On the eve of his election battle with first-time candidate Christina Sappey, first-term State Representative Eric Roe speaks to VISTA Today about growing up in the West Chester School District, learning customer service while stocking shelves for minimum wage at Staples in Downingtown, and working for RNC Chairman Michael Steele before moving to London, where he met his wife Alice, to pursue a master’s degree.
Roe talks about the circuitous path that eventually earned him his party’s nomination and the 8,000 doors he knocked on leading to his eventual victory, as he became the second-youngest member of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives.
Acknowledging 2018 is a challenging year to be running as a Republican, Roe emphasizes the responsibility he has to represent all the voters of his district, “regardless of their party affiliations or non-affiliations,” and even “those people who do not or cannot vote.”
Where did you grow up, Eric?
I was born in rural Minnesota and moved here when I was three years old after my mom took a job at QVC, based in West Goshen.
I grew up two places – West Bradford Township and East Bradford Township. I went to West Bradford Elementary School, then East Bradford Elementary School, Pierce Middle School, and Henderson High School.
What’s fun about this job is that I get to represent the community that I grew up in.
What memories do you have of growing up in Chester County?
I remember the great schools I went to and the teachers who taught me. When I’m door knocking asking for votes, I’ll often come across one of my former teachers. It’s nice to catch up with them and have them see who I’ve become and what I’m doing for our community.
What was your first job?
My first job was at 16 years old stocking shelves at Staples in Downingtown. I had a friend who had previously worked at Staples, and she enjoyed it. Perhaps I’ve always been an office nerd at heart! It was that job that helped me appreciate the value of a dollar, work for minimum wage, and learn to save.
So what lessons did you take away from that experience that stayed with you today?
That was my first time interacting with the public. People came in asking questions that I may or may not have had the answers to. I had to have the humility to admit when I didn’t have the answer and needed to go find out what the answer was.
Today, I am still in a customer service role in my capacity as a state representative, just in a different form. The taxpayers of Pennsylvania deserve certain services for their money. Many of them come to me asking questions about a gargantuan state bureaucracy, and I don’t always have the answer. It is my job to get answers for them and point them in the right direction.
Did you play any sports in high school? Were you involved in any clubs?
I was on the varsity tennis team and the treasurer of the Henderson High School Young Republicans Club. Funny enough, I was never on student government or the debate team. If I could go back, I’d probably have joined the debate team because I think that would have been a good experience.
I did try out for the Boys Speaking Contest. For the tryouts, they’d have you get up and give a monologue speech. The monologue would then be judged by a panel of teachers. If you made it to the finals, you would give the speech in front of the whole high school. I tried out and did not make it, unfortunately. Fast forward to today, and I give speeches from podiums all the time now. It was a great life lesson – not everyone gets a trophy, and I certainly didn’t.
What music were you listening to?
I was listening to the same music back then that I listen to today. In fact, some of the same exact CD’s – Alicia Keys, Lauren Hill. I’ve always just loved R&B and soul. Needless to say, I was absolutely crushed when I heard the news of Aretha Franklin’s passing.
Where did you go to college?
I went to American University in Washington DC. I knew I had an interest in politics and I wanted to be in a big city, so DC was a great place to study.
American University had a great international affairs program, and at the time, I thought I wanted to major in international politics. I was leaning toward majoring in French. I thought I wanted to get a translator certificate, but when you’re studying in a town like Washington, you have to make sure you are strategic about how you use your time there.
For all but one semester in college, I worked during the day and then took classes at night. I had several internships, but my first big break was with the Republican National Committee during my sophomore year of college.
Michael Steele was the Chairman of the RNC at the time, and as an intern, I sat right outside of his office. He and I got along very well, and he decided to put me on the payroll as a staff assistant. I performed tasks that ranged from getting coffee to writing letters to constituents and elected officials. I wrote a lot of letters, which helped hone my writing skills. And here I am today, still writing a ton of constituent letters!
What was your first big break?
