The Democrats seeking to run against U.S. Rep. Scott Perry gathered for a forum at Widener University on Jan. 13, 2024. Left to Right: John Broadhurst, Rick Coplen, Shamaine Daniels, Bob Forbes, William Lillich, Blake Lynch, Mike O’Brien, and Janelle Stelson.(Capital-Star photo by John Cole)
HARRISBURG — For the first time this cycle, the eight Democratic candidates seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Scott Perry (R-York) in Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District met for a candidate forum.
“I think I’m safe to say, we all agree that Scott Perry must go,” Dauphin County Democratic Party Chair Rogette Harris said at the beginning of the two-hour long forum on Saturday.
The event was organized by the Dauphin County Democratic Party and the Hagir Network and included questions submitted inside the packed room of more than 200 people at Widener University Law School.
The eight candidates largely agreed on issues, including abortion rights, protecting voting rights, expanding the Affordable Care Act, and raising the minimum wage.
However, the candidates were divided over the ongoing Israel and Hamas war and whether they would support their party’s nominee for the 10th District in November. The candidates also took not-so-veiled shots at one another about residency in the district and how much time each has spent as a registered Democrat.
Rick Coplen, an Army veteran and Carlisle School Board member; Blake Lynch, a former WITF executive; Mike O’Brien, a retired Marine; and Janelle Stelson, a former longtime anchor at WGAL-TV, said that they would support the Democratic Party candidate in the race against Perry, whoever it is.
“This is bigger than you and me,” Stelson said. “This is about democracy, and we need a Democrat to get in there and take Scott Perry out.”
Candidate William Lillich, a disabled veteran and former truck driver, said he had not yet decided. “I’m not a loyalty pledge guy,” he said. And candidate Bob Forbes, a retired Army sergeant and educator in the Harrisburg School District, said it was “a little silly” to be asked if he would support the Democratic Party nominee since the primary election is still months away.
The candidates were also asked how long they’ve been registered Democrats, which highlighted some contrasts.
Shamaine Daniels, a Harrisburg City Councilwoman who was the party nominee against Perry in 2022 but lost by 7 points, said she’s been registered as a Democrat since she was 22 years old, when she was first eligible.
“I think what we need more are Democrats who not only talk the Democratic talk, but Democrats who walk the Democratic walk,” Daniels said.
John Broadhurst, a businessman, said he’s always been a Democrat, but voiced his concerns with the party.
“I’ve been a very frustrated Democrat over the years because I’ve seen the political landscape, the United States shift dramatically,” he said.
O’Brien said he registered as a Democrat at age 18, but became a registered Independent when he became a military officer, then re-registered as a Democrat when Trump was on the ballot in 2016.
Stelson said she was previously a registered Republican and changed her registration to Democrat last year.
“I registered in the party my parents were in, like many of you might have done before I really knew what the political landscape was about and that was Republican,” Stelson said. “That’s not really the Republican party like Republicans are today.”
She added that she has voted Democrat for years and said due to her role as a journalist and being non-partisan, she hadn’t prioritized changing her voting registration.
Lynch said he registered as a Democrat at 18, but changed parties when he was 26, “because like a lot of people, I was frustated.” But he added when Trump became the Republican nominee in 2016, he switched back to vote for Hillary Clinton.
Coplen, Daniels, Forbes, Lynch, and Lillich all touted their roots in the district.
“The same voters we’re trying to reach today in this forum soundly rejected outsiders like Oz and McCormick,” Forbes said. He referenced the two Republicans who sought to fill Pennsylvania’s open Senate seat in 2022. David McCormick is now running to take on U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa), and Mehmet Oz lost to John Fetterman in the 2022 general election.
“My constituents have asked me to deliver this group a message,” Forbes added. “Move here, live here, be our neighbor. But don’t ask to be our representative until you really are our neighbor.”
Broadhurst, who is from Delaware County, says he lives in New Cumberland now and said he doesn’t criticize someone for not being from the district.
O’Brien, who is from Montgomery County, says he currently is renting a one bedroom apartment in Susquehanna Township until his wife retires from the military in June, then they will be building a house in the district to raise their family.
