A Grassroots Uprising in Amish Country Begins to Find Meaning in Politics

Read more of this story here from The Intercept by Ryan Grim.

The morning after the presidential election in November 2016, Annie Weaver, like millions around the country, was in a stupor.

“I remember coming to work that day and I stopped at the Wawa and I didn’t even make eye contact with people, because I couldn’t believe this was the world that we lived in,” she recalled.

An elementary school teacher in Chester County, Weaver, 52, had spent the fall watching the oafish Donald Trump stumble toward Election Day in a mix of horror and amusement, confident that the country at large, and particularly her community, would reject the man. “We’re such a Christian community, a community that looks out for each other, I thought, who values character way more than I guess a lot of people did,” said Weaver.

Sitting in church that weekend, she felt betrayed. The values being professed by the congregation were a lie. Looking around at her longtime friends and fellow parishioners, she wondered, how did you vote for him? After a lifetime of ministry, including missionary work in Japan, she left her church.

Weaver also looked inward, asking how she could have done so little in the face of a threat so grave. As soon as she learned about the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., she vowed to go — alone if she had to.

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Annie Weaver at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21, 2017

Photo: Courtesy of Annie Weaver

Packed in with the crowd in Washington, D.C., on January 21, Weaver carried a sign listing her motivations to march, first among them the children she teaches. She made a New Year’s resolution to herself that this next election would be different.

That pledge would eventually lead her to become a foot soldier, and then a lieutenant, in a grassroots army that is blending electoral politics and community organizing — a strategy that is paying surprising dividends both on the ground and at the ballot box. Local progressives have flipped myriad seats in deeply red strongholds, beat back a prison privatization effort, and seriously checked police brutality for the first time in the city’s history. And while Weaver could hardly name her district’s congressional candidates in 2016, this cycle she’s become an intimate participant in one of the most innovative Democratic House campaigns in the country — Jess King’s race for the 11th district.

King, a Mennonite, was born and raised in Leola, where Weaver’s husband now works in the Styrofoam cup factory. Her family found refuge in Lancaster around 12 generations ago, and for many there, little has changed: The Amish still ride in horse-and-buggies and eschew modern conveniences like electricity.

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is what might be called Trump Country. The region, rural and deeply religious, went solidly for Republicans in 2016, as it had consistently in years past.

Weaver had always been afraid to talk politics in New Holland, finding few likeminded souls. But Trump’s win galvanized a dormant streak of progressive values. As Weaver managed her own internal crisis, concerned local faith leaders, small-business owners, social workers, teachers, and students called an emergency meeting in nearby Lancaster City to think through how to react to the impending Trump presidency.

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The flyer for the first LSU meeting in November 2016.

Image: Courtesy of Jonathan Smucker

King was able to help the group reserve meeting space in the historic building out of which she ran her nonprofit. Several hundred people showed up for the meeting, a staggering turnout for the area. The next month, 400 people showed up — some 600 the month after. The congregants decided to formalize the energy into a new civic group, called Lancaster Stands Up.

They began meeting regularly to organize around assaults like the Muslim ban and the attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. They also began targeting the local elections coming up that November.

Weaver first encountered LSU after she saw on Facebook that it had organized a gathering in Lancaster Square to protest the Muslim ban. Two thousand people packed the square, making it one of the largest protests in Lancaster City history. LSU collected her contact information at the event. They also went the extra step — LSU organizer Julia Berkman-Hill called Weaver personally to get her more involved.

Weaver began going door to door in Lancaster City on behalf of a variety of causes that LSU had made its own. She rallied in defense of the Affordable Care Act and canvassed for a slate of Democratic candidates running for the Manheim Township school board.

Jess King (far right), a first-time Congressional candidate, canvasses with campaign volunteers in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania on Saturday, August 18, 2018. King, who lives in nearby Lancaster, is running for Congress in Pennsylvania's 11th District.(Michelle Gustafson for The Intercept)

Jess King, right, canvasses with campaign volunteers in Mount Joy, Penn., on Aug. 18, 2018.

