Latrobe native, former Ford executive Boerio wants to help her ‘neighborhood’ of 14th Congressional District
In her first run for elective office in the 14th Congressional District, Democrat Bibiana Boerio probably wouldn’t argue if someone called her the candidate from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
The 64-year-old Latrobe native rose from an entry-level accounting position at Ford Motor Co. to chief financial officer of Ford Motor Credit Co. and finally to London, where she retired from Ford after 32 years as managing director of its Jaguar division. Her retirement ended when she signed on as chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak, a post she held from 2008-11 before returning to Westmoreland County and later spending a year as interim president of Seton Hill University.
She bought a home in 2002 just outside Latrobe and up the street from her brother, Jim, and moved her widowed mother there. Boerio moved back permanently after leaving Sestak’s staff in 2011. That’s when she began to see how hard times had hit the region in and around the town that spawned Fred Rogers and Arnold Palmer.
Boerio and her twin sister, Juliana, grew up as the oldest of five siblings in a labor union household with a deep Roman Catholic faith. Her homemaker mother survived breast cancer at 25 and went on to live another 58 years. Her father was a tool and die maker on the night shift who drove a school bus in the morning and afternoon.
Their Catholic school was bursting at the seams in the 1960s. Boerio recalled how she and her twin sister skipped from sixth to eighth grade because the school was looking for ways to accommodate its growing student body.
By 2010, the town that boasted a population of nearly 12,000 in 1960 barely counted 8,100 residents. And, in a scenario that was repeated across the region, many industrial jobs that supported families for decades had disappeared.
Boerio, who divorced after a brief marriage many years ago — “It wasn’t right. We parted amicably,” she said — returned to Latrobe every summer and Christmas.
“I could see things were changing, but it isn’t until you come home that it hits you. People feel as though they’ve been left behind,” Boerio said. “We’ve lost concern for the common good.”
“I’m running because I was trained and I learned both in my family and at Ford that when there’s trouble, people jump in to help,” she said. “I always go back to the quote from Mister Rogers that his mother told him to ‘always look for the helpers’ when you see scary things.”
The odds appear stacked against Boerio, who goes by “Bibie.”
Although Democrats have a 36,600 voter registration edge, the district now constituted with two-thirds of Westmoreland County and all of Fayette, Greene and Washington counties gave Donald Trump a 29-point margin of victory in 2016’s presidential election.
Boerio’s opponent, first-term state Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, 35, who touts himself as a Trump supporter, is a proven fundraiser. He snared $1.7 million in campaign cash when he ran for his first full term in the Legislature two years ago and appears on track to out-raise Boerio by a 2-to-1 margin.
But Boerio — who stands barely five feet tall and, as of Sept. 30, had raised about half of the total of her opponent’s campaign — is accustomed to being the shortest person at the table and surprising those who underestimate her or mispronounce her name.
On a gray October day, her storefront headquarters in a Latrobe residential neighborhood buzzed as volunteers rushed in and out, picking up literature and yard signs and jawing strategy.
Ken Baldonieri, 70, of Latrobe estimated that he and his wife, Christine, had knocked on 700 doors between them while canvassing for Boerio and will continue working until election day on Nov. 6. They’re optimistic.
“Even the people who say they’re voting Republican, when I ask them who the candidate is, they can’t identify him,” Baldonieri said.
Names and identity are an issue in the new district.
Many voters are just now meeting Boerio and Reschenthaler.
Reschenthaler of Peters Township in Washington County has won election as district judge and state senator. But he previously lived and served constituents in Allegheny County communities that are no longer part of the 14th District.
Delivering her message
Boerio has reconnected with classmates from Greensburg Central Catholic High School and campaigned relentlessly, knocking on doors, attending house parties and small political events seven days a week since making the last-minute decision to enter the race in March.
“The one Sunday I took off was to go to the Mister Rogers documentary with my brother,” she said.
Barbara Hinkle, 69, of Greensburg, the retired Seton Hill provost, volunteers with the Boerio campaign.
“She’s gone to every little event. Last night, it was Monongahela. Before that, we’d been to Uniontown,” Hinkle said. “She listens well. Once people meet her, they’re sold.”
When a woman at a Norwin Public Library campaign asked about her vision for the region’s future, Boerio answered quickly.
“Republicans want us to focus on national news, with unemployment low and the stock market high. But in Fayette and Greene counties, the median income is 75 percent of the state average. Our corner of Southwestern Pennsylvania has not kept up with the rest of the world,” Boerio said. “We need to strengthen the economy with good, solid infrastructure projects that will not only rebuild what’s been broken, but will build for the future.”
Asked about her party’s lack of financial support for her campaign in a year when a record eight women, including seven Democrats, are running for Congress in Pennsylvania, Boerio is gracious. “There are a lot of good candidates this year,” she tells local Democrats who gathered to hear from her.
She also defends health care reform, noting that she was among a handful of congressional staffers who read the entire 1,990-page Affordable Care Act while working for Sestak.
Boerio concedes it is “imperfect.” But she’s proud that it barred exclusions for individuals with pre-existing conditions and set the stage for the Medicaid expansion Pennsylvania enacted, which allowed thousands of people with opioid addiction to access treatment.
As for the Reschenthaler campaign’s move to label her an out-of-touch, liberal millionaire, Boerio laughs.
“I inherited 150 to 200 shares of Kennametal stock from my father, and I’ve worked hard all my life,” she said.
Deb Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Deb at 412-320-7996, [email protected] or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.