Melissa Cerrato is running against incumbent Republican Todd Stephens in the redrawn 151st district, which includes part of Montgomery County. It’s the Horsham Twp. resident’s first run at public office, a position she is seeking to give voice to working class families like her own.
Democratic state House candidate Melissa Cerrato feels she’s uniquely qualified to fight on behalf of working Pennsylvanians because she’s been where they’ve been—struggling to make ends meet and provide for a family.
“I lost my house to foreclosure 15 years ago, I was going through a divorce and couldn’t afford childcare,” Cerrato said. “I took a job for $10 an hour as a nanny because I could take my child with me. I worked as an Uber driver and scrubbed toilets. Since then I’ve worked and built up for my family and I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished, but I’ve had to work every day of my life to give to my children and provide for them.”
Cerrato is running against incumbent Republican Todd Stephens in the redrawn 151st district, which includes part of Montgomery County. It’s the Horsham Twp. resident’s first run at public office, although she previously worked as district director for state Rep. Liz Hanbridge (D-61).
The 40-year-old Cerrato speaks frankly and proudly about her working class roots and the struggles she endured as a divorced, single mother before marrying her husband, a member of Steamfitters Local 420. She said running for state office is about being heard and helping others.
“I am standing up to fight so that the people in the 151st have a seat at the table and I’m not going to give up until we see Harrisburg is actually working to better the lives of the people of Pennsylvania.”
We spoke with Cerrato at her campaign office recently about her entry into politics, the issues impacting residents in the 151st district, and her race with Stephens.
This conversation was edited for clarity and length.
Why do you think your background makes you uniquely qualified to serve in Harrisburg?
“I’m a public servant. I do consider myself working class. I’ve worked and built up for my family and I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished. It’s something I can relate to with so many people in the Commonwealth and I think that brings a new perspective to Harrisburg.” To run for office, I had to quit my job (working for Rep. Liz Hanbridge)—you’re not legally allowed to stay working for House of Representatives and run for office. I realized we could not afford that. I’m fortunate to have a husband with a stable career in his union job, and he’s working overtime to try and pay bills. The average person can’t afford to run for office because of financial restrictions put on candidates. I want to change that. I want to work on campaign finance reform so we can have a legislative body that more closely resembles the people of the Commonwealth.”
Do you think Pennsylvania’s minimum wage should be raised from its current $7.25 per hour? Will an increase harm businesses?
“We need a livable wage. No one should work full-time and not be able to afford to put food on their plates and a roof over their head. This is something I will absolutely be fighting for. We need to properly be supporting the people who build this Commonwealth. I don’t think we can just jump from $7.25 an hour to $15. It needs to be a progression. It can’t happen overnight. I don’t think we should pick a number and then stay with that for another decade. We need to look around and see what an average home costs, an average meal plan. Corporations outside the state use loopholes and don’t pay their fair share into the state tax rate. We need to close those loopholes. We don’t want to hurt our small businesses, our mom and pop businesses. It will affect them but there can be tax incentives for them. There are options we’re not taking advantage of.”
What is your position on abortion rights, which are under attack by the Republican-led state legislature?
“I am unapologetically fighting for reproductive freedom in our state. I’m the Planned Parenthood-endorsed candidate. In order to protect (abortion rights) we need to flip the state legislature. I’ve knocked on 5,500 doors myself and this is the number one issue— the right to choose. It crosses party lines. It’s men and women. It’s grandparents. They all want the right to make choices over their bodies and have their families have that right.”
(Todd Stephens’ campaign filed a cease and desist letter in August calling on Cerrato’s campaign to stop characterizing him as anti-abortion. In response, Cerrato’s campaign said. “Melissa Cerrato will not cease telling the truth about Rep. Stephens’s disappointing record on choice, one which has led Planned Parenthood to support her and oppose your client’s reelection bid.” No further legal action has been taken by Stephens’ campaign.)
What do you believe needs to be done to reduce gun violence?
“The only way we’re going to see gun reform is to flip the state legislature. The chairman has stated he will never move any gun legislation out of committee to the floor for a vote. I don’t think guns are inherently bad. But, if we require an understanding of the road and a practical test to drive a car, we shouldn’t expect anything less for gun owners. I don’t think we ever need weapons of war in the hands of civilians. They are most often used in school shootings and are destroying our society. I think they should be removed and no longer sold.”
Do you think recreational marijuana should be legalized?
“I’m okay with legalizing marijuana. I think it’s inherently less dangerous than alcohol in many circumstances. We can use the tax revenue to offset programs to help people. I am concerned with how to properly test for DUI. I will look to see how other states are doing that. Overall, I think Pennsylvania should be doing it.”
What is your position on recent book-banning efforts in some school districts and attacks on LGBTQ+ students’ rights?
“I will work to protect everyone’s rights. Every student deserves a proper education and I will fight tooth and nail for that when I get to Harrisburg. Every student should feel included and accepted by their school community.”
What is your position on equitable funding of Pennsylvania’s schools?
“Last year, the Upper Dublin, Hatboro-Horsham, North Penn and Wissahickon school districts spent an average of $21,339 per pupil. This is a luxury not afforded to our neighbors in Philadelphia, where the average is $13,263. We can and must do more to equalize the disparities between public schools in Pennsylvania’s poorest and most affluent communities.”
Todd Stephens is viewed by many as a moderate Republican. Has it been a more difficult challenge to run against a moderate?
“Honestly, the quote-unquote moderate has voted with his party 90 percent of the time. You can’t be moderate if you vote for extreme leadership. He just held a $5,000-a-plate dinner with House speaker Bryan Cutler. As long as he holds a seat, the extremists will hold their power.”