Photo: Michelle Gustafson for The Intercept

In June, Jess King launched her bid for Congress and had to leave LSU, which legally must remain independent from the campaign. (That hasn’t stopped the state GOP from filing a complaint with the Federal Election Commission, accusing LSU and the King campaign of improper coordination.) In July, Christina Hartman, who ran for Congress in 2016, announced she’d be making another run for the seat. Despite underperforming Hillary Clinton — she won 42.9 percent to Clinton’s 47.5 in the district — she was quickly endorsed by the state party’s leaders, including former Gov. Ed Rendell, most of the congressional delegation, and other local politicos.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee invited Hartman — but not King — to Washington for a candidate training. Big money began to pour in. In December, Washington-based EMILY’s List, which backs pro-choice women, endorsed Hartman, driving more money her way and further entrenching her as the inevitable nominee

The contrast between the candidates was evident in the results of a questionnaire distributed as part of the LSU endorsement process. When asked, for instance, about her position on a controversial pipeline opposed by some community members, King responded: “Fracked gas pipelines threaten our land and water just so a few oil and gas executives can get a little richer. I stand in opposition to the construction of the Atlantic Sunrise pipeline.”

Hartman wouldn’t take a position, writing, “To be true to our heritage, we must make responsible land decisions while balancing the needs of our economy and I will work to make sure it grows in a sustainable way.”

Weaver thinks she probably voted for Hartman in 2016, but she can’t be sure. This time around, Hartman’s approach felt lacking. Weaver and her fellow LSUers voted overwhelmingly to endorse their former comrade.

A campaign button for Congressional candidate Jess King is seen on canvassing volunteer Liz Hollcraft in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania on Saturday, August 18, 2018. King, who lives in nearby Lancaster, is running for Congress in Pennsylvania's 11th District.(Michelle Gustafson for The Intercept)

Volunteer Liz Hollcraft wears a button in support of Jess King as they canvass in Mount Joy, Penn., on Aug. 18, 2018.

Photo: Michelle Gustafson for The Intercept

The King campaign is playing to win, but along the way, it’s making a broader impact — advancing progressive issues and aiding like-minded local candidates.

Last November, Democrats picked up seats all across the state, but the party did particularly well near King’s district. In Lancaster City, Democrats swept the council, winning all four seats with a historically diverse slate of relatively progressive candidates. The city, which is 30 percent Puerto Rican and host to many displaced by Hurricane Maria, also elected its first Puerto Rican member of the school board, Salina Almanzar. (The King campaign has a paid senior staffer specifically dedicated to organizing, registering, and turning out Latinos, who make up half of Lancaster’s population. Lancaster Stands Up recently brought on several bilingual canvassers.)

In Manheim Township, a historically conservative area where Weaver canvassed for LSU, Democrats won all 6 school board seats. Dianne Bates, a progressive millennial, won her Borough Council race in arch-conservative Millersville. Elizabethtown hadn’t had a Democrat on the town council since the 1970s, but last fall they elected an IBEW member, Bill Troutman.

In an email to supporters the day after the municipal elections, King noted that Washington was starting to notice. “There’s no doubt about it: we’re changing this country from the bottom-up. Last night, as Democrats won historic gains, POLITICO changed their rating of PA-16 from likely GOP to lean GOP. We can win this thing,” she vowed.

The energy being built around electoral organizing was soon channeled in a new direction when LSU organizer Michelle Hines noticed an item about the local prison in the paper. The county, it appeared, was preparing to outsource its prisoner re-entry program to the for-profit prison company Geo Group. For the last decade, a coalition of nonprofits had worked to find housing and jobs for inmates released from prison. But they would be shut out of the new profit-driven approach — depriving parolees of a wide array of support.

LSU reached out to Have A Heart for Persons in the Criminal Justice System, one of the key groups involved in prisoner re-entry. It was an unusual meeting of minds. “Their approach is they meet with the commissioners and judges and prison board, and organize people involved, and lobby them. Our approach is to kind of blow things up,” Hines said. “We decided to blend those approaches.”

