“Each of us comes from a narrow background. It is defined by our families, our neighborhoods, our schools, our social life, and our work. It is possible for us to live here and know little about our community except how to make the rounds from one familiar place and face to another. What lies between usually remains unchartered territory. Politics eliminates that unfamiliarity. Politics is a total community engagement.”
- Elsie Hillman, Ellis School Commencement, June 8, 1984
Elsie began her career in politics when in 1952 she campaigned as an “Ike girl” for Republican Presidential Candidate Dwight D. Eisenhower. She would remain a lifelong Republican, joining the party due to a combination of a family tradition and a support for women’s rights. She continued to remain involved in local politics into the 1960s, working to include African American members into the party. Meeting with Wendell Freeland, an African American lawyer, they worked to organize and create a more inclusive Republican party within the city of Pittsburgh. This commitment to civil rights and equality was echoed in her activities at the 1964 Republican National Convention after she and a number of delegates decided to back William W. Scranton, Governor from Pennsylvania and Republican moderate in opposition to Barry Goldwater.
In 1967 she was successfully elected County Chair of the Republican Party of Allegheny County, retiring four years later in 1971. She later went on to serve in key roles in both the state and national levels of the party: a member of the Pennsylvania Republican Leadership Committee in 1974 and in 1975 a member of the Republican National Committee as Committeewoman for the state of Pennsylvania. She later served as part of the RNC Executive Committee in 1978. Elsie retired from her positions with the Republican National Committee in 1996.
In addition to her activities within the Republican Party, Hillman served an influential role in electing a number of prominent Members of Congress, Governors, and Presidents.
Before supporting him as a delegate during the 1964 Republican National Convention, Elsie worked and organized events during his gubernatorial campaign in 1962. Most evident was a rally at the Civic Arena in downtown Pittsburgh on October 24, 1962. With an attendance of 17,000 and appearances by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Jimmy Stewart, Hillman and other Republican workers exceeded expectations of Democrats who claimed “They can’t find enough Republicans to fill a telephone booth” (Never a Spectator, 21).
Since her youth, Elsie had maintained a friendship with the Heinz family. Friends with Business Executive of the H.J. Heinz Company, Jack Heinz, and his son H. John Heinz III, Hillman’s support would be crucial for the political career of the latter. In 1971, with the sudden death of U.S. Representative Robert Corbett, John Heinz quickly sent Elsie a telegram requesting her support. Elsie chaired Labor for Heinz, a campaign organized at securing the support of labor for the Republican candidate. Hillman, by allowing Heinz to with individual labor unions, successfully garnered the support of a number of labor leaders – ultimately allowing Heinz to win the election, jumpstarting his political career (Never a Spectator, 30-32). John Heinz and Hillman remained lifelong friends, until his untimely death in 1991. Hillman went on to chair the Heinz Memorial Committee – responsible for finding ways to commemorate the deceased statesman and native son.
As both members of the Allegheny County Republican Party, Elsie and Richard “Dick” Thornburgh began their respective careers in politics together, meeting as members of a group called the “007s”. Elsie was involved in a number of Thornburgh’s campaign including one for U.S. Congress in 1966. Later, in 1978 Hillman was influential in securing the gubernatorial nomination for Thornburgh in the Republican primaries. Hillman was able to garner further support for Thornburgh securing the support of the African American Community, including an endorsement from Jesse Jackson, in Philadelphia and labor leaders in the general election.
Perhaps the greatest feat of Hillman’s career in politics was the role she played in the Vice-Presidential campaigns of George H.W. Bush. A longtime friend (and relative) of both George and Barbara Bush, she threw her support behind him upon announcing his candidacy for the Presidency in 1978. During the Republican primary season, she was able to successfully set up a number of events to garner support for Bush. Her hard work was rewarded in the 1980 state primary, as she won the state for Bush, in an upset victory. After Bush dropped out of the primary race, her activities at the 1980 Republican National Convention were in-part responsible for him being on the Republican ticket as the Vice-Presidential nominee.
Upon being named the Republican nominee in the 1988 Presidential election, Hillman chaired the Bush ’88 campaign for the state of Pennsylvania. Ultimately, she was able to narrowly win Pennsylvania for Bush, a state where registered Democrats handily outnumbered Republicans. Through all of this, Elsie maintained a close friendship with the President and First Lady, resulting in a large body of correspondence between the Hillman and Bush families.
Elsie also played an active role in helping Barbara Hafer to become the first female County Commissioner of Allegheny County. After meeting Hafer in the early 1980s, Hillman was able to convince Hafer, then a Democrat, to switch parties. In 1983, with Hillman’s encouragement, Hafer was able to replace incumbent County Commissioner Bill Hunt. She successfully was reelected in 1987 and in 1988 was elected Auditor General of the State of Pennsylvania.
1990 saw Hafer become the Republican Candidate for the state gubernatorial race – another first for Hafer as the first woman candidate to run for Governor. The race became centered on a certain issue – abortion. Hafer was a pro-choice candidate in contrast to Governor Robert Casey’s pro-life stance, and the challenge of third candidate – a Pro-life Republican, further detracted from support within the party. Coupled with this and a lack of campaign funding, Hafer lost the race to Casey. She later went on to become State Treasurer from 1997-2003. Hafer returned to the Democratic Party in 2003.
Elsie Hillman’s friendship with Governor Tom Ridge began 15 years before his 1994 Gubernatorial Campaign. Elsie had first begun working with Ridge, when he was the Bush campaign coordinator for his home of Erie County in 1980. Two years later, in 1982, when Ridge decided to run for U.S. Congress Elsie was one of the first people whose support he sought. Ridge was elected in 1982 – by a mere 729 votes.
In 1993, when Ridge sought the Republican nomination for Governor, Hillman was key in securing support and raising Ridge’s profile among Republicans in the eastern part of the state where Ridge’s profile was less well known with Republican leaders and officials. In Pittsburgh she was key for planning a breakfast for Ridge and was ultimately able to secure the nomination for Ridge after persuading state committee members to back the then-congressman. Ridge beat Lieutenant Governor Mark Singel, garnering 47% versus Singel’s 40% and a third candidate, Peg Luksik.