The Times’ Magazine: A sit down with Carolyn Comitta

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Editor’s note: this is the first of what we hope will be a regular, magazine style feature on either a subject or personality of interest to Chester County. Like a true magazine feature, it is long-form and written from the author’s perspective. We welcome your comments, suggestions for future such pieces and input.

State Rep. Carolyn Comitta (D-156)

By Emily Pisano, Special to The Times

Clad in armor of a black romper and color-blocked slides, I scroll through photos of my cat while I wait. Made apparent by my shaking foot, the feelings I’m experiencing are a cocktail of excitement and anxiety. As a girl with the simple dream of writing for Vogue, The Cut, or Harper’s Bazaar this is what I consider a major moment. Having arranged this interview, done the research, and prepared the questions, all that’s left to do is wait for her to arrive.

“Emily, it is so good to see you again! How is the new store?” Carolyn asks. The energy in the office elevates instantly as the subject of my interview, PA House of Representative’s Carolyn Comitta, breezes through the door. “Off to a good start,” I think to myself. “She knows who I am!” Ushering me deeper into her West Chester, PA office, I’m thankful for what is Carolyn’s ability to instantly put me at ease. When she begins by asking me about myself, I forget for a second who is supposed to be interviewing who.

Soft spoken, Carolyn has an unbelievably warm presence. Giving me her full attention and interested in what I have to say, I begin to feel less like a wannabe writer and more like the writer I’ve imagined myself becoming.

It also doesn’t hurt that Carolyn (like me) enjoys vintage scarab jewelry and like all greats (Oprah, Sting, Lady Gaga), she and I are both left-handed.

With my phone set to record, I kick the interview off with the very light topic of the Cold War. It is Carolyn actually who brings up this rather tense moment in regard to the event which sparked her political interest. “I would walk to school and remember looking up at the sky and wondering, ‘Is there going to be a bomb dropped today?’ It was pretty heavy duty. It’s no wonder that I would have been aware.”

While seeing her parents head out at night to attend civil defense meetings, Carolyn went to sleep with one issue plaguing her. “I often thought that if I could have an opportunity to meet Mr. Khrushchev that we could become friends and we could solve the problems and we would no longer have a war hanging over our heads.” Instantly, I begin to laugh as I too have had a similar thought. My problem-solving mindset, however, was activated by Russia’s current leader, Mr. Vladimir Putin. You see, I had a dream where Putin and I were best friends, and because of our friendship, peace between our two countries was finally achieved.

Looking back, it is easy to see Carolyn’s desire to build a friendship with Khrushchev lay the groundwork for the rest of her career. Often, at least for me, when we look at someone else’s success it is easy to see how they ended up where they did. But, when we reflect on the future of our own careers, it can resemble staring into a thick impenetrable fog. Even after narrowing down the industry we wish to be a part of, finding that thing that makes us get out of bed on the coldest of days can be daunting.

“I didn’t realize it until a third grader asked me when I was mayor, “Did you always know you wanted to be mayor?” and I said well, no, I actually, you know come to think of it, I think that I pictured myself being a Secretary of State.” Realizing over time that her talent and passion laid with building relationships while bringing people from all backgrounds together to solve problems, Carolyn saw that becoming the Mayor of West Chester would allow her to do just that. Although, if you don’t think some convincing was required, well…keep reading.

Dr. Madeline Wing Adler and Bill Scott. One was the first female president of West Chester University, the other a local political leader. Both have one thing in common, they asked Carolyn to run for office. Bill recruited Carolyn for Borough Council and Dr. Adler recruited her for mayor two years later. “He didn’t ask me once. He asked me four or five times before I said yes. I kept making excuses and really, honestly, the reason I kept saying no was because I was terrified, and I wasn’t sure if I could do it.”

Two years ago, I was given the opportunity, with my business partner, to start a company and become a full-fledged entrepreneur. Here’s a little secret, I came extremely close to turning down the offer. Like Carolyn, I was asked by people I admired to make a career shift based on talent they saw within me. It took many family and friends convincing me for two weeks that I should go for it.

