The mid-term elections are more than a year away, and already four Democrats in Pennsylvania’s 16th Congressional district — long-held Republican territory — have entered into the running for Trump loyalist Rep. Lloyd Smucker’s seat. Since the election, the city has seen an upwell of support for progressive politics, and primary candidate Jess King is hoping to ride that energy all the way to Washington. King is a newcomer to electoral politics, but a veteran of community initiatives like Lancaster’s Coalition to Combat Poverty and the economic development non-profit Assets, where she’s served as executive director since 2010 and worked closely with the town’s small business community. In These Times spoke with King by phone about Bernie-to-Trump voters, her district’s sizable immigrant community and the future of the Democratic Party.
Kate Aronoff: You’re one of three Democrats (so far) running for Lloyd Smucker’s seat in a district that’s been held by Republicans since the 1940s. To start off, what’s going on in Pennsylvania’s 16th District?
Jess King: It’s a seat that’s winnable. We’re essentially becoming a swing district. Smucker is a one-term, freshman incumbent who has been voting with Trump 100 percent of the time. Even though there are a lot of Trump supporters from this community, there are a lot of people who aren’t. It really is an opportunity to take this seat for the first time in a long time.
Kate: Could you give readers who might not be familiar with Lancaster a sense for the community? What issues are people facing, and what’s your sense for what their top concerns are when going out to vote?
Jess: It’s a really diverse district, including Lancaster County and parts of Burks County and Chester County, as well. There are very working-class areas of those communities. The city of Reading, which is part of our district, was listed a couple of years ago as the poorest small city of its size, which is about 80,000 people. Lancaster is about 60,000 people.
One of the dynamics of these small cities in our region — something familiar to me in my work in economic development — is how concentrated poverty is. Poverty rates in these cities are actually much higher than in our bigger cities like Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.
Things have gotten much worse here over the last several decades, like in the rest of America. The idea that America is a land of opportunity isn’t actually working out for people who are seeking economic opportunity — the American Dream, essentially. That’s my fundamental, core reason for stepping into this race. Expanding economic opportunity is the kind of work I’ve done for 20 years.
Kate: There’s been a really specific image coming out of the 2016 election of the states that went for Trump. How would you contrast the 16th district from the narratives about what these parts of the country look like?
Jess: We’re about an hour west of Philadelphia by train, and a ton of people commute to Philly from Lancaster every day. Our train station is one of the busiest in the state. The New York Post just called Lancaster city “the new Brooklyn.” So, there is a sort of cosmopolitan nature.
But there’s also this whole rural, Amish and Mennonite culture happening here. It is a microcosm of America in so many ways. You have white, working-class families out in more rural areas, and a huge diversity of people of color. The community was just named by the BBC as America’s refugee capital. We resettle 20 times more refugees per capita than the rest country. So, there’s this massive diversity of people in a place that’s pictured, for a lot of people, as a kind of bucolic Amish and Mennonite farming community. It really does hold all of those things.
Kate: How are you thinking about the challenge of defending refugee communities from increasing attacks at the federal level while also trying to appeal to white, working-class voters who might support some of those policies?
Jess: A fundamental belief of our campaign is that we’re better off together. A lot of my work revolves around how we make an economy that works for all of us, so I think a lot about where it’s working and where it’s not, and what the opportunities there are. There’s so much richness and beauty in a diverse population and a diverse economy. The more that we’re welcoming and inclusive of that diversity, the stronger we are.
Lancaster is a model of that in a lot of ways. Look at how much benefit people who might not have born and raised in Lancaster are bringing to this place. The Lancaster Chamber of Commerce actually recently commissioned a study of the economic impact of Lancaster County’s foreign-born residents. It found that people who were born outside of the country and live here add more to the economy than they take from it. So, that narrative about building a bigger wall — not welcoming more people because they’re going to be taking things from Americans — is totally wrong.
Kate: Your work has focused a lot on small businesses and their role in economic development. These voters tend to get cast as more conservative, especially on fiscal issues. From your view, do you think these voters are unfriendly to a progressive agenda?