In November, that “social base” was effectively rallied into a standing room-only crowd, which bombarded the Lancaster County prison board with objections. “The profit motive works wonders when it’s focused on mattresses, farm machinery, and investments,” Franz Herr, a volunteer with the coalition, is quoted as telling the board. “It oversteps its moral bounds when it becomes a tool for extracting profit from the servitude of human beings.” King was there too, personally calling out the board. Facing an unexpected amount of public pushback, the board shelved the plan.

To Jonathan Smucker, a co-founder of the group, the win represented more than a singular victory. “There’s a process of showing people that when we build our capacity to throw down in numbers and apply pressure, it can win, it can change things,” Smucker said. It shows people that action isn’t futile.

“One of the nuts we’re trying to crack here,” said Smucker, is “how do you build political power in an area like this, where people of color’s participation is not ornamental or tokenistic, but where people of color, like actually have a voice within that — but where the organization, if it’s district-wide, is going to be majority-white at the same time? That’s a hard thing to do.”

Lancaster’s segregated culture has given LSU ample opportunities to try, one of them arising this past June, when a video of police violence in Lancaster City went internationally viral. The incident happened after two local police officers gave contradictory orders to a young black man sitting on a curb — one told him to stick his legs straight out, the second told him to cross his ankles. When he complied with the latter, the former tased him without warning, all of it caught by a bystander on video.

LSU organized an emergency demonstration the next day on the steps of the old courthouse. The victim, Sean Williams, 27, watched from the side, “overwhelmed by the support,” as the local news put it.

“I appreciate it, everybody coming. I love Lancaster and I’m happy for everyone being here,” he said.

The mayor released a video of herself expressing concern over the incident, and the district attorney vowed to look into it. The issue of police brutality was hardly solved, but for the first time, it had been publicly checked.

“The way the Democratic Party has tended to run races is show up at reliable voters’ doors, and that means that the south end of the city has historically gotten neglected, and we want to be part of changing that,” Smucker said. (In classic Lancaster fashion, yes, Jonathan and GOP Rep. Lloyd Smucker are related.)

“We’re making sure that we’re elevating issues that don’t just matter to people in more affluent parts of town,” Smucker said. “And I think that any time a group does that, there’s some initial skepticism, which I think is deserved. But I think when you are not afraid of walking on eggshells … when you have some humility, and when you stick with it and you keep showing up, people take notice after a while. And I think that’s part of what happened with these two fights.”

Jess King, a first-time Congressional candidate, smiles with volunteer canvassers before heading out to help canvass door-to-door in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania on Saturday, August 18, 2018. King, who lives in nearby Lancaster, is running for Congress in Pennsylvania's 11th District.(Michelle Gustafson for The Intercept)

Jess King chats with volunteers before heading out to help canvass door-to-door in Mount Joy, Penn., on Aug. 18, 2018.

Photo: Michelle Gustafson for The Intercept

While most campaigns outsource their policy, communications, digital, and even field programs to Washington-based consultants, King is doing it in-house with local staff.

Smucker has been politically active since he was a high school student in the 1990s. He was one of the leading forces behind the anti-globalization protest known as A16 in 2000. He’s been an organizer ever since, and authored the book “Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals.

Becca Rast, King’s campaign manager, organized her high school to march against the Iraq War with help from Smucker, who at the time was the national field organizer for the War Resistedrs League. Rast’s teenage co-organizer, Nick Martin, is now the King campaign’s field director.

Rast and Smucker married and moved to Oakland, where Rast was a top organizer for 350.org, the cutting-edge environmental group that made opposing the Keystone XL pipeline a top priority.

But eventually, they felt the pull of home. “I have my values because I grew up here, and because my parents chose to raise me in a Mennonite church, and because I learned about inequality both in the U.S. and the world from growing up here. And when I left, a lot of people told me the place that I’m from could never be progressive, would always be conservative. And I let myself believe that a little bit. And then as I learned how to organize and what it meant to organize working people and make political change, I realized just how much deep potential there is here,” Rast said.

So they moved back to Lancaster in 2016 to prove them wrong. “I just really, deeply believe that the Democratic Party and progressive movements have written off places like this in the country and it’s a huge mistake, and that urban, small cities like Lancaster, Harrisburg have the potential to transform this country if we actually do organizing across class, race, and geographical lines.”