The RNC was my first big break. I went from there to the Chertoff Group, a homeland security consulting firm. Michael Chertoff was the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security after Governor Tom Ridge had that job. After Secretary Chertoff transitioned out of government, he started his own homeland security consulting firm, and that’s where I worked for him. I learned a lot about national security in this job. I worked under Secretary Chertoff, General Michael Hayden, who was previously the Director of the CIA, and several other former high-ranking government officials. My role was largely research and scheduling. I did some project by project consulting after I left Washington in 2012.
I moved back to Pennsylvania and realized I wanted to get my master’s degree, so I applied to several different programs. A particular conversation I had one time while I was at the RNC had an influence on where I’d go for my master’s. A pollster named Frank Luntz had challenged me to consider living abroad for a year or two to expand my horizons.
In fall of 2013, I moved to London, England on a student visa. Three weeks later, I met the woman I would eventually marry. We were in the same bible study at church. She worked at Burberry at the time. At the risk of sounding trite, it really was love at first sight.
I was in London from 2013-2014 and completed my last coursework from the States in 2015. I started working as an administrative and policy analyst for County Commissioner Michelle Kichline, which I did for two years.
That was a great job because not only was I doing scheduling and constituent casework, but I was also writing speeches, sometimes representing the Commissioner throughout the county at events. The fact that she trusted me enough to represent her at various meetings and events that she couldn’t attend meant a lot to me.
What did Commissioner Kichline see in you?
We got along very well. Michelle has a great story. She is very successful in her own right, and I think she trusted me to tell that story for her at times. She knew I was impressed with her. It’s good to work for someone who believes many of the things you believe.
How did you begin your path toward becoming an elected official?
I had sat down with Val DiGiorgio, Chester County’s Republican Party Chairman, in 2013 and expressed interest in running at some point. I was not ready at the time, but I wanted him to know my intentions. He said he would be happy to consider me for that, but he recommended that I get a master’s degree first. At the time, I was considering law school, but he said that being an attorney was not necessary to be a state representative. I still look back at the sage advice he gave me, and I’m glad I didn’t go to law school. I probably would have gone for all the wrong reasons back then.
Late in 2015, I threw my hat in the ring for State Representative for the 158th District, the district I grew up in. The district stretches from greater West Chester down to the tri-state border where PA-DE-MD meet. It stretches from West Goshen westward near Downingtown and Coatesville, south through Unionville, around Kennett Square, and down through Avondale and Landenberg.
I began seeking the endorsement from the Republican Party in 2015. In February 2016, I came up short at the endorsement convention. It was close, but when another gentleman received more votes than I did at the Party’s convention, I dropped out of the race. I took Alice and went to the Caribbean on a much needed vacation for a week after that.
When I saw the numbers of the votes from the GOP committee members, I thought, “I’m young, I have a long career ahead of me.” I thought I would gracefully bow out and try again next time. And hopefully, the GOP Committee would remember that.
A couple months later, the gentleman who received the endorsement decided not to run. I decided to throw my hat back in the ring, and I went through the endorsement process again. I was nervous, but a little more confident this time around. After winning the endorsement the second time, I had to run a write-in primary campaign.
I was running against a fellow young republican, who is now a friend of mine. I was the endorsed candidate, but we had to run a write-in campaign because of how the timing worked out for the original candidate to back out of the race. Additionally, the Democratic candidate at the time was also hoping to win a write-in campaign on the Republican side so that she would not have an opponent in the General Election.
I knocked on 2,000 doors and raised a significant amount of money in a short period of time that spring. Chairman DiGiorgio was very helpful with that undertaking. He and the Republican Party of Chester County really went to bat for me in that short span of time. I won the primary race comfortably. That was my second big break in politics.
I spent the rest of the summer and fall campaigning, which my new bride was very supportive of. She went door knocking with me, knocking 8,000 more doors that summer after the Primary. It gets very hot and humid in July and August in Pennsylvania, and door knocking got me well acquainted with it.
