Deb Ciamacca was in her Conestoga High School classroom last fall showing a movie to her students, silently reflecting.
What the hell am I doing standing here in this place?
The social studies teacher was playing a documentary about Chris Hurst, a former student of hers who, after his journalist girlfriend was slain on live television, quit his job to run for and win a seat in the Virginia House of Delegates.
“I thought, ‘If this kid can do it,’” she said, “I can do it, too.”
So Ciamacca, 60, followed her own advice to students — “be a participant in government instead of spectating” — and will this year retire from the teaching job she’s had for nearly two decades. The Democrat is running in the 2020 election to represent Delaware County’s 168th District in the Pennsylvania State House, a legislative seat that party leaders are watching closely and see as ripe for a flip.
Ciamacca, an ex-Marine who went viral last year for dumping on President Donald Trump’s idea to arm teachers with guns, announced her campaign in February, more than a year before the primary will take place in the moderate, suburban district.
From the classroom to the campaign trail
Ciamacca has long toyed with how political to get in class. After Trump was elected, she got creative.
In January 2017, when airports were filled with protesters angry after he unveiled a travel ban targeting majority-Muslim countries, Ciamacca framed her class discussion in a way her students might understand: Such a ban excludes others based on religion, she told them, which would be a violation of Conestoga’s code of conduct.
Then, in February 2018, there was Parkland. Florida high school students rose up in favor of strengthening America’s gun laws, and shortly after, Trump announced his support for an NRA-backed plan to arm teachers with guns. Ciamacca wrote an op-ed for Time Magazine, saying: "I will not arm myself with a gun in my own classroom just because those in power refuse to wield the more powerful weapon of common sense.”
The piece went viral, and she was interviewed everywhere, from CBS to Comedy Central. And her students took notice.
“Kids like to hear that their teachers also have something to say,” she said. “I think kids respect that.”
Ciamacca said she was also inspired to run by students who last year were part of an initiative to get their classmates registered to vote. Jahnavi Rao, who was involved in the group, said she looked up to Ciamacca because she’d advised the Conestoga Young Democrats — and the Young Republicans.
“My chosen path for what I want to do is because of the way that she has inspired me through teaching,” said Rao, 18, who is now studying government at Harvard, “[and] showing how government works in a very understandable way.”
Hurst, who graduated from Conestoga in 2005 to become a journalist and is now in the midst of his own reelection campaign, said he took two classes taught by Ciamacca. He was “a pretty terrible student,” he said, and her class was one of the only ones in which he actually did the homework. What he remembers most, though, was how Ciamacca incorporated her past as a Marine into the classroom.
“She wants all her students to do the Marine grunt, the ‘oorah,'" he said, "whenever something was going well in school.”
Military experience plays well for political candidates, but it’s something many veterans don’t want to campaign on. “They didn’t serve so they could talk about it afterward,” said David Heifetz, a spokesperson for New Politics, a Boston-based group that works with former service members running for office and is advising Ciamacca.
Heifetz said she reminds him of Chrissy Houlahan, who was elected in 2018 to represent Pennsylvania’s Sixth Congressional District. Both are veterans. Both were teachers. Both worked in the private sector (Ciamacca was in manufacturing for more than a decade after her military service). And both are Democratic women inspired to run for office in the Trump era.
In addition to working with New Politics, Ciamacca has attended a couple of training sessions for first-time candidates and has also worked with Emily’s List, a national super PAC that funds pro-choice Democratic candidates.
Her prospects in the 168th
Ciamacca is poised to win the county party’s endorsement, barring another Democrat entering the race, said Colleen Guiney, chair of the Delaware County Democratic Committee.
The 168th District is about 49 percent registered Republicans and 37 percent Democrats, but Guiney sees the district, which has been represented by a Republican for 50 years, as a prime target for Democrats. She said she’s optimistic that Ciamacca’s moderate message will resonate with voters. Besides guns, Ciamacca is passionate about environmental protection issues, a key concern for this district, which is home to part of the controversial Mariner East 2 pipeline.
But she could face a challenge differentiating herself from incumbent Republican Rep. Chris Quinn, who won reelection in the 168th by less than 500 votes last year. He has a mixed voting record on guns — he was endorsed by a local group that advocates for stricter gun laws — and recently introduced a package of bills aimed at strengthening state regulations of pipeline companies.
Quinn declined to comment on Ciamacca’s candidacy, other than to say, “2020 is a long way off and I have a lot of work I’m trying to accomplish.”
Ciamacca said she doesn’t yet know what her winning issue will be. She hopes to determine that after talking with voters standing behind the 20,000 doors she’s planning to knock on between now and next fall.
What Ciamacca can say at this point: This will be her fourth career path. She can’t be a career politician.
“I’m going into this because I want to leave something,” she said, “for the kids I taught for the last 18 years.”
Staff writer Jonathan Lai contributed to this article.