With charity in her heart, Arnet channels grandmothers in state senate race

With charity in her heart, Arnet channels grandmothers in state senate race

Heather Arnet (Photo provided)
Heather Arnet (Photo provided)

Heather Arnet sees irony in a recent television ad being aired by her opponent for state senator representing District 37.

In the ad, Republican Guy Reschenthaler accuses Arnet, a Democrat, of being “another tax-and-spend liberal.” Yet, the image the former district judge of Jefferson Hills has chosen to use of Arnet is a still shot taken from a video recording the oral history of local philanthropists at the University of Pittsburgh a few years ago.

In that video, which can be viewed on YouTube, Arnet makes no mention of taxes or government spending but instead speaks about the Jewish roots of her life’s work in helping others, referencing the concept of tzedakah and the principles of volunteerism and charity imbued in her from a young age by her Jewish grandparents.

She is unsure, she said, of how Reschenthaler made the leap from her Jewish background in tzedakah to labeling her a “tax- and-spend liberal.”

“Not only am I not talking about taxes in that video,” Arnet said “but what I am talking about is how important it is to give tzedakah.”

It is the values with which she was raised that has brought Arnet to the state senate race, a special election to be held on Nov. 3, to fill the seat of Sen. Matt Smith, who resigned to take over as president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce.

Arnet grew up in Miami, attending an Orthodox day school, and felt the influence of her Jewish grandmothers from a young age: Her grandmother, Vivian, was politically active, and her grandmother, Fran, was immersed in Jewish volunteerism at her synagogue and through Hadassah and AMIT.

It is a natural outcome of her upbringing, she said, that has brought her to the senate race.

“My interest in women being engaged in politics was born into me,” said Arnet, 41, who has served as the CEO of the Women and Girls Foundation (WGF) for the past 12 years. “My great-grandmother was a suffragette, and my grandmother, Vivian, always use to say, ‘You have to vote in every election, big or small, because people died for you to have that right,’ indicating that voting was a responsibility.”

Arnet takes that responsibility seriously, she said, as she knows firsthand the impact that governmental policies can make on working families.

At the age of 3, her parents, then in their 20s, were divorced. Neither had college degrees or jobs.

“It was an economically fragile time for us,” she said. “My mom went to school at night and worked during the day, and she eventually earned her college degree and got a job in accounting for the federal government. It changed our lives, having that stability.”

Her father also became a federal worker, employed at the Post Office until his retirement.

“Through that generation, I learned how important unions are and the role they play in creating a working middle class,” she said. “My family is an important context for how and why I’m engaged in the work that I am.”

That work includes initiatives she has launched through WGF, a nonprofit organization based in Pittsburgh with a mission to achieve gender equity through strategic investments in public policy initiatives. She also serves as the board chair of the Ms. Foundation for Women and as chair of the board of the Johnson Institute for Responsible Leadership at the University of Pittsburgh. She was an elected board director of the Pittsburgh Public School Board from 2007 to 2009.

Through WGF, Arnet examines each budget passed in the commonwealth and provides input to legislators in Harrisburg. The issues on which WGF focuses include funding for public education, food stamps, economic development, workforce initiatives and women’s health and research.

“We take a gender lens through the whole thing,” she said, adding that the organization often provides testimony to the legislature. “We are a nonpartisan resource to the legislature on both sides of the aisle.”

WGF has worked in partnership with other organizations to pass 12 bills affecting thousands of Pennsylvanians, according to Arnet.

Arnet stresses the importance of electing Pennsylvanian women to government.

“There are hardly any women in elected office in Harrisburg,” she said. “[Pennsylvania has] no women in the state legislative caucus and no women in the federal legislative caucus. There are no women from Pennsylvania [in the legislature] in Washington, D.C., and women make up only about 17 percent of the state legislature. This is lower than the national average.”

Arnet says she is the right person to be sending to Harrisburg to represent District 37.

“I’ve had a lifetime of serving, trying to advocate and empower women and girls in government,” she said, adding that if she is elected, she will focus on “re-investing in public education,” including affordable pre-K and all-day kindergarten.

“I will be a strong voice for the middle class and working families,” she said.

Arnet and Reschenthaler will engage in a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters on Oct. 27 and again at Robert Morris University on Oct. 28.

Perhaps channeling her grandmother, Arnet stressed the imperative of getting out to vote.

“There is a low voter turnout in this country on off-year elections,” she said. “But it is very important that people come out to vote on Nov. 3. Lots of times, it is the more extreme members of the community who come out to vote. But we need to make sure everyone remembers to come out to vote.”

Arnet has lived in Pittsburgh since 2000. She is married to David Shumway, professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University. They live in Mt. Lebanon with their son, Travis. District 37 encompasses much of the South Hills of Allegheny County and extends to Peters Township in Washington County.

Watch a video with Heather Arnet speaking about growing up in a Jewish household.

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at tobyt@thejewishchronicle.net.

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