LANCASTER COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA — Long before Election Day, young climate activists began gravitating to a positive force for change in Pennsylvania’s 11th congressional district. Jess King had won the Democratic nomination with a clear vision for how she would fight climate change and improve the lives of residents in Lancaster and southern York counties, a significant departure from previous Republican representatives.
King, head of an economic development nonprofit, pledged to fight for greater access to health care and a better education. She vowed to represent all residents, not just the privileged few. And, in a deep red district, she promised to make climate change a top priority.
Her principled stance against accepting corporate PAC money and donations from fossil fuel companies grabbed the attention of progressive activists across the country. Young people who have struggled to find jobs with living wages and who view climate change as perhaps the most pressing issue the world faces started coming to Lancaster.
King had the charisma and experience to wage a professional campaign, but it was young people — with their enthusiasm and large numbers — that lifted her campaign to a level where it could give the Republican incumbent, Rep. Lloyd Smucker, a run for his money. The end result is a political organizing model that will endure beyond this election cycle, even if Smucker escapes with a victory on Tuesday.
“We’re in it to win it and I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” Jeremy Seitz-Brown, field organizer with the Sunrise Movement, said in an interview with ThinkProgress. “This campaign has developed the capacity of volunteers all across the district. So it’s building power for the long term, no matter what happens.”
The Sunrise Movement, a campaign of young people formed in 2017 to make climate change an urgent policy priority for politicians and other policymakers, identified King as a candidate they needed to work tirelessly to get elected. For months, Sunrise Movement volunteers and fellows have been working in Lancaster to get young people involved in the midterm elections. So far, the group has knocked on the doors of more than 14,000 voters, called 75,000 voters, and registered 500 young people to vote in Pennsylvania’s 11th congressional district alone.
“We have an easy job organizing around Jess,” said Seitz-Brown, a lifelong Pennsylvanian who graduated in May with a degree in political science and Spanish from Swarthmore College. “Her clear environmental justice stances have been super helpful.”
As with so many other parts of the country, residents of Lancaster County have grown frustrated with their elected officials’ allegiance to corporations over ordinary people. It boiled over when politicians in the region — at the municipal, state, and federal levels — didn’t object to an Oklahoma-based company’s decision to build a natural gas pipeline through their yards and across their fields. Smucker was on the side of the pipeline developers.
Because their elected officials were on the opposing side, residents created a grassroots movement to oppose Williams Cos. Inc’s proposed Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline. King was among the members of Lancaster Against Pipelines, a group of residents who firmly believed building new natural gas pipeline was antithetical to action on climate change.
In October 2017, King stood in the right of way to block construction of the pipeline on Lancaster County property owned by a group of elderly nuns. The Adorers of the Blood of Christ’s plot of land includes a nursing home, their convent, and a field of corn plowed by a local farmer.
The Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline now runs straight through the sisters’ land. At the protest, 23 people were arrested on the sisters’ property — King chose not to get arrested — as part of a nonviolent civil disobedience campaign. The sisters did not participate in the protest but welcomed the efforts of other residents on their behalf.
“It’s building power for the long term, no matter what happens.”
Seitz-Brown believes King’s strong stance against Atlantic Sunrise is boosting her chances. In his door-to-door canvasing in the district, he has spoken with Republican residents who oppose the pipeline. “They’re concerned about the economic impacts and the health risks. It’s an issue that helps to build a bipartisan coalition,” Seitz-Brown said.
The pipeline opponents ultimately lost their battle against Atlantic Sunrise; in early October, federal regulators granted Williams Cos. permission to put the nearly $3 billion natural gas pipeline into service.
But Lancaster Against Pipelines proved a valuable tool for King’s campaign organization. At Millersville University in Lancaster County, Seitz-Brown said the Sunrise Movement used an anti-pipeline petition circulated on campus to draw support for King’s campaign.
With the help of the Sunrise Movement and anti-pipeline activists, King is running what is widely considered one of the most successful grassroots field campaigns not only in Pennsylvania, but the entire country.
In debates with Smucker, a President Trump loyalist, King has highlighted the hard work of young people. And she credits young people with her decision to make climate change a more substantial part of her campaign platform.