“This is the first time in our life where we have the chance to choose where to live,” O’Brien said, mentioning that he recently retired from the Marines. “And this is where we choose to raise our kids and we’re extremely excited about doing that.”
“So we’re here to stay, win or lose,” O’Brien added.
Stelson currently lives in Lancaster County, which is a part of the 11th Congressional District.
“I currently live a few miles over the district line, but I would match my knowledge of this district after having done stories in every far flung corner,” Stelson said, adding that she’s lived in the district before and has lived in the area for the past 40 years.
When pressed if she plans to move into the district, since she currently doesn’t reside there, Stelson said “I look forward to what the future will bring.”
There was also some disagreement among the candidates when they asked if they would support a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.
Broadhurst said he supports a ceasefire, adding that he thinks the issue “could cost the Democrats the election,” citing voters of Arab descent and young voters who won’t support Biden and Democrats in the general election over their handling of the matter.
Lynch also voiced support for a ceasefire. “Ceasefire now. Absolutely,” he said. He added that Israel had a right to defend itself after the October 7 attack from Hamas, but said that a “ceasefire should take place at this time.”
O’Brien, who is Jewish, said there is “too much nuance” about the ongoing war. “I staunchly believe in Israel’s right to exist, and its right to defend itself against Hamas,” O’Brien said. “We’ve also agreed, we’ve all we can all grieve for the innocent civilians that have lost their lives.”
When asked if he’d agree to a ceasefire, O’Brien said “you’re minimizing the nuance by having that conversation.”
Stelson said that a ceasefire cannot be unilateral. “If you want a ceasefire, Hamas, give the hostages back including American hostages, and then we can talk,” she said, adding that she stands with Israel’s “right to decimate” Hamas. She also added that what is happening right now in the Middle East is “beyond heartbreaking.”
Coplen said it is an “extraordinarily difficult situation,” adding that Israel has an “absolute right to defend itself,” but that the Palestinian people “have a right to a land of their own.” He added that he believes Israel should follow the rules of war, but “they have unfortunately violated that.”
Daniels said Israel has a right to defend itself, but as an ally to Israel, remind them we cannot support them in a “conventional warfare in a heavily populated civilian urban centers such as Gaza.”
Lillich said that Hamas “must be annihilated, but not by carpet bombing cities.”
Forbes shared a different opinion from the other candidates, pointing to his experience serving in South Korea, believing that conflict could serve as a blueprint for the war between Israel and Hamas, saying American troops can assist in the situation.
“You put American heads there, they stop putting bombs in there, and we bring order back,” Forbes said.
Perry, a former Chair of the conservative Freedom House Caucus, is currently serving his sixth term in Congress.
“Today’s forum was simply a race to embrace the failed Biden policies that have left south central Pennsylvania families struggling, our southern border wide open, and our nation embarrassed and weakened on the global stage,” Matt Beynon, Perry campaign spokesman, said in an email to the Capital-Star. “The more they talk, the more out of touch they reveal their candidacies to be.”
The Democratic Campaign Committee placed Perry on its 2024 target list of incumbents to unseat, as they aim to flip the House back to a Democratic majority.
National ratings outlets have also taken note of the race potentially being more competitive than previously expected. The Cook Political Report shifted its ranking from likely Republican to lean Republican after Stelson entered the race. Inside Elections also changed its rating from likely Republican to lean Republican. It cited Stelson and O’Brien’s candidacies, and factored in that former President Donald Trump only won the current district boundaries by 51% in 2020 and that the 10th District “has been shifting towards Democrats.”
Perry’s role in Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election were also mentioned by the candidates as motivation for why they wanted to unseat him
Harris said Saturday’s forum was the first of several that will take place with the Democratic candidates seeking the office.
The Dauphin County Democratic Party is slated to meet on February 17 for its endorsement meeting, which is four days after the deadline for candidates to circulate and file nomination petitions.
The 10th Congressional district includes all of Dauphin County and parts of Cumberland and York Counties.
The Pennsylvania primary election is April 23.
Correction: This article was updated Jan. 15 at 8:01 p.m. to add that Blake Lynch had changed his registration from Democrat at one point.
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