Shavonnia Corbin-Johnson grew up in York, but it wasn’t until recently that she became something of a local celebrity. As a Democratic candidate in the primary race for Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional district, Corbin-Johnson became a public figure.
Although she lost in May’s election to George Scott in a tight race, strangers still approach Corbin-Johnson when she’s out to say “hi” and express their support of her and her platform, which included support for community-based change, universal health care, fair wages and addressing root causes of poverty and criminal justice issues.
Corbin-Johnson, who recently turned 27, began her campaign a couple months after she earned her master’s degree in U.S. foreign policy in India, Pakistan and the Middle East from George Washington University. She brought a background in federal government work to the race, having worked in the Obama White House under the administration’s budget director and on Capitol Hill for U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania.
Sitting outside for lunch at the White Rose Bar & Grill in downtown York on a spring day in June, Corbin-Johnson welcomed greetings from other patrons while the Business Journal caught up with her to discuss life post-election.
As souped-up classic cars zoomed past on Philadelphia Street on their way to the annual Street Rod festival, Corbin-Johnson waved and cheered to the drivers, reflecting on her community’s unique traditions.
“It’s quirky, but it’s York,” she said.
Here’s more from that conversation:
Note: Parts of the following interview have been edited for length and clarity.
What has life been like since the election?
People stop you on the streets or wave to you, or some people just stare, and they kind of recognize you, but they’re not exactly sure who you are. But it’s great. Everyone who I’ve met in person has always been really friendly. One woman stopped me in the rain for 10 minutes once and was literally talking to me in the pouring rain. And she just said, “I just love you so much!”
Do you feel a lot of pressure having to build and maintain those relationships as a public figure in York?
I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of pressure because for me it comes naturally. I love people, and I don’t mind talking to people regardless of what they look like, who they pray to, who they love. When I had to do it on a mass scale for the campaign, it was important for me to make sure people knew that, yes, I am reaching out to you because I am running, but also I genuinely care about your interests.
I ran my campaign on wanting to be a voice for my community and wanting to bring authenticity. I knew that if I did something I wasn’t ok with, and whether I won or lost the race, I would still be upset with that. I wanted to make sure I ran the campaign on integrity and honesty so I could be happy with the results. And I am.
Describe how the day went on May 15, election day.
I wish we would’ve won. If we didn’t have the tornado at the end of the day, I’m pretty sure we would’ve won. We had an amazing “knock-and-drag” field strategy that we tried out in Dauphin County in the morning, and we won the county by about 1,500 votes. It’s literally knocking on someone’s door and having them vote immediately after knocking on their door. We were gonna mirror that same strategy in York in the evening, but [there was severe weather], and then we only ended up losing by 500 votes.
When did you start thinking about running, and when did you officially declare your candidacy?
I’ve always considered running for office. My family members didn’t have a college education, but my grandparents, who eventually started raising me after I left the foster home, were very involved with politics. My grandmother would always say that it’s important to know what’s happening in your neighborhood and also around the world.
But I had a really traditional mindset: I had to be 40 years old, married with two kids and a dog. Then the resistance and women’s movements took off in recent years, and I said, “Now’s the time to launch. Now’s the time to try to use my skillset to benefit my community.” Everyone has a way they want to give back to their area. For me, it’s running for office.
I was permanently back here [in York] after finishing my master’s degree in May 2017. By October, I had a team together, and I officially announced in December. I waited that long to announce because I’m a very big believer that Democrats should help other Democrats, so I was helping people run for offices in 2017.
Why did you choose to run for Congress? Why not start more locally?
I get asked that question a lot. People feel like there’s a hierarchy, but in my mind, all politics is local. I chose to run on the federal level because that’s what my skillset is. If I would have worked for the Wolf administration or the state reps or senators, then my background would’ve been state politics. So I wanted to hit the ground running, instead of wasting my first year learning how the process works. I want to find someone like myself who has a passion for state politics and help them with that position. I don’t want to make it more difficult for someone who really is invested [on the state level].
What kind of challenges did you face along the way, being young, a woman and a minority?
What kind of challenges did I not face? Being young, people think you’re inexperienced. I could’ve run 10 years later against the same people, and I would still be the only who had experience in the federal government, I would’ve just been 10 years older.
Being African-American in this area, there is still a lot of racial tension. Of course it’s not as bad as it used to be, but there are a lot of people who said: My policies are great, but we’re not sure a black woman can win in this area. Or something along the lines of: You don’t look like a congressional candidate. They wanted to see themselves reflected in a candidate. I experienced micro-aggressions and subconscious racism.
I would get asked, being a woman running: “Why don’t you do something more womanly? We see you’re not committed to someone.” I’m not married, but I’m committed to the people of York, Cumberland and Dauphin counties.
How did you energize your voter base, especially young people? Many are discouraged and disappointed with politics right now or may not even know enough about politics to engage.
I encouraged many young people and older people who were just so discouraged by the Democratic Party that that’s all the more reason to be involved to make sure we can actually make the Democratic Party what it’s supposed to be. I was extremely proud to have a diverse range of young professionals working on my team.
We had a strong showing of a lot first-time registered voters and first-time primary voters. I’m going to a high school graduation for someone who wrote to me and said, “I’m 18 years old, and you were my first vote.”
We went to a few high schools, and people said they only vote for the president because that’s all that matters. I said, “Has anyone driven down George Street? What do you see there?” And they said, “There are so many potholes!” I said, “Ok, go fix them,” and they said that’s someone else’s job. I told them it’s the mayor’s job. You have to make everything as tangible as you can.
Similarly, some locals are mad about the nursing home owned by York County that just got sold. I hope to see all of them at the polls to vote for the county commissioners.
How did you fund your campaign?
I have no money of my own to front, so I either sank or swam. Everything we got was individual contributions except for the last few weeks. Recently we got endorsed by Emily’s List and the Congressional Black Caucus, so we got a little bit of money from them, but it was only two weeks worth. Everything else was grassroots.
Now that the election is over, what are you up to?
I’m looking for a job, mostly in the area. I have a public servant’s heart but a poor man’s wallet. I am staying involved in the community, working with students and criminal justice and recidivism, fighting for those with felonies and making sure they can get acclimated back into society. I’m looking to see where the gaps are and where the need is. Maybe we’ll run again. I’m not sure if 2020 is the year or farther down the line, but I loved running for office. I definitely want to stay in the district.