Over the summer, 60 young people volunteered for her campaign as interns. “What I heard from those folks is climate change was their No. 1 concern,” King said in an October 8 debate with Smucker.
At an October 26 campaign event in the city of Lancaster, King told the audience about the “tireless” and “fierce” advocates of the Sunrise Movement. The efforts of the campaign’s young people are “so beautiful and it keeps me going,” she said.
“The planet doesn’t have lobbyists. That’s up to us,” King emphasized, referring to the Sunrise Movement, members of Lancaster Against Pipelines, and other environmental advocates who have campaigned on her behalf. “If we win this seat, it reframes a whole lot of things in this country. But most importantly, it gives us a vote on pivotal things like climate policy.”
King understands that “we are in an environmental crisis in a way that we need to start changing polices that protect the environment and people who are being negatively affected by the damage to the environment as well as keeping a balance of allowing businesses to still function.”
That position appeals to some voters. “I believe she would strike a balance in that because she’s been a small business owner and has worked with people in creating small business her whole career,” Malinda Clatterbuck, a founding member of Lancaster Against Pipelines, said in an interview with ThinkProgress.
King’s roots in Lancaster County go back 12 generations. She graduated from Lancaster Mennonite High School in 1992 and attended Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, graduating in 1996. Smucker, the Republican incumbent, was born into an Amish family and graduated from Lancaster Mennonite High School in 1981.
“The planet doesn’t have lobbyists. That’s up to us.”
Pennsylvania’s newly redrawn 11th congressional district is rated solid Republican in almost every national and local poll. The district includes all of Lancaster County and southeastern York County, an area of the state Trump won by 26 percentage points in 2016.
But King’s message and the contributions of groups like the Sunrise Movement have made the race much closer than anyone expected. A new poll conducted by Susquehanna Polling and Research found King trailing Smucker by only four percentage points, 50-46 percent. Three percent of voters said they were undecided.
During his only term in office, Smucker has proven to be a reliable right-wing vote. He supports repealing the Affordable Care Act. He opposes the right of women to choose whether to have an abortion.
Smucker has received a 3 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters since taking office in January 2017. He has supported every bill in Congress designed to roll back environmental regulations. On the most relevant environmental issue in his district, he supported construction of the Atlantic Sunrise Pipeline.
Among the dozens of candidates it has endorsed across the country, King is one of the candidates “we’re most proud to endorse and campaign for,” said Stephen O’Hanlon, national field director for the Sunrise Movement and a Lancaster resident.
“Jess’ incredible success in Lancaster tells us a lot about politics today,” O’Hanlon told ThinkProgress. “The huge numbers of young people who’ve worked with her campaign and Sunrise in Lancaster show that young people are ready for candidates who will stand up to corporate lobbyists and fossil fuel CEOs and fight for our generation.”
Her campaign also shows that building a grassroots campaign focused on starting conversations with neighbors works, O’Hanlon emphasized, and that a progressive message can win, even in a traditionally Republican district.
Lancaster Against Pipelines’ Clatterbuck has observed that King, unlike many politicians, doesn’t talk down to voters, even if they don’t see eye to eye. “It’s her personality that draws people to her, even if they don’t always agree,” she said.
In her work for the King campaign, Clatterbuck said she’s spoken with dozens of residents in the district who traditionally vote Republican who said, “I’ve never voted for a Democrat before. But I’m fed up with the status quo; I’m voting for Jess King.”
Em Kroger, a freshman at Millersville University in Lancaster County, said she had worked on a political campaign in her home state of New Jersey in 2017 and wanted to stay active in college. As part of the Sunrise Movement, Kroger has knocked on doors in the 11th congressional to introduce residents to King’s ideas.
“I think I’ve convinced people that Jess is more of a person and not so much a politician,” Kroger told ThinkProgress after attending an event at Millersville University where environmental author and activist Bill McKibben praised the work of the young activists on behalf of King’s campaign.
Although she will be disappointed if King fails to pull off an upset victory on Tuesday, Kroger insisted she will not be discouraged. Based on her positive experiences with campaigns in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, Kroger also plans to stay politically active for the long-haul.
“That’s just more motivation to get me more involved,” Kroger said.