Martin came back too after years of social justice work, including organizing against mountaintop removal in West Virginia. Back in Lancaster, he became a leading organizer with Lancaster Against Pipelines before he starting as the regional field director for the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Rast, Smucker, and Martin were among the co-founders of Lancaster Stands Up. The fact that Martin and Rast have such a long history together, forms the basis of the Republican legal complaint that the campaign and LSU simply must be coordinating. But Smucker said LSU is set up to be independent on principle. “It’s not just legal compliance for me, there’s a principle involved too, of independent political power.”

“Becca, Nick, and I have a very aligned theory of change,” Smucker continued. “We knew [after Trump’s election] that we were going to have to build a protest movement and an electoral movement, but we knew that protest and active involvement in elections was not a familiar space for most of the base that we were going to be able to organize. And so we wanted to create what we called a civic face to it, using very familiar, values-based language, putting the name Lancaster in the thing, holding our first meeting where city council used to meet.”

Leaders of both the campaign and LSU separately argued that the way to break through in a place like Lancaster was to lead with strong, progressive values, but not get bogged down in lefty jargon. “There’s a lot of people out there across the political spectrum that are saying they’re going to vote for us that might not agree with us on every single issue, but are willing to make the commitment to do it because they believe that Jess is an honest person, or they like that she doesn’t take any corporate money, or they like that she holds town halls — just agree with her values. And sometimes they agree on her policy, too — like on ‘Medicare for All,’ that’s [supported] across the spectrum,” said Martin.

Both in Washington and around Pennsylvania, said Rast, party operatives are starting to notice. “We’re really running the best field operation in the state, and the most robust kind of community outreach program in general, and that’s acknowledged. People do see the work that we’re doing. I think there’s a lot of people who question if it’s the right investment. And I think just from day one, Jess and I have been clear that if we’re not going to be out there talking to people then why are we running this campaign?”

Volunteers gather to canvas for Jess King, a first-time candidate running for Congress in Pennsylvania's 11th District, at another volunteer's home in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania on Saturday, August 18, 2018. King, who lives in nearby Lancaster, is running as a progressive Democrat.(Michelle Gustafson for The Intercept)

Volunteers gather to canvass for Jess King at a volunteer’s home in Mount Joy, Penn., on Aug. 18, 2018.

Photo: Michelle Gustafson for The Intercept


The DCCC, Rast said, is intrigued by what’s happening. “I talk to them every once in a while just to update, but we’re not a priority. I’m happy to keep the door open, but we’re not going to let them change our strategy.”

Asked if the national party had counseled them before redistricting, Rast explained: “When we were in the old district [which leaned less Republican], they did give me some input and advice. At this point, they’re just fine with what we’re doing. They literally, they will say, ‘Well, our consultants wouldn’t work hard for you, so it makes sense that you’re doing the strategy that you’re doing,’ because they know that we’d be a low priority because we’re R+14” — meaning the district leans 14 points toward Republicans.

“There is a level of respect that it has been very interesting to see, this genuine: ‘Wow, you guys are really working hard and trying something new. We don’t necessarily believe that you can win,’ but there is a respect-the-trade kind of dynamic going on, which I appreciate,” Rast said.

Early this year, Weaver felt like she was ready to start organizing back in New Holland, and urged LSU to let her start canvassing there in the hopes of starting a branch — New Holland Stands Up. Berkman-Hill of LSU agreed: She knew of several other New Hollanders who’d shown a similar interest.

By March, Weaver and a handful of other locals were ready to host their own town hall, and they began blanketing the town of 5,000 with flyers. If nobody answered a door, she’d leave one behind — an act rooted in faith that at some tiny sliver of the population will pick it up, read it, and that it will matter.

When Weaver left a flyer in Zak Gregg’s screen door, he wasn’t home. But it was rescued from the elements by Gregg’s roommate, who left it on a table inside their row home. When Gregg got home from his woodworking job with Premier Custom-Built Cabinetry, he ignored it at first. But eventually, some words at the bottom of the leaflet caught his eye.

