Pennsylvania teens take a cue from Stoneman Douglas peers, organize for change in special election

The students at Stoneman Douglas aren't the only teens intent on changing the world.

PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 9: Conor Lamb, Democratic Congressional candidate for Pennsylvania's 18th district, takes photos with supporters after he spoke at rally at the United Steelworkers Building, March 9, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. CREDIT: Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images
PITTSBURGH, PA - MARCH 9: Conor Lamb, Democratic Congressional candidate for Pennsylvania's 18th district, takes photos with supporters after he spoke at rally at the United Steelworkers Building, March 9, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. CREDIT: Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

MT. LEBANON, PENNSYLVANIA — Maria O’Matz got to skip school Tuesday. The high school sophomore instead spent the day knocking on doors in a last minute push for Democrat Conor Lamb, who is on the ballot in Tuesday’s special election to replace Rep. Tim Murphy (R).

It’s O’Matz’s first time volunteering for a political campaign, though she has worked with a group called Girl Gov lobbying for comprehensive sex ed in Pennsylvania’s schools, among other issues, in the past.

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“I think it was really the energy behind the campaign,” O’Matz said in an interview with ThinkProgress of what drew her to volunteer for Lamb. “Just in my own neighborhood… people are getting really excited about the campaign, even high schoolers.”

In the wake of the Parkland shooting last month that left 17 people, a group of teenagers who survived the massacre in Florida has emerged as a formidable, Twitter savvy political force. Their work has inspired young people across the country, including a group of teenagers in Western Pennsylvania who are hellbent on turning blue Pennsylvania’s 18th district, which Trump won by 20 points in 2016.

“They are incredible,” O’Matz said of the young Parkland activists. “I cannot even put into words how much I am inspired by and respect them [and] all the work they’re doing… to really say never again.”

Notably, Lamb, for whom O’Matz and other young people in the area have been campaigning, does not support an assault weapons ban. Lamb has said he believes the United States has all the gun laws it needs, they only need to be better enforced, a stance he reiterated following the Parkland shooting.

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In interviews ahead of Election Day, some young activists said they wish Lamb would go further but that they understood his position.

O'Matz (second from right) with State Rep. Dan Miller (second from left) and other organizers. CREDIT: Maria O'Matz
O'Matz (second from right) with State Rep. Dan Miller (second from left) and other organizers. CREDIT: Maria O'Matz

“I do,” O’Matz said, asked if she wished Lamb would support banning assault rifles. But, she added, “I do appreciate the steps that he is willing to take besides the ban on assault rifles… He’s a relatively moderate guy. He’s willing to work with Republicans, and I think we need that.”

O’Matz said Tuesday that she has begun to realize that a massacre like last month’s in Parkland could happen at her school and that has informed her feelings about the issue.

“In Mt. Lebanon, a lot of people just think, ‘Oh it’s a safe community; nothing happens here,'” O’Matz said. But, she noted, that’s what people in Parkland thought, too.

“That’s something that really struck me,” she said. “That really scared me.”

Jordan Farrell, 18, a high school senior, also took the day off school to canvas for Lamb, and she, like O’Matz, said she does think it’s important to take steps toward sensible gun reform. But, she told ThinkProgress, she believes Lamb’s stance is right for the district.

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“I think it is important that we make smarter decisions on gun control,” Farrell said, adding that she wants to feel safe and feel that her younger brother is safe when they go to school. “We’ve seen how successful [common sense gun reform] can be in other countries… But it’s important to start slow… I think that it is if you look back through history when things radically changed it hasn’t always been the best.”

Some other young people in the area do want radical change, and they want it now.

Erin and Emma Simard, sisters and co-organizers of March For Our Lives Pittsburgh, a local march inspired by the March For Our Lives organized by Parkland survivors, said in an interview with ThinkProgress that they think everyone should support an assault weapons ban.

“I absolutely think that in this day and age we should be for an assault weapon ban,” Erin, 16, said. “I don’t think it makes sense that weapons that are created to maximize killings in battlefields should be in the hands of civilians.”

Their litmus test for any politician, they said, would be whether or not they support additional gun control regulations, and they said they would support Republicans over Democrats if their gun control stances were stronger.

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“We would choose whatever candidate was going to choose the best gun reform,” Erin said. “In some cases, Republicans have been better.”

Erin said she was disappointed in both Lamb and his Republican rival, Rick Saccone, for not using this special election as an opportunity to speak out and take strong stances on gun control.

“Personally, I think both candidates are remiss not to take this opportunity to speak out about gun control,” she said. “[I]t’s disappointing.”

Though Erin is not yet old enough to vote, she said she believed she should be able to already at age 16.

“I’ve found that my generation has the capability of becoming very educated about politics,” she said. “In the case of my generation it would make sense [to be able to vote], especially in the upcoming midterms.”

Farrell (L) and O'Matz (R). Credit: Jordan Farrell
Farrell (L) and O'Matz (R). Credit: Jordan Farrell

Although most of the young activists ThinkProgress spoke to couldn’t vote yet, they’ve found other ways to make their voices heard, including using social media. Both Farrell and O’Matz said Tuesday that social media has been an important factor for them and other teenagers getting into political activism, but they said they’ve also found social media to be a double edged sword.

“I think it has a lot of positive things and negative things as well,” Farrell said. “With social media, you’re not able to express your beliefs in a detailed way… There’s a lack of communication in our age of over-communication.”

But it is a great way to get the word out on issues, Farrell said, a sentiment O’Matz echoed.

“There are some accounts just to have political discussions, and I think that’s a good thing and a bad thing,” she said. “It allows people to understand other people’s struggles.”

For the young activists in Pennsylvania, Tuesday’s special election is only the beginning.

Farrell, who lives just outside the 18th district, wasn’t able to cast a vote for Lamb Tuesday, but she will get to vote for the first time in Pennsylvania’s midterm primaries in May. After graduation in June, Farrell is moving to Washington D.C. to go to Catholic University, and she says she wants to keep working for grassroots causes.

Erin Simard, the March For Our Lives Pittsburgh organizer, also has big plans.

“I plan on studying political science in college,” she said. “I want to be president someday.”