As a professional perfectionist since birth, my main reason for shying away from this once in a lifetime opportunity was that I did not feel as prepared as I wanted to be. There were classes to take and millions of books to read on how to fully grasp my new profession as the Business Director for a start-up company. All the time in the world would not have made me feel as prepared as I felt I needed to be. My perfectionist tendencies have been both a blessing and a curse throughout my education and career thus far. Perfectionism, to me, has more often than not been a badge of honor. According to Barbra Streisand, perfectionism should be a positive, never a negative connotation (and if Barbra, my hero, said it, obviously, it’s true). Well, Barbra, I hate to rain on your parade, but you’re kind of wrong. Perfectionism can be a problem. It has taken me weeks longer than expected to write this post because I wanted it to be so good I couldn’t even start it. Not a very productive way of thinking.

“If you are going to wait until you have lost your fear, you will wait forever. It will never happen.” Hearing these words without fully understanding them, I scribble them into my notebook. “Women will usually wait until we are 100% sure that we are ready to run for that office, ask for a promotion, open that business. We make sure we are 100% prepared.” My mind begins to short circuit. Carolyn continues. “What we don’t realize, and studies show, is that men wait until they are about 60% prepared. But they think they are 100% prepared. It’s a testosterone thing actually.”

Just like the college kids say, I’m shook.

Over the years, Carolyn has devoted part of her research to women, leadership and the confidence gap. Harvard professor Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on how women can boost their testosterone (the confidence hormone) is a must watch. Carolyn recommended it to me as Cuddy has been part of Carolyn’s research. “If you sit in a chair and put your feet up on the desk, you know, like the classic cartoon of the business mogul man, arms behind his head feet on the desk. If you do that for three minutes, her research shows your testosterone level goes up 20%.” I have yet to put this research to the test, but I have complete faith it will work. As Carolyn suggested to me, it’s a great thing to do before an interview, speech, or anything you are terrified to do. “We perceive that we aren’t quite up to par, but we are. We perceive it. It’s not reality.”

Imagine all we could accomplish if we had just that much more confidence in ourselves.

The threat of failure is a big contributor to the fear we feel when we are about to make a big life change. Actually, failure can also contribute to fear in the smaller moments of our lives. The fear of failure I have felt before many, many French tests is not a part of my education I would like to relive. But, you know what? If you don’t go for it and make that change you’ll always wonder, ‘what if?’ “Another quote I love,” says Carolyn as she leans just an inch forward in her chair, “is if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. And I would much rather be at the table.”

The night of November 8th was bad, but the morning of November 9th was even worse. I know this was not the case for all of you reading this, but personally, I was ready for the glass ceiling to shatter. November 9th brought with it a feeling of defeat. It was like when you are playing Candyland and you’re all the way at the top near King Candy, but in the final hour you draw a Plumpy card and are sent back to start. That is how I felt the morning of November 9th. So close yet so far.

Wallowing in your sorrows and complaining about things gets you nowhere. After doing just that for a respectable amount of time, I did a little research and found ways to get involved. The more I reached out to people, the better I felt. The glass ceiling may not have shattered the night of November 8th, but that ceiling, is riddled with cracks. And smaller glass ceilings are being shattered every day. In fact, Carolyn Comitta has done just that here in West Chester. She is the OG Girlboss of Chester County.

You were the first female mayor ever in West Chester, I tell her as if she didn’t already know. “Yes, after 210 years. And Emily, in my opinion,” Carolyn begins as her piercing blue eyes grow wide with excitement, “the most important first, I was the first bi-partisan elected Mayor of West Chester. I won the Democratic and Republican Primary twice. I had the support of all the voters.”

Most definitely this is something to be proud of. In a time of such chaos and unrest in the world, especially between our two political parties, it is hopeful to know that finding common ground is not impossible.

Bringing people together to solve problems, a method Carolyn has used throughout her twelve-year long career as an elected official, has proven itself an effective way to lead. She has won over both parties in their respective primary and secured the 156th, which is typically gerrymandered for a Republican. Now, Carolyn has brought people from different sides to the table yet again to discuss the Mariner East 2 pipeline.

The pipeline, which is scheduled to deliver about 350,000 barrels of propane, ethane, and butane per day through 11 miles of Delaware County and 25 miles of Chester County, has brought up many concerns throughout the region. One of the main concerns when it comes to the pipeline is the rather important issue of public safety. This pipeline will be running uncomfortably close to family homes, elementary schools, and nursing homes, which has left many residents uneasy.

