Some days being a community organizer in Lancaster, PA means the MAGA faction threatens to crash your group’s picnic—and bring their guns. On an up day, Lancaster Stands Up Organizer Suzy Wurtz almost shrugs off such menaces.
“There’s work to do on housing, there’s work to do on reproductive justice. There’s work to do to elect champions for working people. These little sideshows are annoying at best, and dangerous at worst,” Wurtz said.
But the danger is real. “We have people openly advocating for violence against Democrats and the LGBTQ+ community. The safety of everyone in our community literally depends on being able to out-organize them,” she said.
Wurtz stepped away from the press of election work to talk with Convergence editorial board member Marcy Rein about the view from one of the country’s most hotly contested political terrains.
Lancaster County in southeastern Pennsylvania is a microcosm of the state as a whole. The city of Lancaster, majority Black and brown, is set to send City Council President Izzy Smith-Wade-El to the state legislature after the November midterm elections.
“Izzy’s character is larger than life, and people in all parts of the county know he represents and fights for working people,” Wurtz said. “My own borough council in Ephrata wouldn’t allow a mobile shower trailer to provide services in my town. Bringing the shower trailer here meant that unhoused people could shower at least once a week. And this man, Izzy, spent eight months working with us to get the shower trailer here. Izzy, along with our mayor, Lancaster Stands Up, and local housing organizations made it happen. It just speaks to the kind of person Izzy is.”
But as soon as you leave the city, you’ll find yourself in rural Pennsylvania, majority white and hard-core Republican. State Senator Doug Mastriano, a January 6 participant, won more than half the Lancaster County Republican votes in this year’s gubernatorial primary. Kathie Barnette—“the Trumpiest Candidate Trump didn’t endorse”—won more county votes in the Senate primary than Trump-backed nominee Dr. Mehmet Oz.
Lancaster Stands Up, as part of the statewide organization Pennsylvania Stands Up, has joined a broad coalition that aims to make a million voter contact attempts to help Mastriano’s and Oz’s opponents get elected. State Attorney General Josh Shapiro is running for governor, and Lieutenant Gov. John Fetterman is campaigning for the US Senate seat. The contrasts couldn’t be greater.
“Doug Mastriano won’t acknowledge that Joe Biden won the 2020 election. He is a Christian Nationalist who has promised to enact policies that would threaten the lives of working-class people. With a Republican majority in our state legislature, a Democratic governor is the only thing that stands between our rights to reproductive healthcare, public education, workplace democracy, and more.”
“Dr. Oz is a media celebrity who became famous for his TV show. The running joke about Dr. Oz is that he isn’t even from Pennsylvania (he is from New Jersey). That’s not the worst part about him. Oz’s campaign is an attempt to buy a Senate seat so that Republicans can advance their dangerous, unpopular agenda at the federal level.
“Fetterman has consistently stood up for working people and unions. He’s also strong on marijuana legalization and criminal justice reform. Having someone like Fetterman in the United States Senate would help to give us the buffer we need to offset the undermining of Biden’s popular agenda by Manchin and Sinema. It’s vital to contact voters and tell them the truth about Doctor Oz, and also to educate people about the dangers of someone like Mastriano.
“I’ve gone door-knocking this election cycle and have spoken to Republicans who recite the typical Fox News talking points at you. But then they end the conversations with something like, ‘I don’t know if I can vote Republican this year because they’re trying to ban abortion.’
“To me, that means that everyday people who know what it’s like to choose if and when to have a family understand that abortion is a personal issue and should be between a woman and her doctor. Everybody deserves to have that freedom. And when we lead with that shared value, we can win.
“We’re inviting people to pick a side. Most people pick the side that builds up the community. The extreme right-wing Republicans are in the minority.”
‘Pushback all summer long’
Minority they may be, but the Right’s ongoing, in-your-face organizing has put Lancaster Stands Up on constant alert.
“Last year it was different because most of the organizing from right-wing extremists was centered around school boards. They started showing up at meetings, testing their limits, and running for office. At a local level, 2021 was a line-in-the-sand moment, with thousands of people getting involved in the political process for the first time. This year, it was a constant pushback against right-wing extremists all summer long.”
The first furor erupted when the Tied House restaurant in Lititz, PA—owned by St. Boniface Brewing Co.—announced plans to hold a forum on June 23 titled, “Should We Want an Explicitly Christian State.” The Mid-Atlantic Reformation Society sponsored the event. Its executive director, Joel Saint, was a key speaker, along with Chris Hume, managing editor of The Lancaster Patriot. Both the newspaper and the organization espouse Christian Nationalist politics.
“The brewery really dragged their feet and made a lot of excuses for about a week. They didn’t say anything publicly at first, no comment, no comment, no comment. As the pressure to cancel the event intensified, they finally released a statement saying, ‘We believe in freedom of speech and that’s why we’re hosting it.’ Our response was, ‘Saying gay people shouldn’t exist in Pennsylvania, and that people who are Jewish or Buddhist or Hindu or Muslim don’t belong in Pennsylvania might be protected under the First Amendment, but that those extreme views should not be validated by local business establishments.’
