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Politics & Government

All Politics Is National — Pennsylvania Voters Driven To Engage With Local Races Amid Larger Polarization

Winnie-Okello-768x538.jpeg
Courtesy Winnie Okello
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Winnie Okello is working to engage people in Harrisburg around issues like Harrisburg's comprehensive plan.

Mary Nogami sees herself as an extremism-neutralizer.

In her majority-GOP Bucks County community, Nogami, 47, who voted for President Joe Biden, sees a split between Republicans who have doubled down in their support of former President Donald Trump and more moderate conservatives.

She changed her registration to Republican in February of this year “to help that party, hopefully, from the inside.” And she has watched as existing fault lines in the community have influenced the tone of local races ahead of the May 18 primary.

“The community being so torn, it probably comes from the stress of the pandemic, the stress of the 2020 election,” said Nogami, of Hilltown Township.

About six months after a contentious presidential election put Pennsylvania politics into focus nationwide, voters across the commonwealth will select nominees for positions closer to home.

For some voters like Nogami, 2020’s protests for racial justice and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol put local elections into sharper focus.

“We had a lot of people in our area … kind of come up and claim there was no systemic racism; it wasn’t a thing; we didn’t need to combat racism in any way shape or form,” she said. “So that really sparked my engagement because I felt that wasn’t right.”

Many of those who plan to participate in the upcoming primary say political lines drawn during the COVID-19 pandemic, protests for racial justice, and presidential campaigns have seeped into contests for school board, judicial positions, and other seats.

‘On a national level, we don’t get to see much change’

Tearra Arrington, 28, said she has “always seen the value” of participating in local elections, in part because her father was involved in their community as a (now retired) police officer. But this year, she said she feels more compelled to study candidates, instead of doing a hasty search just before casting a vote. As more videos of Black people being harmed and killed by police have circulated — driving deeper conversation around racial injustice in the United States — Arrington has felt a greater sense of duty to pay attention to local politics.

Her father’s law enforcement background gave her insight into police procedure and a desire to judge each case individually, she said. But racial bias in use of force and other injustices are important to her as she prepares for this year’s primary. Arrington, who lives in Harrisburg, said she is looking to down-ballot candidates in the hope that they will be able to address issues where she says Congress and the president have failed for decades.

“I think a lot of underserved communities, predominantly Black communities, would say that on a national level, we don’t really get to see much change,” she said. “Now those types of communities are looking for hope with officials that may look more like them or have a similar background to be able to represent them more closely.”

One example is electing judges who will be conscious of systemic bias when handling charges like those stemming from marijuana possession — for which Black people are arrested at higher rates than white people in Pennsylvania and nationwide. Arrington, who is a registered Democrat, identifies as someone who considers many points of view outside partisan boundaries. At the local level, she said she is trying to screen for candidates who care about equality, have experience, and belong to a religious faith, as she does.

But the first issue Arrington listed as important to her this year is hyperlocal: reducing construction on a busy street near her home.

Winnie Okello, a civil engineer in Harrisburg and board member of the group Young Professionals of Color, said it was a slate of city issues, like a comprehensive plan and a new police advisory board, that brought her further into local politics this year. Far more involved than the average voter, she has been working to support civic engagement in Harrisburg through online discussions unpacking complex local issues and inviting leaders or candidates to talk. The magisterial district judge races are among many she is watching closely.

“It’s important to vote for people who really understand how to interpret those laws, those ordinances, but also folks who understand it’s real people,” Okello said. “It’s your fellow brothers and sisters in this community who at times, yes, they may make faulty decisions, but they also are worth redeeming whenever possible and however possible.”

Okello, who is in her 30s and a Democrat, first honed in on local elections several years ago. Back then, her interest came from tensions at the federal level. Watching former President Barack Obama struggle to get proposals through a gridlocked Congress caused her to take a broader view of who is integral to creating change, she said.

Linda Good, 71, is another voter who has been paying attention to local primaries for years. She said she votes to help prevent such elections from becoming “popularity contests” that weaken the democratic process by potentially barring the best candidates from the general election.

While many judge candidates cross-file in both major parties, Good, a registered Republican in Lebanon County, said partisan politics would ideally not be an option in judicial races. She is also looking for signs that local candidates are revealing their politics by weighing in on national debates. She’s specifically against “court packing,” the idea some Democrats have proposed to increase the number of U.S. Supreme Court justices while Biden is president in order to tilt the ideological balance toward their favor.

“If somebody had made that comment and even though they’re running for a much lower judgeship, at the state level, it would still bother me to know that this person would be in favor of court packing the Supreme Court,” she said.

Like Arrington, Good said she intends to choose candidates based on their experience, and she would like to see more women on the bench. But when it comes to aspiring local judges, she said, finding information about them can be difficult. It’s challenging even for someone who has for decades voted in the Pa. primaries, which she said are too often “underreported” and “underhyped.”