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A copy of the flyer Annie Weaver left inside Zak Gregg’s screen door.

Photo: Courtesy of Annie Weaver

“Where’s Lloyd?” It was a reference to the area’s congressional representative, King’s opponent, Republican Lloyd Smucker, who, the flyer explained, refuses to hold town halls.

The event, it said at the bottom, was being supported by Lancaster Stands Up, Keystone Progress, and Our Revolution.

The last group sounded familiar to Gregg, 20, who had voted for Sanders in the Pennsylvania primary and been disheartened by his loss. When a Google search confirmed that Bernie’s political revolution had come to New Holland, he broke down in tears.

Gregg was not in a good place. Raised nearby in a hard-edged, conservative, evangelical home, he had started to question, at around age 14 or 15, the world view with which he’d been raised. It started with who he called his “first real friend.”

“We connected over video games and about some of the books that we were reading and we had French class together, and then one day I just kinda figured it out. I’m like, Oh, she’s gay. And I had been raised to think that gay people are evil and shouldn’t even be considered human. And now I’m faced with, Well, I know [her], I care about her, she’s my friend, but I’m supposed to think that she’s bad? And it took a while, but I eventually got the point where I’m like, my thinking is just wrong. I can’t keep thinking this way. And then that just kind of led to everything else. Like, Oh, maybe immigrants aren’t the problem. Oh, maybe inner-city folk aren’t the problem. Maybe it’s the system that surrounds it.”

Alone in New Holland, bored and alienated at his cabinet-making shop, struggling to understand his place in the world, he could escape his old way of thinking, but hadn’t found a new community. “I was depressed and I had horrible, suicidal thoughts,” Gregg recalled. Like many young people before him who broke away from strictly religious and troubled homes, he found himself mired in crisis. He began to hate himself.

Through his tears, he studied the flyer Weaver had left. Then he read up on Rep. Lloyd Smucker. Nearly all of his political contributions, Gregg found, were coming from corporate PACs. He resolved to go to the April 10 town hall.

Some 50 people showed up that night — a startling turnout for a town of 5,000. Gregg marveled at the number of people in the room, calling it a community with the power to fight back. He took the microphone, laying out in detail how much corporate PAC money Smucker was taking, running through his top donors.

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Zak Gregg speaks at the first New Holland Stands Up meeting on April 10, 2018.

Photo: Courtesy of Annie Weaver

As a teacher, Weaver said, she was impressed. “He had done his homework.” As someone hoping the area could be turned around, she was deeply moved to see this son of Lancaster County taking action. “As soon as he stood up and started speaking, I wanted to cry,” Weaver said.

Berkman-Hill also met Gregg at that April town hall. “My first impression of him was that he cared very deeply about his community and knew things weren’t right, and that he had been searching for a place where he could make a meaningful difference,” she said. “And then he just kept showing up.”

Weaver talked Gregg into block-walking with her. The two made an odd political couple, the Clinton-backing resistance mom and the young Berner, but their diversity was a source of comfort. Weaver said that when Gregg and other young Sanders backers showed up to the town hall and saw older people like her there, it motivated them to know that they weren’t alone. “If they’d have passed me by on the street, they’d have said, ‘There goes a Trump supporter,’” said Weaver. (“That’s true,” Gregg confirmed.)

Weaver was blown away by Gregg’s ability to coax Trump supporters his way. Most of Gregg’s family and co-workers had been Trump supporters, and he had no problem understanding their mindset, knowing which buttons to press to provoke a shift of perspective. It helps that he looks the part, complete with the facial hair fashion often seen on the pilot of a horse and buggy — a thick beard that loops like a helmet strap. No mustache.

“Poverty in new Holland has grown substantially in the last eight years,” he told me. “How are people supposed to get by? And it’s like, I don’t blame people who voted for Trump. Most of the people that I work with at Premier, they voted for Trump, and they’re like, ‘I cannot vote for somebody who’s going to keep the status quo.’ Because our health care is terrible and our wages aren’t getting any better. So it’s like, might as well throw the first stone.”