Knocking on doors isn’t easy, but there are so many kind people who live in this district, and it’s a pleasure to meet them and hear their concerns. On the other hand, I’ve been bitten by two dogs doing this. Those dogs obviously didn’t see my 100% rating from the Humane Society! I’ve had some very personal experiences meeting voters through door knocking. I love meeting the people who send me to Harrisburg. There have been times when I’ve knocked on someone’s door and they answer in tears. I’ve knocked on people’s doors when they just happened to need to talk to their state representative. It’s a very humbling experience.
I have a large Latino population in my district, and with my background in Spanish, I can use my foreign language skills. Being able to speak to many voters in their preferred language has greatly helped me connect with my constituents.
What challenges and opportunities are you focus on right now?
Well, my lovely wife and I just had twins, so whatever happens in November, I already have the best jobs I’ll ever get; a husband and father. The boys are five months old and incredibly happy babies. My wife Alice is an excellent mother.
It’s a challenging year to be a Republican. The incumbent President’s Party generally has an uphill climb in the following mid-term election. There’s no surprise there – it just happens. I think the voters of my district have seen that I’m an independent voice for them in Harrisburg, although I am a member of a particular party. I answer ultimately to the voters of my district, regardless of their party affiliations or non-affiliations.
Not only do I represent members of every political party, but I also represent those people who do not or cannot vote. I have a large constituency who cannot vote because they’re not American citizens yet. Even so, I’m still their voice in Harrisburg, so I don’t just represent those who show up on Election Day.
I think the trademark of an effective legislator is on full display when they set lofty goals – not just easy ones. There are specific bills that I campaigned on that we’ve gotten done, and then there are certain bills that I have fought for but have not gotten done yet. For the last two years, we’ve made record-high investments in our state’s education system. The highest amount of school funding we’ve ever had in the history of Pennsylvania is what we have now. I went to public school here in Chester County myself, and my kids will eventually go to them as well, so that’s one accomplishment I’m particularly proud of. And we did it without raising taxes!
We reformed the pension system here in Pennsylvania, which was underfunded and ballooning toward disaster. We did that with a Republican legislature and a Democratic governor. It was an excellent example of reaching across the aisle to get things done.
I’m currently working on some other legislation that we haven’t gotten across the finish line yet, but it’s legislation that I will never stop fighting for. I used to be on the board of the Domestic Violence Center, so I am working on getting some domestic violence legislation passed. Currently, in Pennsylvania, if a judge issues someone a Protection from Abuse Order (PFA), that abuser has 60 days to relinquish any firearms they own. The incidence of the fatality skyrockets when a firearm is involved in domestic abuse. 60 days – two months – is far too long for that person, who has been considered exceptionally dangerous, to have to give up their firearms.
The bill that I’m working on right now reduces it to one day. The individual would have to relinquish their firearm(s) one day after the PFA was issued to a police officer, an attorney, or a licensed firearms dealer. I’m determined to get that bill across the finish line. That bill passed the Pennsylvania Senate unanimously. I’m hoping for a similar passage on the House side.
Another bill that I worked on that gained quite a bit of media attention is a bill to end gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. A bill that I’ve been pushing for over the last year and a half is a bill that would create an independent citizen-led commission to draw district boundary lines. The people on the commission would be Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. No elected officials or lobbyists on the commission. Both parties are guilty of gerrymandering. That’s a bill that has not gotten across the finish line yet, but whether it happens this year or next year, it’s never too late to do the right thing.
And lastly, Eric, what’s the best piece of advice?
The best piece of advice I’ve ever received is to trust God and not worry. No matter what comes my way – good, bad or otherwise – I don’t have to be anxious or fearful. That advice has come in very handy recently, now that I’m newly a father of twins and a homeowner.
Publisher’s Note: VISTA Today will publish a Chester County Leadership Profile of Christina Sappey Thursday morning.
Laura Wagoner contributed to this leadership profile.