Mennonite candidate for Congress bets on pro-immigration, Medicare for All platform

LANCASTER, PENNSYLVANIA — Those outside of Pennsylvania’s Amish country may be surprised to hear of Lancastrians gathering to protest the Muslim ban, or standing in solidarity with Charlottesville, or demanding that their congressman hold a town hall on health care, or calling for a Dream Act. But that open-arms, open-door spirit is embedded into the state’s and county’s history.


Jess King knows that spirit well. The Pennsylvania native, who was born and raised in Lancaster County, is running for Congress in hopes of unseating Republican incumbent Lloyd Smucker in the 2018 elections. 


“It’s a very religious area that wasn’t very excited about Trump and the values he espoused,” King told ThinkProgress.


Although 57 percent of voters in Lancaster County cast ballots for Donald Trump, locals are supportive of immigrants and refugees. The area became home to Anabaptists who fled persecution in Europe hundreds of years ago, and it’s still home to thousands of Mennonites and Amish who share a belief in adult baptism and pacifism. More recently, Lancaster has resettled hundreds of refugees over the past few years — more per capita than any other part of the United States — and it is home to a large Puerto Rican population that has grown since Hurricane Maria.


That’s why, King said, Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric “doesn’t fly in a place like this even though it’s deep red.”


As a Mennonite, King was raised to work hard and love your neighbor as yourself, she told ThinkProgress. While she and Smucker share similar religious backgrounds — Smucker was briefly raised Old Order Amish, the Anabaptist sect known for plain clothes, buggies, and shunning electricity that’s synonymous with Lancaster County — they could not be more different when it comes to policy.


Smucker supports Trump’s ban on refugees, opposes the Affordable Care Act, makes no apologies about taking thousands of dollars from the National Rifle Association (NRA), and votes with the president 95 percent of the time.


King’s marquee issues are Medicare for All, debt-free public college, and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. She also supports abortion access, a ban on semiautomatic assault weapons, and welcoming policies for immigrants and refugees.


Her 20-year career in community and economic development has taken her from Pittsburgh (she’s endorsed by that city’s mayor) back home to Lancaster, where she served on a city anti-poverty commission. She is now married to a progressive Mennonite pastor and is on hiatus from her job as executive director of ASSETS, a small business nonprofit with Mennonite ties that focuses on women, low-income people, and people of color to alleviate poverty.





Jess King speaks at a gathering in York, PA. (Credit: Courtesy of Jess King Campaign)



King spent nearly a year selling her pro-immigrant, pro-health care message to voters in Pennsylvania’s 16th district before the state Supreme Court drew a new congressional map in response to a lawsuit over partisan gerrymandering.


The decision created more party parity, but also put some seats that could have flipped from red to blue seemingly out of reach. That’s the case in Smucker’s new district, where Trump’s margin of victory increased from seven points to a whopping 26.


King’s establishment-backed opponent, Democrat Christina Hartman, responded by announcing her intention to run in the more winnable PA-10 before being accused of “political carpetbaggery” and dropping out altogether.


King never considered running in a different district. “That’s not why I got into this,” she said. “This is my community.”


But she knows the new PA-11 is a “fundamentally different district” than the one she’s been campaigning to win since 2017.


While the district still contains the city of Lancaster, whose rising poverty rate spurred King to run, it no longer includes Reading — one of the poorest cities in America — and some liberal pockets of the Philadelphia suburbs where King’s anti-poverty message was likely to resonate. In addition to all of Lancaster County, PA-11 encompasses part of very conservative York County, which was key to Trump’s victory. At the moment, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by 100,000 people in the new district, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.


PA-11 is also different from the 18th district, where Democrat Conor Lamb narrowly pulled out a win against Republican Rick Saccone in the heart of Pennsylvania Trump country. The moderate Lamb and progressive King aren’t all that similar, and neither are the districts (Democrats can’t count on heavy union turnout in Central Pennsylvania, for example, as Lamb did).


But King does have the backing of Lancaster Stands Up, a grassroots group formed in the wake of Trump’s election that now touts 683 members and thousands of Facebook followers. The group has received national attention for its efforts to jumpstart progressive political engagement in a Republican stronghold and is now supporting King after 82 percent of its members voted to endorse her.





A board at King's campaign office. (Credit: Sarah Anne Hughes for ThinkProgress)



King counts some of Lancaster Stands Up’s founders among her unionized staff: campaign manager Becca Rast and organizing director Nick Martin. She’s known them since they were in high school and congregants at the Community Mennonite Church of Lancaster, where King’s husband was an associate pastor for several years. They’re part of the reason she’s running.



8) The political analysts might say that a Democrat can't win #PA11. But they don't really know Jess King and our campaign. We aren't just any type of campaign. We're rooted in our community. We're out there persuading voters every single day. We're building a huge team.


— Becca Rast (@beccarast) March 30, 2018



“[I] just saw this really interesting moment of talented, committed people from here coming back here, being here, stepping up, engaging in really creative, unprecedented ways, and I was like, ‘You know what? This could actually be something that could work.'”


“This is the year that somebody like Jess can win”


It was a chillier-than-average April afternoon and the dozen or so volunteers inside King’s downtown Lancaster campaign office were outfitted in puffer coats and hats.


Nick Martin, the candidate’s organizing director, asked how many people had canvassed for King in the past. Just one arm went up.


Martin talked the group through the script they would soon deploy across the city — have you heard of Jess? What are your top issues? — and asked the volunteers if they had any questions. One woman asked what to say if a resident wanted to know about impeaching Trump. Martin told her the people they will speak to aren’t as concerned with that as they are with issues like health care.