His best way in, he said, is the issue of corporate money. King takes none, while Smucker is awash in it. No matter how many doors Weaver and Gregg knock on, they’ve been unable to find anybody who thinks it is a good thing for politicians to be financed by corporate wealth.

“Like my buddy Scott, he thinks Fox News is the greatest thing ever. Trump’s always right. And even he’s like, I can’t stand when politicians are corrupt,” Gregg said. He may not be able to shake Scott loose from Trump, he said, but Scott appreciates that Jess King doesn’t take corporate PAC money, and he’s comfortable with much of the rest of her platform. That King is a Democrat still may be too much of a hurdle for Scott, but Gregg is still optimistic. “We have way more in common than we have different. We’re all human beings. We’re trying to get by and we want to care for one another. Ninety nine percent of us want that.” Gregg added that despite the stereotype of the region’s inhabitants “clinging to their guns,” common sense gun reform is not controversial on doorsteps.

Health care is a dominant topic of conversation, and both Weaver and Gregg have found a ready audience for King’s solution: Just let everybody into Medicare, and make Medicare better.

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Gregg, left, and Weaver.

Photo: Courtesy of Annie Weaver


Gradually, Gregg began to open up to Weaver, Berkman-Hill, and others about his childhood and the dark thoughts he’d been having. They pushed him to get help and were there on many late nights when he needed somebody to talk to. He started therapy and channeled the darkness into his canvassing. “He is amazing at persuading people because he’s very empathetic, and he knows what it’s like to not feel like anyone is listening to you,” Berkman-Hill said.

Today, he feels good. Not every day, and not all the time, but he said that he can see his way past this moment. “If I hadn’t gone to that town hall, I might not be here today,” he told me. All because of a flyer left in a screen door.

Gregg helped organize another town hall in New Holland, this one on a Sunday in August for the Jess King campaign. It was part of a series of 11 she did that weekend in stark contrast her opponent’s refusal to meet publicly with constituents.

Gregg waited until after the event to approach King. “You don’t understand how important it is to me that you are running this campaign, and that you are creating a community that wants to help each other in their own town. That’s the reason I’m still here and in my own town,” he said. As Gregg told his story, King began to cry.

As far as Washington was concerned, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court re-drew congressional lines earlier this year, ruling that Republicans had unconstitutionally gerrymandered the state, the path to victory for the Democratic nominee in King’s district went from narrow to nearly foreclosed. The state as a whole became much more favorable to Democrats, but that was accomplished partly by taking blue areas out of King’s district and spreading them elsewhere. Reading, a Democratic town where King had been organizing, was sliced out, replaced by a stretch of rural countryside packed with traditionally conservative voters. The county where Weaver teaches, Chester, was cut out of King’s district, but her hometown in Lancaster County remained squarely in the new district.

One night in February, both King and Hartman were scheduled to appear before the Lancaster Democratic Party to make a closing argument for the endorsement. There was no sign of Hartman until just before the meeting began. She strode forward, face streaming with tears, and announced that she was withdrawing from the race. King was stunned.

But Hartman wasn’t finished running. Days later, she announced she was planting her stakes in the congressional district just to the west. One that was more favorable to Democrats.

UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 13: Christina Hartman, candidate for Pennsylvania's 16th Congressional district, is interviewed by CQ Roll Call at their D.C. office on October 13, 2017. (Photo by D.A. Banks/CQ Roll Call). (CQ Roll Call via AP Images)

Christina Hartman, photographed during an interview in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 13, 2017.

Photo: D.A. Banks/CQ Roll Call via AP


Some King supporters believed, not without justification, that an additional motivation for the hopscotch was at play: Hartman was looking to avoid a brewing upset in the primary. In the fourth quarter of 2017, King reported raising more money than Hartman. And it had been Hartman’s fundraising prowess that had earned her the party’s backing in the first place. King did it again in the first quarter of 2018. It was one thing to amass more grassroots support — that could be overcome by bombing the airwaves with ads. But to raise more money, too? Something was off.

