How a suburban Pa. school board race became a Trumpian battleground | Thursday Morning Coffee

A campaign mailer making the rounds of sleepy Camp Hill, Pa. is a microcosm of the broader culture wars shaping our politics 

October 14, 2021 7:22 am

A view of Willow Park in Camp Hill. Pa. (VisitPa).

(*This story was updated at 7:53 a.m. on Thursday, 10/14/21, to include comment from Republican Camp Hill school board candidate David La Torre)

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

The late U.S. House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill used to famously say that “all politics is local,” meaning that it was hard to impose a national framework on the often quirky world of local campaigns.

These days, thanks to the ubiquity of social media, cable news, and the rise of big money in politics that steers the conversation, the exact opposite appears to be true: Local campaigns have turned into microcosms of the arguments that we’re having at the national level.

Need proof? Look no further than an unsigned letter that landed in mailboxes across Camp Hill Borough, a picturesque community of some 7,911 people that’s a mile or two across the Susquehanna River from Harrisburg, last week (Full disclosure: I live in Camp Hill, and have a child in the local schools).

The anonymous letter, which is riddled with both spelling and factual errors, targets Democratic school board candidates Karen MallahJosceylon Buchs, and Melanie Gurgiolo, warning that their “election will do serious and permanent harm to our exception (sic), small and excellent school district due to their radical agenda they intend to jointly pursue if elected.”

It was sent to borough residents who have yard signs supporting Buchs and MallahGurgiolo told the Capital-Star that she is not using yard signs during the fall campaign cycle.

You can read some of the more extravagant claims below.

A section of the letter sent to voters in Camp Hill Borough (via Facebook)

If a lot of that sounds familiar, that’s because it should. The letter echoes talking points about critical race theory, the shameful legacy of slavery, and other dire talk about inclusion for transgender athletes that’s become a staple of conservative talk radio and cable television.

The claim about critical race theory, like the other assertions in the letter, is false.

Like every other K-12 school, Camp Hill does not teach critical race theory — a reality backed up by Superintendent Daniel Serfass who pointed that out in an online letter to parents over the summer. But that didn’t stop some local parents, led by attorney Marc Scaringi, a Trump loyalist, from trying to conflate CRT with a since-suspended equity council, FOX-43 reported.

In an email to the Capital-StarGurgiolo, a school board incumbent, said she’d spent her four years on the board “[working] hard to serve the students and community of Camp Hill rather than a political agenda, so I find this letter to be a collection of fear-mongering talking points that mischaracterizes both my candidacy and my record.”

She added that “while the letter implies that I have yard signs in the community, a resident of Camp Hill would know that this is not the case, so it is my hope that this anonymous and ill-informed correspondence came from outside our district.”

Reached for comment Wednesday, Mallah said: “To those of you who have my signs in your yard: thank you for your support. Some of you know me well; others have learned about my ideas, experience and hopes for service to our district by hearing, or reading, my own words.

“For anyone else who is interested, I invite you to do as this letter’s anonymous author says, in reference to his statements about me: ‘If you question this, please contact me and ask me specifically if I will either propose or support any of these changes in the school district.’ With that in mind, allow some time, I’m a talker and I look forward to meeting you,” Mallah concluded.

Buchs added that she was “deeply disappointed and saddened by the slanderous, grossly inaccurate, and divisive nature of the entire letter and of politics today. The only truth contained in the letter was the statement about ‘contact them and ask.’

“It’s easy, if we’re not taking the time to become informed, to make false assumptions, presumptions, and to listen to narratives that are completely inaccurate,” she continued.  “I hope that voters will be curious, to seek out information — from legitimate and credible sources — in order to inform their voting decisions.”

The anonymous letter also lit up a community Facebook site, with some local progressive pols taking to Twitter to voice their displeasure as well.

“A friend in Camp Hill just sent me this letter that was left at their house. I am horrified,” Colleen Gray Nguyenwho’s running for state House tweeted. “The homophobia, transphobia, and racism of the … GOP are on full display here. It also shows how critical school board elections are this year.”

Shanna Danielson, a former Democratic state Senate candidate from York County, and a veteran progressive activist, also jumped into the fray.

“Gone are the days of subtle fear mongering by republicans. Now they just straight-up lie and shout their racist, homophobic BS via letters on your door,” she tweeted.

One Republican school board aspirant, David La Torre, also denounced the letter.

“I condemn this hateful letter and the attack on three people who are willing to serve their community as volunteer elected officials,” La Torre wrote in a Facebook post. “Being on a school board is among the most noble endeavors a person can do for their community.

“If you wrote this, and you’re reading this — do me a favor and don’t vote for me,” he added.

The letter is vile. There’s no getting around that.

Its assertion that the district’s reputation will suffer by allowing transgender athletes to play on the team that corresponds with their gender is not only the worst kind of transphobia, it also defies science — which has not deterred some deeply conservative state lawmakers from trying to impose a ban. Thankfully, the bill appears to be going nowhere fast.

Already racist, the hateful rhetoric about the 1619 Project and disgusting clatter about critical race theory take on a particularly vile tone when you take into consideration that one of the candidates targeted in the anonymous mailer — Mallah — is Black.

