Holly Hickling had no plans to run for District Judicial Judge until the May 2021 primary elections. election – in which Nicholas Martini ran unopposed on the Republican and Democratic party lines – sparked concern over how the post would be filled.
“If you don’t talk through the system, you don’t solve it,” Hickling said. “I didn’t feel comfortable with someone running without talking about these things.”
Hickling is campaigning as an independent candidate for magistrate district judge for Pittsburgh’s West End in next Tuesday’s municipal election. The high courts are the first level of the Pennsylvania Court System and hear low-level cases on issues such as traffic violations, civil disputes and misdemeanors.
Hickling works at Pitt’s School of Pharmacy as a senior specialist in program evaluation in the program evaluation research unit. Its specific goal is to fight opioid addiction in Pennsylvania and find ways to reduce the stigma and deaths associated with opioid use. She previously served as a community engagement advisor in the Specialized university college for seven years.
Hickling said her role as a community engagement advisor has allowed her to explore many community-related topics – such as the prison system and drug addiction – and keep the “pulse” on Pittsburgh’s issues. She said mass incarceration and prejudice in the justice system had caught her attention during her tenure as a counselor.
“I had read a lot about prejudice in law enforcement and even helped organize conferences on mass incarceration in Pitt,” Hickling said. “I was also preparing for a career transition and knew I had to grow, but I also wanted to find a way to end mass incarceration.”
Hickling said running for office was on his radar, but not on a judicial basis given his lack of legal training. The primary election drew his attention to the magistrate district judge, who does not require such experience.
“After the role of the police, magistrates are the next step,” Hickling said. “They are really important because they can set a cash bond, and they have incredible power and discretion.”
Magistrates are not allowed to state their political agendas on specific issues, or what direction they would support in cases. Hickling said his approach has been to solve universal issues in his area that concern the majority, if not all, of the community.
“I hope to use the discretion of a magistrate to be compassionate, enhance fairness and reduce stigma, while improving safety in our community by addressing the root causes of problems,” said Hickling. “I want to be a compassionate and righteous judge who has the patience to listen carefully to all sides of a conflict.
Hickling entered the race in July and immediately jumped into the campaign. She said her team had little time to prepare and plan before “diving in and knocking on doors,” but relied on the support of people with previous political experience.
“Some of my former students worked for Ed Gainey, so we were getting advice from them,” Hickling said. “One of my campaign managers worked on a ballot initiative, and we also brought in progressive organizers.”
Cody Reddy, one of Hickling’s co-campaign directors, met her last December while working on a voting initiative to ban no-knock warrants and limit solitary confinement. Reddy said he was “really excited” when asked to help with the Hickling campaign because she has the qualities of a good candidate.
“I don’t know how much better a candidate can be for someone who has never been in office,” Reddy said. “She has the characteristics you look for in a candidate – she is charismatic, compassionate and knowledgeable. She’s ready to learn and admit when she’s wrong.
Saket Rajprohat, Hickling’s other co-campaign manager, met Hickling while he was a student at Pitt. Hickling was his mentor at Honors College and helped him become more involved in the community, including with TO FORGE in Pitt, a refugee aid program. Rajprohat said Hickling’s passion for community activism and the justice system makes her an ideal candidate.
“Holly wasn’t even considering running for this position, but when she saw the seat being occupied without anyone defending her, she thought it wasn’t fair,” Rajprohat said. “Because of her genuine nature and willingness to look beyond the ego, she would make an excellent judge.”
According to Hickling, his team prioritizes face-to-face interactions with voters, which involves knocking on doors in his district every day of the week. Hickling said meeting and learning more about new people has been her favorite part of the campaign.
“I’ve learned that you have to stand in front of as many voters as possible,” Hickling said. “I’ve had a lot of great conversations with people who believe like me, as well as with people who have helped me broaden my worldview.
Reddy said external support, especially from “progressive powers”, has been instrumental in their campaign and the progress they have made so far. He said the student volunteers of Progressive Democrat Ed Gainey’s mayoral campaign and organizers of Slate of Eight provided them with knowledge on data entry, campaign management and digital marketing. The slate of the eight was a set of candidates running together for the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas.
“It’s not so much the coordination of the campaign as it is the people who know each other, ”said Reddy. “It’s really helpful to have people who have been involved in mayoral races or people with extensive backgrounds when you don’t have that yourself.”
As the elections approach, Rajprohat said the team is optimistic about the public support it has received. He said community involvement in their campaign, such as active discussions with residents and increased support from volunteers, is encouraging.
“There are ways to assess the community and it looks like this will be one of the most competitive races in Pittsburgh,” said Rajprohat. “I think the community really feels like we really care about us, and we’re riding this wave in the election.”
During the week, Hickling starts knocking on doors when she comes home from work, and she spends all day Saturday and Sunday working on the campaign and talking to residents. Reddy said that Hickling’s involvement in this campaign was at a level he had never witnessed before and that his dedication to the campaign had been essential to its success.
“The amount of effort she put in as a person with a family, who works full time, is out of this world,” Reddy said. “In my limited experience, just seeing other campaigns, the amount of effort she puts in isn’t even comparable.”
Reddy also said the “progressive powers” took note of Hickling. Lisa Middleman, a county plea court candidate with 34 years of trial experience, spoke at the Hickling launch party. Reddy said that Hickling’s personality, her characteristics, and the relationships she has established with friends and peers demonstrate her ability to fulfill this role successfully, even though she lacks traditional legal experience.
“She’s got a huge number of people who believe in her and support the things she’s worked on,” Reddy said. “Realistically, I don’t know how much better a candidate can be for someone who has never been a candidate before. “