Other voters noted the time it takes to identify and research local candidates, let alone vote. Dustin Brace, a 33-year-old Democrat from the Waynesboro area of Franklin County, has been writing to lawmakers in support of maintaining the state’s no-excuse mail voting law. Because he is a federal employee whose office is out of state, that option is critical to him. Brace has also become more active in talking with people with whom he may disagree about issues like gun rights and COVID-19 vaccinations. But in mid-April, the details of local races were still hazy.

“I’ve heard more about the bigger races that are further down the road than the primaries that are coming up,” he said, referencing Pennsylvania’s 2022 U.S. Senate race.

For Michael Garcia, 69, a Republican in Franklin County originally from Cuba, the judicial elections connect to concerns that state courts overstepped in their rulings around the 2020 election. He changed his registration from Independent in March.

“When Pennsylvania challenged the election results last year, I watched three hours of hearings,” he said. “At the end of those three hours, I was totally convinced that there were shenanigans going on.”

Despite similar sentiments shared by President Trump and his allies, there’s been no evidence to suggest the 2020 election saw widespread voter fraud in Pennsylvania or elsewhere. Dozens of court challenges alleging such failed in court systems across the country, including many presided over by judges appointed by the former president.

Garcia, said he was still learning about the candidates, but that he would choose based on who would not “legislate from the bench.”

‘A leap to something else’

The COVID-19 pandemic threw school districts into turmoil early and often, and partisan divisions that formed around mask-wearing mandates and remote learning have lasted into the local primary season.

Ana Fink, 59, lives in Lebanon County. A Democrat, she points to the 2016 election as a turning point for her own political engagement. She began working as a poll worker to better understand the process and her community, she said. This year, the role brought her closer to fear and anger generated by false rumors about the legitimacy of mail ballots, particularly in a hostile social media environment.

She plans to work the polls again in the 2021 primaries. But as a voter, her first concern is how school board candidates have responded to the pandemic.

At times in the last year, Fink said she was afraid for the safety of her daughter, who is a teacher with preexisting medical conditions. From stories her daughter shared with her, it seemed to Fink that the Cornwall-Lebanon School District was not careful enough in following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, despite precautions district leaders outlined publicly.

Fink said much of the discussion in her area around COVID was as divisive as the election itself, especially for those inclined toward strict ideas of safety.

“There was almost a coldness about anybody who felt that way or wanted to fight to be safe,” she said.

But for Linda Good, districts in Central Pa. generally seemed to make the right choices compared to more restrictive responses elsewhere.

“Nationally, I think it’s been a horrible experience,” she said. “I think some school boards and certainly the teachers union have made things much more miserable for their students and the teachers both.”

Looking at school board races, Good said she generally avoids voting for people who are married to teachers or other district employees. In her home state of Illinois, she said board members with such connections would prioritize the needs of teachers, when to Good, students should be the main concern.

Because she does not have children, Tearra Arrington said she feels somewhat disconnected from the school board races. But after seeing students of color in her hometown of York calling for more representation in curriculum, she plans to give school board candidates more attention.

“One day when I do have children, these are going to be the people who are in control of the information that’s being given to my child,” she said.

In Palmyra, a small borough outside Lebanon, school board elections have been heated in the past, said 41-year-old Jodi McGough. As a mother of two middle school students and a recent graduate, she began paying more attention to local politics during a debate over the district’s 2020-21 budget. The pandemic caused the district to lose tax revenue and board members grappled with how to make up for a shortfall of $2.2 million. McGough was frustrated that some refused to consider a tax increase to prevent the loss of teachers and programs.

“I appreciate people who are passionate about [keeping taxes low],” she said, “but when you’re unwilling to consider another side or you’re so set in your ways, because somebody told you that that’s the way it should be, that’s kind of where I have an issue.” To McGough, that kind of thinking is one way that fierce national divisions have “trickled down” into local politics.

McGough recently switched her registration from Democrat to Republican because she said it felt like the only way to have a real say in the GOP stronghold where she lives. But she is frustrated by her new party’s support for five of the candidates, whom it describes in mailers as the true conservatives in the race.

“it should be community and students — like that should be the only thing that we should be discussing or considering — not Republican-Democrat. But unfortunately I think it has become that,” she said, adding that she would feel the same way if she was part of the political majority in her area.

Mary Nogami, who switched affiliation to Republican for similar reasons, has also become much more engaged with the politics of her local school board, which she sees as too caught up in the culture war.

Last summer, she said some Pennridge school board members tweeted that systemic racism does not exist. Later, another school board member went to Washington, D.C. for what became the insurrection at the Capitol. A “faction” of candidates post about the “QAnon” conspiracy theory on social media.

“[It’s] things that seem very strange thinking for school board members, but also not something I want in our schools,” said Nogami, a mother of four.

She says school board seats seem to be “a leap to something else” for aspiring politicians, instead of solely a way to make decisions about curricula, budgets, and education personnel.

“I’m worried because it seems some of the focus gets taken off the school,” she said.