Voice of Westmoreland was part of the wave of progressive pop-up groups that spread like dandelions after Donald Trump was elected.
Many doubted that the vow, as the group calls itself, would ever be a force in politics. In a county that is decidedly red, they have yet to choose a candidate.
But four years after the first rally in Courthouse Square in Greensburg, where a handful of activists gathered in February 2017 to protest President Trump’s Muslim travel ban, the group, fueled by monthly membership fees, feels in the political landscape.
Using its door-to-door acquisition and telephone banking skills, enhanced for Joe Biden during an election campaign, VOW is starting small in this year’s local elections. The organization has approved a list of three candidates for the opening of school boards in Greensburg Salem and Norwin, and two candidates for Greensburg City Council.
The move reflects the views of VOW co-founder Clare Dooley, who explained the group’s decision to run in the presidential election last fall as part of their commitment to change and social justice.
“We’ll be there for the long term. In elections, you change things, ”said Unity’s Dooley.
The group recently joined Pennsylvania United. The umbrella organization, with loosely affiliated with the Democratic Party and organized labor, now has affiliates in seven Pennsylvania counties, including Allegheny, Beaver, Center, Crawford, Erie, Washington and Westmoreland. In total, the local chapters run 24 candidates for school authority and community races in four of these counties, including Westmoreland.
“We believe that by building power from the ground up, we can make long-term change,” said Sarah Skidmore, one of VOW’s directors.
She said the multicounty list of activists who set up local groups “puts people above politics and wants to be sure that everyone regardless of brown, black or white can make a living.”
“This list of candidates is committed to not taking corporate money and committed to a multicultural, cross-generational grassroots change,” said Skidmore. “We hold discussions, are present in the community and take care of our neighbors, no matter what they look like.”
In Westmoreland, her contestants include Dana Barvinchak William and Carrie McConnell Muniz in the Norwin School Board race. They demand more transparency in school operations, data-driven decisions and an emphasis on the well-being of the students.
Sara Deegan, a librarian from the Greensburg-Hempfield Area Library, is on the agenda in Greensburg. She wants to ensure that students in the Greensburg Salem school district have access to well-stocked libraries and art programs.
VOW also endorsed two candidates for Greensburg city council: Yukie King, a black and transgender woman who was once homeless, and data analyst Ceil Kessler. Their campaigns stressed the need to meet community needs in areas such as housing, transportation and health care.
Into the void
Lara Putnam, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh who tracks grassroots movements, said it was interesting to watch groups like VOW develop in areas where the Democratic Party is in decline.
“There is a pattern that we are seeing broadly at the national level that PA United could be a part of it,” Putnam said. “The groups that emerged and consolidated were not only in suburban, upscale Philadelphia frilled neighborhoods that were Democratic trending, but also in places where Democratic voting power has declined in recent years in southwest Pennsylvania .
“In some places, the groups that have banded together and endured for the past few years have joined PA United. You have dealt with network problems. They are not affiliated with the Democratic Party, but they are not at the center. ”
The topic of starting locally has a familiar sound to Kim Ward, the Hempfield Republican who becomes the first woman to serve as the Pennsylvania Senate majority leader.
Ward served on the Westmoreland County’s Republican Committee 29 years ago at the end of the Reagan Revolution. At the time, many rejected the former respiratory therapist, who stayed at home with three young sons, wife and mother.
“There were 148,000 Democrats and 52,000 Republicans,” Ward recalled.
Democrats held almost every elected position in the county for decades.
But Ward saw a way.
She persevered and persuaded the late publisher of the Tribune Review, Richard Scaife, a longtime figure in conservative circles at the national level, to make a contribution that enabled the local committee to open an office in an old shop in Greensburg.
“We had to be there,” said Ward. “We opened an office and occupied it. We went to events, picked out local candidates, knocked on doors, and talked to people. It was fun.
“Gov. (Tom) Ridge came in and did a fundraiser for us and we raised $ 50,000. We started attracting people, but we still couldn’t win anything. ”
In 1996 local GOP candidates won two township supervisor races. After that, the Republican victories piled up. The registration numbers also increased many times over and finally eclipsed the Democrats in 2019. And in 2008 Ward rose from committee member to community chairman to district commissioner and eventually senator.
Along the way, the Tea Party movement, launched in 2010 by national republican donors, helped fuel the development of local grassroots conservative activist groups.
Ironically, Trump’s continued influence on the GOP could be a factor keeping grassroots groups who supported President Biden active at the local level, said Allison Dagnes, a political scientist at Shippensburg University.
“One of the things I found interesting is that there is still a very Trump candidate on the Republican side who is vying for attention. You saw that in races in the national Senate and you saw that in votes, ”said Dagnes. “So when I look at the municipal races in an out-of-year election, when a church is still using Trump’s name to say that’s me, then I supported President Trump and didn’t believe in the (Biden) election fire back on that wing of the Republican Party. ”
Dagnes suspects that the GOP’s efforts in state legislatures to mobilize support for laws that would restrict access to ballot papers may also fuel the efforts of grassroots liberal groups.
The grassroots local groups on the left don’t seem to have the deep pockets that funded the Tea Party. Although backed by democratic lawmakers, they seem intent on being associated with issues rather than party politics.
Fuel the fight
Tracy Baton, of Pittsburgh’s Park Place neighborhood, is a social worker with a degree in community organizing who studied authoritarian government in South Africa as a Fulbright Fellow. She organized the first Pittsburgh Women’s March and is active in the Indivisible Movement, a collective of grassroots political organizations.
Last year, Indivisible gathered small groups of supporters for the Biden-Harris ticket and helped lead the Democrats to victory in Pennsylvania. This spring, in an effort to increase turnout in the low-turnout primaries, Baton said they are repeating some of the same themes that inspired the November turnout record. This includes demands for racial justice.
“We tell people that justice is on the ballot,” Baton said.
She has asked voters to find out about the 39 candidates running for judge in Allegheny County, and most importantly, to vote.
“If you’re interested in George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, you’ve got to vote,” Baton said.
On the spot, Putnam said the Covid-19 pandemic appears to be playing a role in some grassroots efforts as well. She noted that some of the key activists in VOW are current and retired health care workers who have linked up with work organizers.
They spoke out and advocated more testing and more justice in the vaccine. Putnam said the public health crisis was an issue that brought the pandemic to the fore of public discussion, along with questions about whether long-term care counts as an infrastructure and how society will value those who do the work.
And issues and not party politics, she said, are fueling grassroots efforts.
Deb Erdley is a contributor to Tribune Review. You can contact Deb at 724-850-1209, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter.