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Shooting leads to calls to close political divide

David Weissman
505-5431/@DispatchDavid

Local political leaders are reflecting on the current divide in America and searching for ways to create calmer discourse Wednesday, after a gunman opened fire on House Republicans practicing for a charity baseball game.

Director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll and Professor of Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College G. Terry Madonna leads a political discussion, 2016: Presidential Politics in the Nation and State, at Yorktowne Hotel in York City, Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016.

House GOP Whip Steve Scalise, of Louisiana, was among several people wounded at the baseball diamond Alexandria, Virginia. The alleged shooter is an Illinois man identified as James T. Hodgkinson, according to The Associated Press.

Rep. Jeff Duncan, of South Carolina, said he had just left the practice and encountered the apparent gunman in the parking lot before the shooting, the AP reported. The man calmly asked which party’s lawmakers were practicing, and Duncan told him they were the Republicans. The man thanked him.

Gunman who shot congressman had history of anti-GOP activity

Hodgkinson, who was shot and later died, volunteered for Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign, according to reports. The Vermont Democrat issued a statement condemning his supporter's actions.

"I am sickened by this despicable act," Sanders said in the statement. "Let me be as clear as I can. Violence of any kind is unacceptable in our society, and I condemn this action in the strongest possible terms."

Local reaction: G. Terry Madonna, a longtime political pollster at Franklin and Marshall College, said he's had concerns about the "deep polarization" and fragmentation of politics in America turning violent.

"You could see this coming," he said. "It doesn't strike me as out of the blue. It's a sad state of affairs."

Leading up to the most recent presidential election, Madonna told York County officials during a luncheon that Republican and Democratic voters are more divided than ever, pointing to a national poll that suggested 70 percent of voters in each party had an unfavorable view of voters from the other party.

"As pollsters, we're having trouble finding anything the two parties agree on," he said.

Gunman wounds GOP congressman, then killed by police

Alex Shorb, chairman of the York County Republican Committee, called the shooting "awful and unnecessary," also pointing to the polarization of political parties creating unrest.

"It's important for everybody to sit down and have civil conversations about politics, even in areas we disagree," he said. "It starts with listening."

Alex Shorb

Shorb added that social media has allowed people to exclusively see and read news stories that align with one's political beliefs, which is causing Americans to "lose some civil discourse in the middle."

Madonna agreed that social media has played a role in the "vitriol and hatred" being spewed between people of different political beliefs.

"It's going to take leaders in both parties decrying these excesses regardless of your party," he said.

Sen. Scott Wagner, R-Spring Garden Township, said he agrees that supporters of both parties need to find more common ground, and political leaders need to be loud and clear that violence is never acceptable.

State Sen. Scott Wagner. Dawn J. Sagert photo

"It's become a dangerous place," said Wagner, who added that he had met Scalise at a fundraiser last summer.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., echoed the others' thoughts in a statement.

"These acts of violence have no place in our society," he said. "Today, we stand in solidarity as Americans."

Leon Reed, who is a member of Indivisible Action, PA 4th District, said he thought the shooting was less about the political divide and more about the man's mental issues. He said the political divide probably did contribute to him "going over the top."

“I think it’s more of a comment on this guy than it is on our divide of the political system," he said.

Democratic Party of York County chairman Chad Baker, state Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York City, and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf were among those whom The York Dispatch attempted to contact but could not reach in time for this story.

Town hall: Madonna said, beyond political leaders, everyone needs to be aware that what one says and does matters. He pointed to what he called the "senseless" practice of people showing up to public town-hall meetings simply to shout at legislators.

"It makes no sense to me," he said. "The vitriol and rhetoric by supporters of both parties has been over the top."

U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, R-Dillsburg, is scheduled to hold a public town hall Saturday morning at Cumberland Valley High School. He issued a statement Wednesday morning informing everyone he and his staff were safe — he wasn't at the baseball practice — but his office could not immediately provide an update on whether the town hall will still be held or if additional security measures will be taken.

Rep. Scott Perry, R-Dillsburg, answers a question during his town-hall meeting Saturday, March 18, 2017, at Red Lion Area Junior High School. Amanda J. Cain photo

According to a release announcing the town hall, attendees must RSVP ahead of time and show ID in order to gain admittance.

Madonna said he doesn't believe Wednesday's shooting will do much to change the large political divide in the short run, but he added that millennials appear more open to differing opinions because they're not irretrievably linked to one party or the other.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.

Staff reporter Christopher Dornblaser contributed to this report.