This past July, Carolyn proposed four pieces of legislation in regard to the pipeline. These proposals aim to strengthen the state’s ability to protect the private wells of citizens, create a pipeline siting authority and amp up interagency communication between those involved with the pipeline. “We need to have clearer, more timely access to answers for citizens that live along the pipeline, for local elected officials, and for the state reps as well. Communication is always the key.”

The bill Carolyn spoke about in most detail will create a board “that would include the head of the DEP, the PUC, Department of Health, PEMA, and all of the agencies at the state level that deal with pipeline issues separately and don’t usually have an occasion to get together and talk.”

It makes sense, yes?

“You get people who don’t regularly talk with each other together at the table and it creates an opportunity for some very important new ideas and better communication.”

We have all seen this idea play out at one time or another. Remember all those fun group projects you had to do in college? When you were lucky enough to be paired with people who really cared it was almost fun to discuss and brainstorm the things you could do and play off each other’s strengths. By bringing together all those whose jobs touch on some aspect of the pipeline, locally elected officials will have much clearer answers when responding to the concerns of the citizens. So, you see, even when you graduate group projects never really go away.

Speaking of group activities, it would be criminal of me not to mention the most important group event there is, voting. Yes, the physical act of voting is something you do as an individual, but the months leading up to an election call for some serious group rallying. The importance of getting your friends, family, and community to the polls is a responsibility we as citizens should eagerly fulfill, and not just for national elections.

Carolyn, having won the 156th district by a mere twenty-five votes, cannot emphasize the importance of voting in local elections enough. “Local elections are usually not a landslide…and the local elections are really where the decisions that impact our lives every day are happening.” That pothole you seem to hit every Monday on your way to work? The President of the US is not going to fix it for you, but your local elected official can.

Your vote matters. Your vote is your voice.

“If you don’t vote and you don’t express your political voice, someone else will select who is going to be making all the decisions for you, so, if you’re ok with that…most people are not.”

If you don’t like the way something is being done or feel you aren’t being heard, get involved. Read up on your candidates and the issues they stand for. A wonderful thing about local elections is that the candidates are–wait for it–local! Go to their individual Facebook pages and find out where their next event is being held. They are accessible to you and they want to talk to you.

Now is actually the perfect time to start your research, as Election Day quickly approaches. November 7th, mark it on your calendars.

Grab a coffee on your way to work that day and stop off at your designated polling location. Once you get in the booth it takes less than two minutes to cast your vote. If you fear there will be a long line (I hope there is!), start answering your emails while you wait. Or text your friends to make sure they too are making their voices heard.

“When you vote, you are shaping the future.”

As my interview with Carolyn comes to a close, we chat about what a wonderful 1.8 square miles West Chester Borough is and how lucky we are to call this town home. I learn that she prefers hot coffee over iced, salty vs sweet and red wine over vodka and tequila. Most importantly, I begin to process all she has said to me over the past fifty minutes.

Leaving Carolyn’s office, I feel incredibly inspired and happier than I have been in some time. She is living proof that when you begin to believe in yourself, what you can achieve is unlimited.

Now more than ever it is paramount to remember that you are just as prepared as the person sitting next to or across from you. You are up to par. There is nothing stopping you from pulling out that chair and taking a seat at the table. So go for it.

 

Emily Pisano is the co-owner of Tesoro Design on Market Street in West Chester Borough. she graduated summa cum laude from University of Rhode Island in 2014 with a BS in Fashion Merchandising and a minor in French. While in college she wrote for the school newspaper and has since written for her company’s blog (Tesoro’s Tongue) and her personal blog (forthefunofit.me). 

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One Comment

  1. Kathy says:

    Probably the worst thing I have read in years. Wow. “Clad in armor of a black romper, scrolling through pictures of my cat…”, seriously? You are waiting for a lady from West Chester, not a hardened criminal. The Cold War story is a bit of a reach as well. I grew up in that time and while it was a thought during drills, it never made me overly political as an adult, but I have held office. She’s a nut. I think she may have been thinking of a “Golden Girls” episode. The author sounds like Chris Matthews and his tingling leg…no one is that exciting. Don’t quit your day job…

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