It turned out that the party’s indifference to King worked to her advantage. King didn’t yet have a viral ad like Randy Bryce in Wisconsin or the loud support of any national progressive figures. Instead, she got a boost from an unlikely source: tech workers who are organizing around their opposition to some of the practices of their own companies.

On the day that King launched her campaign, Maciej Ceglowski, who had been organizing employees of major Silicon Valley companies, was in Lancaster to meet Jonathan Smucker, whose book on organizing he admired.

After ending up at King’s launch event, Ceglowski was inspired to try to do something to help her. He noticed that she had talent, vision, and grassroots support, but no deep-pocketed rolodex or institutional backing. So he organized a fundraiser, which netted her $20,000 to $30,000. He then went further, making King the first candidate on what became “The Great Slate” — a list of 10 candidates for whom Ceglowski has helped to raise some $2.1 million in contributions from small donors.

Hartman’s move, meanwhile, symbolized the opposing model of politics. Rather than being driven by community investment, her campaign grew so few real roots that it could literally box itself up and move to a different part of the state. Hartman, in her statement explaining it, said that the new voters were similar enough to the old ones. “I’ve always put the hardworking families of central Pennsylvania first — and in that way, nothing has changed,” Hartman said. “The old PA-16 and the new PA-10 are very similar — they’re filled with men, women, and children who deserve a stronger voice working for them in Washington.”

Without a network of volunteers or community support, Hartman had to rely primarily on paid canvassers to gather signatures to get on the ballot in her new district. The petitions were challenged, and nearly all of them appeared to be invalid. Hartman dropped out of the race before she could be disqualified.

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., speaks at a rally at Buchanan Park in Lancaster, Pa., Thursday, Sept. 4, 2008.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Then-Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Barack Obama, speaks at a rally at Buchanan Park in Lancaster, Pa., on Sept. 4, 2008.

Photo: Alex Brandon/AP


After winning the 2008 election, Barack Obama largely shut down his grassroots network of activists, and the party fell into a steep decline. But King, who took her daughter to three Obama rallies back in 2008, hasn’t forgotten his effective methods.

“We’ve taken real inspiration from the way Obama campaigned in a place like this, and across the country, to not write off places based on their PVI scores, but to actually talk to people, to be for things, to train volunteers to get involved so that you’re scaling up through people and not just being kind of a traditional establishment candidate, raising money, buying TV ads,” King told me after an event in Lancaster City.

“The last real field program here was Obama,” Rast told me separately. “It is underrated how important that was for changing our country, and for how he won, and how as a black man, he was able to win across the country, because he went to people with his values and he trained his organizers with their stories and his story, and we take a lot of inspiration from that because that persuasion is about opening the door to people and say, yeah, both parties have failed us. Our representative cares about Wall Street and not about us, even though he frames himself as a hometown boy. Like, what do you think about that? And people are willing to engage from that point.”

Since the party-backed candidate already declared the race so unwinnable as to not be worth running, if King can win in this deeply red district, the party will be forced to reckon with the novel way that she did it.

The day after the New Holland event that Gregg helped organize, King reflected in her office on how the strategic decision to run a field-driven campaign had yielded unanticipated benefits. “This is a place that he has found community and connections and it’s like, these aren’t the things that you forecast when you’re thinking about running a grassroots, field-driven campaign. It’s totally insane,” she said, shaking her head and recalling her exchange with Gregg. “One life at a time.”

The campaign runs something they call Jess Camp, which is consciously patterned after Camp Obama, a training ground for organizers. “I just have this vision, or this picture, of the muscle of civic engagement being exercised and strengthened as they go through that,” King said.

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Volunteers review scripts, talking points, and a copy of the canvassing turf map in Mount Joy, Penn., on Aug, 18, 2018.

Photo: Michelle Gustafson for The Intercept


The flexing of that muscle has the potential to redefine what’s possible for Democrats. For years, the party has treated its members as cattle to milk for donations and then herd to the polls come Election Day. Earlier this month, House Majority PAC, a super PAC linked with the DCCC, emailed out a survey to its members. Its money question, after asking if the voter wanted to see Democrats take over the House: “Do you know the best thing you can do is donate to organizations such as House Majority PAC?”