Per Martin, the campaign has had more than 250 individuals canvass so far; more than 100 people have attended a Jess Camp training session, where volunteers learn how to use their own narrative while knocking on doors. On that April day, those assembled targeted Democrats who don’t vote in every election as well as Independents.


Volunteers Susan Shearer and Elisabeth Smoot are first-timers for the King campaign, but they’ve canvassed for Democratic candidates in the past. Shearer originally supported Hartman, but she likes King’s story and, perhaps even more, dislikes Smucker’s unwillingness to meet with constituents who disagree with him.


“My own personal feeling is, if he truly wants to represent everybody, he has to stop being afraid and stop using this negative propaganda,” she told ThinkProgress.





(Credit: Sarah Anne Hughes for ThinkProgress)



The question “Where’s Lloyd?” is a rallying cry for Lancaster Stands Up, which has loudly and unapologetically called on Smucker to hold an in-person town hall. The question is even emblazoned on the group’s red van, which on that April afternoon was parked a few blocks away outside a Mennonite church where local high school and college students led a town hall on gun violence.


King accepted the students’ invitation to participate in the event, organized with assistance from Lancaster Stands Up, but Smucker “did not respond to our invite,” one of the teen organizers told the crowd of nearly 200. They laughed.


“Congressman Smucker has spoken extensively on the need to keep our children safe, including in schools. He voted for and cosponsored bipartisan legislation to help do that,” his spokesperson told local paper LNP. “But he’s unlikely to participate in events organized by paid liberal activists whose expressed political agenda is his defeat.”


It’s true that Lancaster Stands Up wants Smucker out of office. “We have been very vocal … about our disapproval of our congressman,” said Eliza Booth, a full-time organizer with the group and former volunteer. “We feel he’s not representing the majority of people in Lancaster.”


That group is also committed to relentlessly bird-dogging Smucker — a political tactic that forces elected officials to answer questions about topics they’d rather avoid. For Lancaster Stands Up, that’s meant finding, protesting, and disrupting Smucker where he is, whether that be a ticketed business event or another closed-door business event, and raising issues like his NRA donations.


“He feels the pressure from us,” Booth said.


Because Smucker hasn’t held an in-person town hall, Lancaster Stands Up has been hosting them instead in the city and — perhaps more importantly — in the county. Like King’s campaign, the group is adjusting to the new PA-11 by also scheduling events in York.



Kicking it off this morning at the Hallam Fire Hall – great discussion about the need to get out there and talk to our neighbors and fight for the issues that matter to everyday Americans: healthcare, education, and quality jobs. pic.twitter.com/mSfPwPWe0B


— Jess King (@jessforcongress) April 8, 2018



The town halls have given progressives in the county a place to come together and find common ground, Booth said. That includes Jim Sandoe, who recently co-founded the sister group Ephrata Stands Up in the conservative borough.


Sandoe, a member of the Ephrata Democratic committee, said he heard from members of his community who were shocked that something like Trump’s election could happen.


“We have people coming up to us saying, ‘I want to do something. What can I do?’” he said.


Now, his group has scheduled its own town hall to get a sense of what matters to Ephrata residents.


“Democrats in the county, they’re afraid to stand up because there are so many Republicans,” Sandoe said. “If you’re going to stand up, this is the year to do it.”


Lancaster values vs. Lancaster voters


While there’s no shortage of optimism and enthusiasm among King’s supporters, it’s undeniable that the math is not on her side.


“Trump won the new district [PA-11] with over 60 percent of the vote,” said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Lancaster’s Franklin & Marshall College. “When you think about that, that’s pretty remarkable.”


Even in the more favorable PA-16 configuration, Republicans easily won congressional races. In 2016, Smucker defeated Hartman, who had the backing of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and party establishment types like former Gov. Ed Rendell (D), by 33,000 votes.


That loss didn’t stop Rendell and EMILY’s List from throwing their support behind Hartman again this cycle. It also didn’t stop the DCCC from inviting Hartman, not King, to a candidate training in October. King has found support from outside the establishment, like the anti-Trump Silicon Valley group Tech Solidarity, which has raised more than a million dollars for its Great Slate of candidates.


“I don’t know that the Democratic party is going to get involved until they see we can make it close,” King said. “And that’s all right by me.”


While the numbers aren’t favorable, Madonna sees reasons why the party shouldn’t despair. A recent Franklin and Marshall College poll showed 60 percent of the state’s registered Democratic voters are “very interested” in the midterms, as opposed to 41 percent of Republicans and 26 percent of Independents. Among those “very interested” voters, 53 percent plan to vote for a Democratic House candidate.


“So there isn’t any doubt that the Democratic base is far more energized and excited,” he said.


Not only is Democratic turnout a must if King wants to win, but so is engaging Independents and dissatisfied Republicans. King said she’s spoken to Republicans who just “can’t do it anymore” in the age of Trump and who can vote for her values, rather than party.





Campaign swag table at Jess King's campaign office. (Credit: Sarah Anne Hughes for ThinkProgress)



“[Those conversations] make me say, ‘This isn’t a 26-point race’ or ‘This isn’t an R+14 district’,” she said. “We’re in a space that’s very hard to quantify because people haven’t been here before.”


There’s also Smucker’s fundraising numbers, which haven’t been impressive: He was actually outraised by King and Hartman in the last fundraising period of 2017. Smucker’s $114,260 haul was split almost evenly between contributions from individuals and political organizations, while King raised $195,480 during the same time period without corporate PAC money.  


Lancaster Stands Up’s Booth has felt encouraged by the head start progressives have in PA-11, as well as by the larger Democratic wave, no matter how fickle that may turn out to be.


“Even though the math is against us, this is the year that somebody like Jess can win,” she said. “With her message, I just believe that she’s going to prevail.”