘got here’
As a junior at North Hills High School, Hallam tore a ligament in her knee playing lacrosse. Just as she was recovering, she injured the other knee.
She was on painkillers for 16 months. During that time, her biggest concern was not being able to play lacrosse in college as planned. When she started to withdraw from the medication, a friend offered her a pill to ease the symptoms.
“They were very easily accessible,” Hallam said. “Everyone I knew had some in the medicine cabinet from someone in their family, or left over from a surgery they had years ago. Painkillers were everywhere.”
She went on to attend Duquesne University. While she didn’t realize her dream of playing college lacrosse, she graduated in 2012.
She worked full time while she was in school, but nearly every penny was going toward pills.
Then she was introduced to heroin.
“I lost a lot of friends in that time,” she said. “Not just people who didn’t want anything to do with me, but who died from overdoses.”
She racked up a list of summary offenses: possessing paraphernalia, disorderly conduct.
In jail, ‘I woke up’
By 2014, she was on Suboxone, the prescription drug to treat opioid addiction. When she tried to sell some to an undercover cop, she was charged with a felony.
“Looking back, it was the best thing I ever did,” she said. “Because in the long run, it saved my life.”
Hallam took a plea deal — she lost her driver’s license and got two years of probation.
But things got worse. In August 2016, she landed in the Allegheny County Jail after trying to cheat a drug test.
“Seeing the conditions in jail changed my perspective on everything,” Hallam said. “I realized that not only do I not want to live like this, nobody else should have to live like this, regardless of a crime they committed. I woke up.”
She followed the 2016 presidential election from behind bars, casting an absentee ballot from jail and falling asleep on election night thinking Hilary Clinton won. It was the first time she felt good in a long time.
A pivot toward politics
A week and a half after her release from jail in January 2017, Hallam attended the Pittsburgh Women’s March.
She threw herself in politics — a move she said kept her from relapsing.
Hallam worked with the county and state Democratic committees, and got involved in Sara Innamorato’s campaign for a seat in the state House of Representatives.
In the May 2018 primary, Innamorato defeated state Rep. Dom Costa, D-Stanton Heights, by 28 percentage points. Costa, a former Pittsburgh police chief, had held the office since 2009.
“She showed that you could be yourself and make a difference,” Hallam said. “You don’t have to put on some masquerade, some outfit, to pretend you’re something you’re not to be able to run for office and effect the change you want to see.
“Regular people like us could run for office. And especially taking on an establishment politician like she did, it gave me hope.”
Beating a heavyweight
People laughed when Hallam said she would take on DeFazio for the Allegheny County Council seat.
He was a longtime United Steelworkers union leader with celebrity clout from his years as a professional wrestler. He had the backing of the county Democratic Committee and County Executive Rich Fitzgerald. He had never faced a challenger.
Hallam estimated she knocked on over 3,000 doors across 96 of the county’s 130 municipalities. She tried to eat a meal in every municipality she visited, posting the stops on Instagram, but suspended the effort when she realized she rarely had time to dine between campaign events.
“I don’t want to be held on some pedestal,” said Hallam, who will be three years clean in August. “I’m just a regular person who ran a campaign to be able to speak for regular people. That’s what it was all about for me.”
Hallam still has to win the November general election to take the seat, but is likely to run unopposed. The other at-large seat on council is typically held by a Republican.
Now, she’s encouraging others to get involved.
“We need to start changing the system,” she said. “We talk about this machine, we talk about the establishment, and how we’re always going up against this huge machine.
“But what if we, as the progressive base, were the machine?”
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jamie at 724-850-2867, [email protected] or via Twitter .