As her nearly million-dollar fundraising haul suggests, King doesn’t overlook the importance of a war chest, but she doesn’t tell supporters that giving is the most important thing they can do. Tapping voters for money is like fracking. Dig enough holes and you can squeeze out what you want. But the toxic approach leaves a desiccated land behind. The DCCC and its super PAC deal with that problem by buying new emails to replace the ones they churn through, until every hole’s been drilled. But that’s not a sustainable approach.

King’s treats supporters like a renewable resource instead, training volunteers in organizing and then giving them genuine responsibility. She said new volunteers have rarely gained that type of experience with other campaigns. “When I do block walks, canvasses with people and ask if anybody’s done this before, the most common answer — well, most people haven’t done it before — the people who say yes, the place where they did it was with Obama,” she said. “There are very few people that say, ‘Yeah, I got totally involved in the Clinton campaign,’ because there just wasn’t a field [program]. It was more of the traditional, D-triple-C, establishment campaign — and I know people canvassed and worked hard, but it wasn’t quite the same, and it definitely wasn’t doing persuasion, wasn’t trying to have more conversations across political registrations.”

Congressional candidate Jess King speaks with Mount Joy resident P. Sinclair-Bairos while out canvassing in Mount Joy, Pennsylvania on Saturday, August 18, 2018. King, who lives in nearby Lancaster, is running for Congress in Pennsylvania's 11th District.(Michelle Gustafson for The Intercept)

Jess King speaks with Mount Joy resident P. Sinclair-Bairos while canvassing.

Photo: Michelle Gustafson for The Intercept

King’s campaign is designed to be a vehicle for the stifled ambitions of the both talented, motivated people who haven’t left Lancaster County, and those who have returned after some time away. Nick Martin, the field director, told me they’ve used an “if you build it, they will come” model.

The misery of modern life, paradoxically, is a benefit to King’s campaign. People are finally starting to talk about “bullshit jobs” — the title of David Graeber’s new book that zeroes in on the soul-crushing monotony that makes up so much of our professional lives.

Rast said that particularly among retirees, who may be adrift after a life in the workforce, the campaign seems like more than just a volunteer opportunity. In a world devoid of meaning, by standing for something, King’s campaign has given supporters a way to find purpose in their lives.

“Every church that I was involved in, I was children’s ministry, I was youth leader, I was praise team,” Annie Weaver said. “Having left the church was really hard on me. And what I guess I’ve kind of discovered through all of this, is that this just kinda has become my new ministry.”

Before interviewing King in her campaign headquarters in August, I sat in on a meeting with the roughly 20 interns who had organized that weekend’s flurry of town halls. They went over what went right, what went wrong, mapped out the next weekend rush, and made plans to follow up with each of the 600 people who had come out.

“Some of them are 14, 15 years old, still in high school,” King told me afterward. “You never know what that’s going to yield, right? So the vision is that a political campaign is the fastest way to change regional politics, because it’s a container, and it’s a moment, and it’s a finite thing that people can wrap their heads around.”

Weaver does not have a bullshit job — but teachers in Pennsylvania are treated like shit, suffering daily indignities at the hands of a tea party-dominated state legislature that has done its best to undermine public schools and smear teachers as the real problem at the heart of an American education crisis.

Gregg, he said, enjoys making cabinets — for himself or for a friend, but not all day, everyday for the latest kitchen redesign in the latest McMansion carved into fading farmland.

Out on the campaign trail, Weaver also got to know a New Holland man whose wife is a local minister. He knew that Weaver had been divorced from her church since the election, and invited her over for a Bible study. After praying on it, she accepted the invitation.

She loved it, and on Thursday night, she went back again. “It’s a Mennonite church,” she told me laughing. “I didn’t see that one coming.”

This month, Gregg quit his job at Premier. On Wednesday, he started working full-time as a canvasser for Lancaster Stands Up.

“I like to think that we’re helping each other in a lot of ways — more than just what this was intended for,” Weaver said.

Top photo: Congressional candidate Jess King is photographed after canvassing in Mount Joy, Penn., on Aug. 18, 2018.

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