Lebanon County politics: In a sea of Republicans, where are the Democrats?
There are a few (and very small) blue dots across the landscape of this very red Pennsylvania county.
Bobbie Warshaw knocks on doors in Lebanon County this election season as she always has, trying to get voters motivated, but this time, she moves with a sense of fear.
“I’ve never a seen a country so divided,” she said.
She knows political division. She handed out anti-war literature in Chicago’s Lincoln Park back in the 1960s, landing her on an FBI watch list, and her phone was tapped.
Unlike Democratic-led Chicago, tiny Lebanon County is dominated by Republicans who have made headlines across the state this year for bold moves – defying the governor’s shutdown orders here, fighting to impeach Tom Wolf, leading rallies to reopen businesses during the pandemic, and for one legislator, pushing for the impeachment of a state judge.
Warshaw worries as she watches the growing chasm between philosophies. At 86, she finds herself in Lebanon County's minority as a Democrat. She’s always been able to keep friends in both parties, but that hasn’t been the case lately. The tenor of the fight this time is darker.
“I fear losing our democracy, and I never feared that before,” she said.
Blue dots in a sea of red
In the red sea of Lebanon County Republicans, there are a few (and very small) blue dots across the landscape. The only large Democratic population in one place is the city itself.
Warshaw lived in one of the small blue dots -- Mount Gretna -- until about a year ago. Today, she and her husband live in Cornwall Manor, another area with shades of blue.
“We know we are outnumbered, but we can’t give up the fight,” said Dan Sidelnick, chairman of the Lebanon County Democratic Committee.
In recent voter drives, the local Dems signed on about 600 new people, while the Republicans pulled out 2,000, Sidelnick said.
“That was disheartening,” he said.
According to state records, as of Oct. 13, 2020, Lebanon County has:
- 91,162 registered voters
- 27,357 of those voters are Democrats
- 50,029 are Republicans
- 9,567 are listed as no-affiliation voters
- 4,209 are identified as "other" voters
The Lebanon County Republican Committee chairman monitors the numbers like an accountant.
Ed Lynch knows where the Republicans have a stronghold in the county and where blue Democrats are changing the picture, if ever so slightly. Palmyra, for example, is getting an influx of Dauphin County residents, and Cornwall Borough is home to Cornwall Manor and Alden Place, retirement communities that draw out-of-state residents.
That area is where Warshaw knocks on doors these days. She even uncovered a former neighbor, a diehard Republican, from Mount Gretna who's voting for Joe Biden.
When Warshaw and her husband, Paul Heise, moved two decades ago to Mount Gretna, a borough of fewer than 200 people, her husband was told: “Don’t even bother knocking on doors in Mount Gretna. It’s totally Republican.”
That has changed as people have moved there from outside the county, now with more Dems (94) registered than Republicans (62).
The foundation of Republican dominance in Lebanon County goes deep, as generations follow generations of committed party members. The boldness of those Republicans is what state Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, once referred to as the tradition of “stubborn Dutchmen.”
Just this month, state Rep. Frank Ryan, R-Lebanon, introduced legislation to impeach state Supreme Court Justice David Wecht, accusing him of legislating from the bench.
The chess moves by Lebanon County Republican political leaders early in the pandemic caught the attention of Eric Rosso. He’s the executive director of Pennsylvania Spotlight, a 501(c)(4) social welfare group that monitors what it considers divisive politics.
His organization sent letters earlier this year requesting emails from about a dozen Pennsylvania counties; it was a chance to peer into the discussions those leaders had during the pandemic. Specifically, Pennsylvania Spotlight wanted to see how those leaders formed the decision to battle Wolf over the shutdown.
“Lebanon County was, by far, the most political,” Rosso said. “It was the biggest disregard for public health that we had seen.”
The emails involved several Republican leaders – Diamond, Ryan, state Sen. Dave Arnold, county commissioners Bill Ames and Bob Phillips, District Attorney Pier Hess Graf, Sheriff Bruce Klinger and others. They united around the plan to move Lebanon County from red status to yellow before Wolf had approved it.
Pennsylvania Spotlight posted those emails and a summary of findings on its website. Rosso said it has been the single biggest traffic driver the organization has had since its start in 2016.
Diamond downplayed the email investigation, saying that the communications can be easily taken out of context
“We were trying to get a plan together to unite people in the county and get to the governor,” Diamond said. The data the governor produced about Lebanon County didn’t mesh with information they had from local healthcare officials, he said, and they felt unnecessarily segregated.
Attempts to reach Ryan, Arnold and Phillips were unsuccessful, but Republican chairman Lynch said, “It has brought our elected officials and delegates closer. They’re out there fighting for the people of Lebanon County.“
The uphill battle
"They’re very loud and vocal," Democratic chairman Sidelnick said, "but I’m hoping the loud, boisterous Republican group that wanted to impeach the governor — that there's a large silent majority of Republicans and Democrats who aren’t loud and boisterous but are upset."
Sidelnick doesn't look for big victories for Democrats in Lebanon County now, but he'd be happy with 25,000 to 26,000 county voters choosing Democratic candidates in November.
A group in Maryland provided his committee with 800 Biden yard signs to combat the Donald Trump signs throughout the county, he said.
Meanwhile Warshaw pounds the pavement for her side. A former lawyer and politician back in Illinois, she knows progress is an inch at a time, but her worry is larger these days.
She said: "I once saw the sun shining on the other side of the hill somehow, and here, I’m not sure."
Kim Strong can be reached at email@example.com.