Lt. Gov. Mike Stack, under scrutiny for his treatment of state troopers and workers at his taxpayer-paid mansion, and at odds with his partner at the top of the ticket, may be about to get his first challenger in next year's Democratic primary.
Aryanna Berringer, a party activist and former congressional candidate from Westmoreland County, confirmed this week that she is seriously considering a run against Stack.
Berringer and her husband, Daren, a political consultant, have talked with 15 to 20 state Democratic operatives and leaders in the last several weeks about a run against Stack, according to party sources, who said they were not authorized to publicly discuss the conversations.
In an interview Wednesday, Aryanna Berringer said her interest in the race was partly motivated by allegations that Stack and his wife have repeatedly mistreated the troopers assigned to protect them and the workers who maintain their residence.
"I would never treat anyone that way," said the 34-year-old Murrysville resident. "As a Democrat, it's upsetting to see someone like Mr. Stack and his family act that way. ... It's not who I am and not how I'm raising my kids to behave. It's time to have someone step up."
Stack, a longtime state senator from Northeast Philadelphia, and his wife, Tonya, are under investigation by the Inspector General's Office for their treatment of the employees. The inquiry was ordered by Gov. Wolf, who in April took the extraordinary step of stripping the Stacks of their state police detail and yanked all but one staffer from the couple's home at Fort Indiantown Gap. At the time, Wolf said he did so because he was concerned for the safety of state workers.
Stack has publicly apologized, saying he sometimes gets angry and frustrated, and has what he called "a Stack moment." But he did not say what he was apologizing for, and few details are known about his and wife's behavior toward employees.
In an interview Thursday, Stack's onetime campaign manager, Marty Marks, said the lieutenant governor intends to run for a second term in 2018 and win.
"We fully expect the lieutenant governor to run a good, hard-working, transparent campaign for reelection," Marks said, "and we expect him to be successful."
Marks also said he didn't believe the controversy would dog Stack into next year's primary "when all comes to light related to this matter."
So far, no other Democrats have said publicly that they are considering challenging Stack, who in the primary would run independently from Wolf. The men would run as a ticket in next year's general election only if Stack won the primary, leading political observers to speculate about whether Wolf considers Stack enough of a liability to back a potential challenger.
Wolf has been careful to avoid casting any political motivation onto his decisions involving Stack.
Other sitting lieutenant governors have faced a primary challenge. Catherine Baker Knoll faced three challengers in the 2006 primary, but handily won the election.
To Berringer, the Stack controversy and other unrelated corruption cases have the same root: the disconnectedness and entitlement of the political class. She said electing fresh leaders is the cure.
She grew up one of 10 children in a household below the poverty line, she said, her father a tow-truck driver and her mother a waitress. "Sometimes I'd get home from school and the heat would be turned off, or there'd be no water to brush my teeth," she said.
She was 18 when she joined the Army two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, and served in Iraq. As she describes it, that was both an opportunity and a chance to give back.
Now an information technology project manager for the Giant Eagle grocery store chain, Berringer lives in a historic farmhouse with her husband and children.
Berringer said she would approach the lieutenant governor's office as a project manager does; it's underutilized, she said, and she would recast it as a policy powerhouse. The only constitutional duties assigned to the lieutenant governor -- who collects a $162,000-a-year salary -- are to preside over the Senate and chair the pardons board, plus whatever jobs the governor assigns.
"It's a waiting room," she said.
For instance, Berringer said, only about 3 percent of the $500 million that public schools spend on meals goes to local farmers. She would like to have an excise tax on natural gas production, with proceeds dedicated to purchasing from local farmers -- healthier meals for students, income for the state's agricultural sector, as she described it.
She founded American Nutritional Security, a nonprofit that helps veterans become farmers and works to give people healthier food choices. The group's view is that healthy eating is a national security issue, since up to one-third of military recruits are considered too obese to fight.
In 2012, Berringer was the Democratic nominee in the heavily conservative 16th U.S. House District, which includes parts of Chester County, drawing 39 percent in a losing battle against then-Rep. Joe Pitts (R., Pa.).
She also was an active Western Pennsylvania surrogate for Democrat Hillary Clinton in last year's presidential race.
"I'm a woman, a person of color, and a young person -- I'm the core of the Democratic Party," Berringer said.