Nancy Patton Mills grew up in Moon Township, 16 miles outside Pittsburgh, at a time when the region was very rural. Her parents were members of the Democratic State Committee.
She has worked in radio and TV production and as a performer. Her first guitar/vocal gig was at a midnight floor show at a local Moose club, which led to recording country music in Nashville in the 1970s and her own Pittsburgh radio show, Ring Renee for the Red Hot Country News. ("Renee" was a stage name.)
She has also worked as an educator, writer, and business owner. She's a graduate of Chatham University in Pittsburgh and has a Ph.D. from Duquesne University in communications and rhetoric.
Since 2002, Patton Mills has run historic Roselea Farm (built in 1905) in Allegheny County, an events destination and bed-and-breakfast with a greenhouse, a renovated barn, a small herd of goats, and a "Democratic" donkey.
Her husband, Dick Mills, a lawyer, played college football at Pitt and was drafted by the NFL's Detroit Lions. He played two seasons in Detroit in the early 1960s but after being traded to the Eagles suffered a career-ending injury in training camp.
Patton Mills is a past chair of the Allegheny County Democratic Committee. In June, she was elected to head the state party. She talked recently with columnist John Baer about prospects for the state's Democratic candidates, names being floated for the 2020 presidential campaign, and the sorry state of country music.
Are Democrats in Pennsylvania too far left for the people of Pennsylvania?
I think we have all types of Democrats in Pennsylvania. What we've seen in Western Pennsylvania with Conor Lamb [the now-U.S. House member who in March won a nationally watched special election in a GOP area] is you can be not too far left nor too far right. If you're an honest, straightforward candidate you win. The right candidate for any district is a candidate people trust.
Well, since Dems have a statewide registration edge of more than 800,000 (which was more than one million in 2014), why aren't Democratic candidates more competitive in legislative races?
I've looked at this from the big picture. The redistricting in congressional districts is extremely helpful. I think under old districts, with only five of 18 U.S. House districts electing Democrats, you had voters identifying Republican. And that trickled down to state Senate and House and school board and so on.
I think what we're going to see with the new congressional districts is more of an even break by party. And more people identifying Democratic. So, I think we can bring back state House and Senate seats. The redistricting of one segment of our electoral process will be beneficial to all.
Are you concerned by the so-called rise of Democratic socialist candidates having a negative impact on your party?
We elected two women in Allegheny County. [Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee, endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America, won state House Democratic primaries.] I know them. I don't see that they are any different than any other of our candidates. The connotation that they are somehow radical isn't right. They are dedicated leaders with only good intentions toward their constituents. They ran as D's. I don't see it as detrimental to the party.
Well, they beat two incumbent Democrats (State Reps. Dom Costa and Paul Costa) from a known Pittsburgh political family. Was the party asleep, or what?
It was more than the party. After Hillary Clinton lost, young women here in Allegheny County who worked in many volunteer groups for Hillary decided not to sit on the sidelines but to get more involved and, in these cases, run for office. They grew their constituency, coordinated with others. And these two young women benefited from that. They didn't stop when Hillary lost. They are part of the growth of our party.
Yet Western Pennsylvania generally seems to be getting redder, no?
That gets back to what we've seen in redistricting. Some of our Republican areas will be represented by Conor Lamb. [A Monmouth University poll last month had Lamb leading Republican U.S. Rep. Keith Rothfus 51 percent to 39 percent for election this fall.] We've already seen wins at school board levels in our red areas. So, some of our Democrats are coming back. And I think there's some buyers' regret among Democrats who voted R in southwest communities. And we may be able to trend red to blue.
How do you see Democrats overcoming criticism that they offer no clear message to voters?
I keep hearing that. I just say that Democrats care. I've said it for months. People will know we care about people having health care and equality and a good education.
But Republicans push gains in the economy as their message. How do you beat that?
The economy was growing, and Donald Trump benefited from growth that happened before he became president.
One thing we plan on doing is win the U.S. House. And that will begin right here in Pennsylvania with four or five seats. [Nationally, 23 are needed nationally to flip the House from R to D.] And that will be an important message for Donald Trump. It will mean congressional hearings and checks and balances within our government.
If you could choose a Democratic ticket that you believe could win in 2020, who would you put on it?
I made a commitment that as party chair I would remain neutral through to the convention. And as a delegate [state party heads are automatic delegates], I will keep that commitment. We have many senators, former governors, former vice presidents, and others to consider.
Former vice presidents as in Joe Biden?
I think Joe Biden as a standard-bearer would be someone people look at as someone they can trust, someone who would actually know how to be president.
Finally, what's the "red hot country news" these days?
Real country died with George, Tammy, and Merle!
[For the uninitiated, that's George Jones, Tammy Wynette and Merle Haggard.]