An Amish buggy passes by as Erin McCracken gives a tour of the Breman Town Ballroom in Millheim. She and her husband, Joshua, host events in the space they converted from a bar.
“We’ve had some of the best concerts in here," McCracken said. "We’ve had hip-hop. We’ve had Texas country, where we taught everybody how to two-step and everybody was doing it. We’ve had polka parties. We just basically try anything.”
The ballroom is one of McCracken’s projects. Others include eco-friendly catering, converting the church where her family lives into a home, playing in a band and — running for office.
One of the races that will be decided in Tuesday’s election is the state House of Representatives, 171st district. McCracken, the Democratic nominee, is up against the incumbent, Republican Kerry Benninghoff. While Benninghoff has won easily in past elections, McCracken thinks she has a shot.
“I think a lot of people were changed or alarm bells went off in the 2016 election," she said.
McCracken said she saw people participating in politics — whether that was going to a march or registering to vote. Now, she’s the Democratic nominee for the state House of Representatives, 171st district.
“I could feel pressure and I could something inside me say: You have to do something. You have to run for office. And you have the skills to do this, and other women, especially are doing this," she said. "Now is the time.”
The district includes parts of Centre and Mifflin counties. The incumbent, Republican Kerry Benninghoff, has held the position since 1997.
McCracken’s platform includes growing the renewable energy economy in Pennsylvania, not only for the climate but for jobs. She said corporations influence politicians on policies that hurt working people, including not raising minimum wage and taxes that benefit businesses not people.
“The problem is not people not working," she said. "The problem is people don’t get paid enough money to do it. I look around and see people hustling and working their tails off and not being able to get ahead.”
McCracken’s parents were from Centre County. Her father was in the Navy, and McCracken grew up in Maryland. She moved around after high school, including earning a bachelor’s from Penn State and masters in social work and public administration at West Virginia University. Her past work ranges from green energy to student loan policy.
She also writes songs and plays in a band.
“I was suddenly a politician in the last few months," she said.
Even though she’s new, McCracken thinks she can win.
In the years that Benninghoff has faced a Democratic challenger, he has won the race easily. In 2016, for example, he got about 69 percent of the vote.
Benninghoff’s Bellefonte office is downtown, across from a coffee shop. On a recent visit for breakfast, he dropped off some flowers he grows in his garden. He said one of the things he prides himself on is being available to people.
“People will stop me at Grange Fair, and they’ll say, ‘I appreciate what you’re doing. I don’t always agree with you, but I know you’re working hard.' I appreciate it,” he said.
Benninghoff grew up in Houserville in Centre County and graduated from State High. He attended Penn State and worked at the hospital before going on to become county coroner. In 1996, he ran for and won the state house seat he holds.
“I find some irony that this is the only profession where tenure, experience and longevity seems to be perceived as a liability," Benninghoff said. "If you hire a roofer or a surgeon to do your surgery or someone to work on your car, most people would like to hire someone with knowledge.”
He pointed to accomplishments including advocating for funding for transportation projects; introducing legislation that stiffens the penalties for DUI while boating; and a relatively new law giving adopted children access to their birth certificates.
As an adopted child, Benninghoff said he understood the frustration of people who can’t find out about their family’s medical history because they’re adopted.
He said the opioid epidemic and a tax system that entices businesses and keeps them here are other key issues. He also pointed to jobs, but he thinks the bigger challenge is having a workforce that’s trained and available.
“To me, I think it’s more about: Are we providing the quality of education and the aptitude of what is needed for the workforce demand.”
He’s running for his 12th term, and Benninghoff says he takes every race seriously.
“I’m not generally very prideful, but I will say, I put a ton of time and energy into this position," Benninghoff said. "I kind of jokingly say to my staff: you find someone that’s going to work harder than I do, and I’ll vote for them.”
He says he likes what he does and thinks he and the people in his offices do their best to serve constituents regardless of political party.
One of his summer appearances was joining other politicians to make a giant-sized ice cream sundae at the Grange Fair.
Mike Nemith was one of the people there. He lives in Maryland, but grew up in Bellefonte. And, like many at the event, he knew Benninghoff.
“I like him a lot; I’ve known him for years; I taught his kids in swim class," Nemith said. "He’s always been a great guy.”