Another excerpt of the letter sent to residents in Camp Hill, Pa. (via Facebook)

And Nguyen and Danielson aren’t wrong about what’s at stake in these so-called “off-year” races — the term itself does a grave disservice to the importance of these contests.

That’s because the all-volunteer, unpaid positions are hugely important. That’s not least because school board members make ground-level decisions about policy and curriculum matters that directly impact every part of students’ lives.

But of equal importance, for some ambitious pols, they’re also the farm league for the General Assembly and beyond. Thus ideological litmus tests of the variety unfolding in Camp Hill and elsewhere take on a critical importance.

These contests also are reflective of the demographic and political shifts taking place across suburbs and exurbs nationwide.

While it remains a Republican-stronghold, Cumberland County, which is home to Camp Hill, is getting more and more purple, presenting a promising long-term opportunity for Democrats, as the Capital-Star’s Nick Field reported back in June. And as PennLive reports, it is becoming ever more diverse.

Camp Hill, now a Blue oasis for Democrats, is in the vanguard of that shift, hence the intensity of this local-level fight.

Which means, unfortunately, that we’re going to be seeing more of this kind of racist and homophobic street-fighting as a dwindling number of ideologues try to defy both demographics and progress and cling to power however they can.

The borough’s voters — my neighbors — can decide on Election Day whether they want to repudiate it. The choice doesn’t seem that tough.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
First Lady Dr. Jill Biden visited Allentown on Wednesday, where she asked the region’s exploding Hispanic population to put their faith in her husband to deliver on his promisesCorrespondent Katherine Reinhard reports.

Black and Hispanic activists from the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia asked the bipartisan commission in charge of the decennial redrawing of Pennsylvania’s legislative maps to make sure their voices are heard and honoredCassie Miller reports.

Pennsylvania’s Democratic establishment has lined up behind Attorney General Josh Shapiro for governor in 2022. Will the commonwealth’s voters follow them? Reporting from Pittsburgh, Stephen Caruso takes up the question.

Nine months after the top Republican in the Pennsylvania state Senate vowed to make transparency a major priority in the Legislature, lawmakers are inching toward some lobbying reformMarley Parish reports.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health confirmed 5,012 new cases of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania on Wednesday, bringing the total number of cases to more than 1.49 million since the start of the pandemic, I report.

Penn State University President Eric Barron has announced that all employees at the University Park campus in Centre County, regardless of whether they work on a federal contract, must provide proof of vaccination by Dec. 8. The new policy also applies to those working remotely, Marley Parish reports.

A summit in Philadelphia addressed the link between gun violence and the environment, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

The Biden administration has named a Maryland environmental official to a key EPA post with oversight of Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic region, our sibling site, Maryland Matters, reports.

On our Commentary Page this morning, a Colorado State University scholar explains how Nobel winners made possible our current predictions of global warming and modern weather forecasting. And a ‘Truth and Healing Commission’ could help Native American communities traumatized by the government-run schools in Pennsylvania and elsewhere that tried to destroy their culture, a University of Montana scholar writes.

En la Estrella-CapitalConociendo a Jesús Rivera: De trabajador de almacén a dueño de negocio, por Q’Hubo NewsY ser profesor de inglés ya no es lo que era: los nuevos métodos y sus ventajas.

Photo by Getty Images

Speaking of school boards, Spotlight PA has its local guide to voting in these important elections (via the Inquirer).

The state has hit its 70 percent vaccination goal, the Post-Gazette reports. As we report above, however, cases and hospitalizations are still worryingly high.

PennLive has its guide to what you need to know about mail-in voting (You can read ours here.).

Lancaster County’s multiracial population increased during the last Census, LancasterOnline reports.

The PIAA Board has voted to shorten the length of preseason practices from 15 to 10 days, the Morning Call reports.

Wilkes-Barre’s recovery plans include $300 for qualifying households, the Citizens’ Voice reports.

In his ongoing corruption trial, federal prosecutors say Philadelphia Councilmember Bobby Henon ‘punished’ Verizon to aid a donorWHYY-FM reports.

WESA-FM delves into the reapportionment of Allegheny County’s council districts.

City & State Pa. profiles Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland.

Talking Points Memo reveals what it says are U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s, D-Ariz.‘secret policy demands.’

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:

What Goes On
10 a.m, 101 Walnut St., Harrisburg: The Pa. Dept. of Education holds a ground-breaking for a new library
11 a.m., Phoenixville, Pa.: House Democratic Policy Committee

Gov. Tom Wolf has no public schedule today.

You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept
Best wishes go out this morning to Tara Murtha at the Women’s Law Project, and to CBS-21 producer Christina Maisel, both of whom celebrate today. Congratulations, and enjoy the day.

Heavy Rotation
Here’s a tune from WILD that was recently shared with us. It’s ‘It Only Gets Better’ — surely a welcome message on any day.

Thursday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link
Toronto hung on for a 2-1 win over Montreal in an Original Six match-up for its season opener on Wednesday night. The ‘Leafs’ Jack Campbell made 31 saves on the way to the win.

And now you’re up to date.

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