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Thirty-four-year-old Gillian Kratzer didn’t exactly plan to wind up in Altoona married and raising a family, and she certainly had no intention of attending Penn State Altoona. But, because life has a funny way of often putting you where you need to be, she’s been able to lay down the groundwork for a career in politics.
Kratzer grew up in Beaver County, graduated high school in 1999, and took classes at Penn State Beaver for two years. Some financial difficulties led to her taking time off from school. She moved to State College thinking she’d eventually enroll at the University Park campus, but instead she met her husband and they settled in Altoona where he secured a job. Then the baby came, and it was another five years before Kratzer could return to school. Penn State Altoona was an obvious choice, and she originally started as a history major, but soon switched to political science. “I’ve always had somewhat of an interest in politics, but I really found my passion for it after I moved here to Altoona,” says Kratzer.
Kratzer began attending meetings of the Unitarian Universalist fellowship, a campus ministry organization open to the public, where she met Frank Rosenhoover, the past chair of the Blair County Democratic Committee. She was invited to some of the group’s events and ended up working to revitalize the online presence of the organization. Through that, she was able to connect with even more Democrats in the area and become more involved as one herself.
In 2014 Kratzer was elected as chair of the committee. As such, she works around the county to promote the party’s views and encourage diversity in all forms. Being chair also means she holds a seat in the Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee, attending meetings three times a year. Through her involvement with that, she became a part of the affirmative action committee for the state party in which she helps get the word out to different communities of interest about becoming a delegate for the State Democratic Committee. “Being county chair is a position that I liken to being a stay-at-home-mom. I was one for five years, and I discovered it is a job full of many different jobs, and nobody pays you. This is the same. It’s a lot of tiny jobs that add up to a big job, and then nobody gives you money,” Kratzer laughs. And yet, “Politics are fun for me. It’s fascinating, interesting, and I feel like it’s a place where if you really put in effort, you can make a difference in people’s lives.”
Another aspect of her job as chair is to recruit candidates for various Democratic positions in the county, which is how she became campaign manager for Jason Imler, an attorney running for Altoona mayor. Kratzer works to set up debates between candidates, appears on public access shows, campaigns door to door, and hands out literature on Imler’s behalf. She coordinates Penn State Altoona students to also hand out flyers and pamphlets. The work load is enormous, but Kratzer has found that she truly enjoys campaigning. “Whether it’s a personal political campaign or an issue-based campaign, I really enjoy getting out there and talking to people and letting people know that their voice does count and does make a difference. I tell them they just have to try.”
Kratzer’s beliefs about women’s and LGBT rights and equality run deep. Part of that is helping others understand that equality isn’t just about numerical representation; rather, at some point it has to be substantive. “If, for example, we have women in leadership roles just to say ‘look we’ve got them,’ but we do not listen to those women, then that representation is not worthwhile, and I think that’s something we need to talk about more.” Kratzer also examines living in a system that raises up one group of people at the expense of others, based on race, class, or other societal hierarchies. “On my best days I’m not doing anything to help that happen but that doesn’t mean that it’s not happening, and I have a responsibility to point that system out and say this is not okay.” Kratzer says politics are a way to help change that system and move things in different, more positive directions, provided the public elects people who create policy to enforce appropriate change.
Kratzer is grateful to her professors at Penn State Altoona for their support and belief in her. When she initially returned to school, she admits it was a bit daunting to be older than the average student. But she soon realized that the life experience she gained during her time away from the classroom helped her grow as a person, which in turn makes her a better student. She credits her professors with encouraging her when she has doubts about her abilities. “When I was first approached about being nominated as chair of the Blair County Democratic committee, I thought, ‘That’s insane, who am I,’ right? One of the first people I talked to about it outside my family was Penn State Altoona professor Matt Evans. I expressed to him that I was a little ambivalent about it being something I could do and he said, ‘Of course you can do it, I don’t know why you think you couldn’t.’ And as I talked to other professors, they reiterated Matt’s feelings. That kind of support was very important to me.”
It’s the kind of support that makes her want to push forward on an often difficult and thankless political path. Kratzer thinks a lot about the best way to engage others in her mission of creating a better, more just society. “I don’t know that there is one answer on how to engage the community. I think it’s mostly a matter of just talking to people, being out and being a visible part of it and getting involved as much as you possibly can. If you aren’t out there making the decisions, then someone else is making them for you, and it’s not necessarily the outcome that you want. So involvement is key.”
Kratzer will graduate in December 2015 and plans to earn her master’s degree in political management. She’s keeping her options open for a career, and the possibility of one day running for office stays in the back of her mind. “If I were in a position to be able to help some constituency by running for office I would love to do that, but I would want to make sure it’s a position that is related to what I’m passionate about, what I want to change in the world.” Until that opportunity presents itself, Kratzer will fulfill her term as chair of the Blair County Democratic committee and continue to be a leader for the community. “I feel like I’ve started along a path to making a difference. It’s hard. I think a lot of people get frustrated that the changes we are trying to make are not ones that happen overnight. But if I can alter the way even one person thinks about these important issues in our society, then I’m doing a pretty good job.”