One-sided lawmaking won’t work

York Dispatch editorial board
28th Senate district candidate Dr. Judith McCormick Higgins, on left, and 93rd PA House rep. Mike Jones, on right, at the NAACP York Branch's candidates forum in York on Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022.

A political forum hosted this month by the York branch of the NAACP was an excellent opportunity for voters to hear from candidates of all parties in upcoming state and federal races.

Or, at least, it would have been had Republican candidates taken part.

But of the six races in which all candidates were invited, only one Republican, incumbent state Rep. Mike Jones, accepted the invitation.

That’s a disappointment and a disservice to voters but it’s also not much of a surprise. Rep. Jones’s appreciated participation aside, the forum reflected an ongoing tendency among Republicans not only in Pennsylvania but nationwide to interact only with organizations, events and individuals who overwhelmingly share their views and values.

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This may spare them the difficulty and discomfort of having to explain or defend their positions, but it dilutes political discourse and leaves them with a one-sided view of issues — not to mention a diminished understanding of fully half of their constituents.

Pennsylvania’s Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano could be the poster boy for this style of partisan one-sidedness. He limits his media interactions almost exclusively to fawning far-right outlets. And he doesn’t just refuse to talk with responsible media, he does his best to prevent the press from even attending many of his campaign events.

Republican candidates too often follow this playbook. Knowing they can reach their supporters through social media, or the reliable, right-wing airwaves of compliant conservative broadcasters, they largely ignore the general public.

How can a candidate effectively represent constituents they never engage with? It’s a question that should be asked not only of Mastriano but of all one-sided campaigners, as well as the five no-shows at the NAACP forum: U.S. Reps. Scott Perry and Lloyd Smucker, state Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, and state Reps. Dawn Keefer and Kate Klunk.

Third-party candidate Kristine Cousler-Womack, who’s challenging Jones for his seat representing the 93rd House District in York County, provided a more welcome definition of public service.

“My loyalty is to the constituents, and not just a certain select group of constituents, every constituent within my district,” she said at the NAACP forum. “(I)t’s not about my ego, it’s not about my beliefs or values, it’s about what the constituents want.”

And give Jones credit for acknowledging the trend of insular campaigning — and bucking it.

“I don’t get everything right. But those of you that may follow me on Facebook (know) I am at least accessible,” he said at the forum. “I at least respond. I’m at least here tonight. And I do my best to represent all of the people.”

That’s all we’re asking.

Smucker cracked the ice by reversing his 2020 policy and agreeing to debate his Democratic challenger this go around. That’s a start.

And as Klunk pointed out in an essay last summer co-written with Democratic colleague Rep. Dan Frankel, bipartisan achievement is possible. The pair highlighted a unanimously passed bill, since signed into law, that “increases the income cap and eliminates the asset cap for workers with disabilities who rely on medical assistance.”

Of course, they prefaced this success with a description of the “the brutal atmosphere of political discord” in Harrisburg that used the word “polarized” no less than four times.

Being responsive to constituents of all ideologies doesn’t require a lawmaker to change their positions or beliefs. But listening to varying points of view could provide a more comprehensive understanding of the ramifications of those positions and better inform those beliefs.

If lawmakers made a more conscious effort to, as Jones put it, “represent all of the people,” they might even begin to close — however slightly — entrenched partisan divides, making the atmosphere a little less brutal in Harrisburg. And everywhere else.