“Everyday people were calling the Tied House and St. Boniface around the clock. Then their local distributors started dropping their contracts with them. Some restaurants poured out St. Boniface beers, and finally their regional distributors got involved and threatened to cancel their contracts. The Tied House ended up canceling the event after that.”
Over 30 local clergy members wrote and signed a statement explaining what Christian Nationalism is and why they objected to it. “What Christian nationalists want is to force a single religion—their specific version of Christianity—on everyone else. Their goal is a Christian theocracy…. As Americans, we can have a democracy or we can have a theocracy. We cannot have both,” they wrote.
Just days later, word got out that a local theater, Penn Cinema, had scheduled the premiere of a film called “The Return of the American Patriot: The Rise of Pennsylvania” for July 16. The movie featured Mastriano and other extremists, including the co-founder of FreePA. (Per Wurtz, “FreePA materialized in opposition to statewide mask mandates and COVID mitigation, and quickly became a hotbed for conspiracy theories, Christian Nationalism, anti-vaccine movements, and homophobia/transphobia.”) Far-right podcaster Steve Turley co-produced the movie.
“I immediately reached out to the theater and politely asked them why they were hosting someone like Dr. Steve Turley and a known Christian Nationalist Doug Mastriano. I also let them know that I was a frequent theater-goer at Penn Cinema and the event made me extremely worried for my family’s safety.’ It was important for our community to be aware of far-right activity in our county, so Lancaster Stands Up put out a call to action on our social media pages. We invited our base to make calls and email the theater, and they did.
“The news about the film premier spread rapidly. Everyday people took action in a small but meaningful way by contacting the theater, and it added up. Within a couple hours they canceled the Turley film.
But Wurtz and Lancaster Stands Up got the blowback.
“My message to Penn Cinema was out on the Internet. Turley’s listeners and fans found my name, of course, and found Lancaster Stands Up. All of a sudden there were over 600 comments on the filmmaker’s page, many of them saying vulgar things, and advocating for violence to be used against people who contacted Penn Cinema, including a call to ‘line them up and shoot them’. And then someone added information and an address for our summer picnic.
“At that point we said, OK, it’s time. It’s time to tell the police about this because we don’t feel safe anymore. The police and park rangers took the threat seriously. But local elected officials—the county commissioners—didn’t even respond.”
Wurtz characterizes county commissioners’ meetings as rife with bias and name-calling. “Our County Commissioner Josh Parsons called me a communist when I went to a meeting and advocated for more funding for daycare so they could transport children to and from school. He publicly attacked Lancaster Stands Up as communist.
“It’s such an old trick. It’s just so boring. But the reality is that there are people who have bought into this idea and believe there actually are communists who are trying to take over Pennsylvania. They believe it, and they have their weapons ready. They’re ready to go shoot people who they think are communists. And when you have elected officials pointing at everyday people, parents, young people, and retirees attending public meetings, saying, ‘They’re communists,’ it puts us in danger.”
Fall election focus
Heading into Fall, the pushback eased. Lancaster Stands Up has honed in on election work. Besides campaigning for Shapiro and Fetterman, they’ve gone all out to back Mark Temons, the Democratic candidate for state House District 98, and Izzy Smith-Wade-El, the Democratic nominee for House District 49. The local focus can open some doors that the senate and gubernatorial campaigns don’t.
“I’ve talked to people who ask, ‘Why does it matter? I think the whole thing is a scam.’ One woman said, ‘I think this is bullshit. I think both parties are bullshit.’ I told her some stories from local organizing: ‘Listen. We’ve won some really incredible victories by talking to our neighbors and by leading with shared values. And we’ve won. We’ve made changes. We kept our neighbors’ lights on during the pandemic because we showed up. That’s what it takes. We can’t leave it up to either party to make the changes we need, because that doesn’t work. This is our democracy, it’s our job to make it all it’s meant to be. It’s up to us. We say ‘It’s up to us’ at Lancaster Stands Up all the time, and we believe it.
“We’re trying to unite working people of all races in our county, that’s our whole mission. We do that by talking about our shared values and getting people on board, fighting for a Lancaster that works for all of us
“Telling people about right-wing extremists who were trying to organize events at the Tied House and theater, and asking them to call or email, gave everyday people a chance to stand up and say, ‘We don’t want this in our community.’ We give people opportunities to stand up because that’s how we build power and that’s how we train leaders.
“We can win against extremists on the Right. But we have to out-organize them. People are afraid of Mastriano being our next governor. I always tell people that the best way to beat back that scary feeling is to take action. Things are not going to get better if we don’t step up.”
Featured image: Members of Lancaster Stands Up joined hundreds of people from around Pennsylvania in a rally for reproductive rights at the state capitol in Harrisburg Oct. 24. Republicans in the state legislature are advancing a bill that would put a referendum outlawing abortion on the ballot next spring. Photo from Look Loud via Lancaster Stands Up.