Jess: I believe in what business can do to transform communities. It’s a win-win. A lot of the platforms and the policies that we’re looking at are very much in-line with the long-term interests of many business owners. What I hear consistently in Lancaster county from a lot of business groups, boards and commissions that I’ve been part of is that companies need more investment in the workforce and in getting people prepared for the jobs that exist now and will exist here in the future. Part of the challenge is what we’ve seen in federal policy over the last thirty, forty years: this hollowing out of education, workforce development and preparation for careers. We need to do a certain amount of work as a country to invest in the preparedness of workers for businesses. Progressive policies aren’t at odds with giving Lancaster County businesses what they need to get ahead.
We can help make better connections between people who are seeking more economic opportunity and providing more education and support, and addressing the other gaps that are getting in people’s way, like transportation and childcare and affordable housing. I think there are going to be a lot of traditional Republican or conservative voters who won’t see fault with that, because they also see that as a huge need in our community. I’m excited to have this conversation and not stick to a left-right spectrum of liberal versus conservative.
I’m not a politician. I came into this because this is my mission in life — to try to help our community become stronger. I’ve been doing that through non-profit work and business and economic development for 20 years, and have seen that we keep running into the same walls. I’m stepping into this to ask how we can use federal policy to make our community stronger.
Kate: Small business owners are also used as a first line of defense for Republicans when they talk about the need to repeal Obamacare and to create a free market for healthcare. What is your sense of how receptive small business owners and other residents of the 16th district more generally might be to Medicare For All?
Jess: A wide variety of people here are being impacted personally because they have pre-existing conditions. Many were able to access health insurance for the first time through the ACA exchange and are at risk of that falling apart. So, you hear those personal stories from individuals. But also, when I talk to business owners, part of the challenge for them is inconsistency: not knowing what the rates are going to be next year, what the changes are going to be this next year, what they’re going to be able to afford and what their employees are going to be able to afford. When you look at single-payer systems in other developed countries that we can compare ourselves to, it’s actually good for business. Businesses can be clear about what to expect. I think people also see this as a common-sense issue, and that’s part of what’s shifting the narrative around moving toward extended Medicare or a single-payer system. What we have now is so expensive, so wasteful and leaving so many people behind. There’s a huge opportunity to be more efficient, more effective, cover more people and do more good.
The other thing that just drives me crazy about business and health insurance is that it can’t be a market-driven enterprise. I can’t choose which ambulance I’m going to call if there’s an emergency or between different providers based on the cost that they’re going to bill me for a certain procedure. They don’t publish that information and, in most cases, the providers don’t even know how much it costs. Every other developed country in the world has already gone the direction of single-payer and why we’re still holding out is a huge puzzle to me. I think a lot of small business owners feel the same way and are really frustrated by it.
Kate: You’re running in a party where that kind of thinking isn’t necessarily the norm. How much do you see your candidacy as a chance to influence the way the Democratic Party operates?
Jess: Lancaster is a microcosm of what we’re seeing across the country, of the Democratic establishment and more progressive populists figuring out what the future of the Democratic Party looks like. Part of where I feel a deep sense of freedom in this is that I’m not a career politician, so I’m coming at this from a sense of purpose, mission, impact and people first. What’s going to work for people in this district? What’s going to make their lives better? If that falls outside of the traditional party line, that’s okay. This needs to be about what moves us ahead instead of doing something because that’s the way that we’ve always done it or because that’s what the party thinks.
Kate: A big part of the opening for Democrats in the 16th seems to be rooted in Smucker backing Trump so loyally. But, do you see this as having anything to do with Bernie Sanders’s candidacy? Do you think that him running opened people up to some of these ideas?
Jess: Definitely. There was a huge engagement in the Lancaster County community in Bernie’s campaign last year, which was really exciting to see and be part of. Lancaster County went for Bernie and then for Trump, so there’s a lot of opportunity to win over people who aren’t voting along party lines. They’re not voting left to right, but top to bottom — for progressive versus establishment positions. That’s very true to the character of this place. This doesn’t need to be about left to right; it can about what’s needed now. That’s going to be a lot more about what’s going to work for people on the ground versus Washington insiders or big business or the 1 percent or the ultra-wealthy.
Lancaster County is working families and family farms that go back generations. There’s a lot of salt-of-the-earth folks from this place, and that’s my background, too. I’m coming from here. I know people who were long-time independents who switched their registration to Democrat to vote for Bernie in the primary last year because so much of what he talked about resonated with their beliefs and their value system. I think the fact that he wasn’t a typical politician — that he actually talked about the kind of things that mattered to people — really woke people up.
Kate Aronoff is a staff writer at The New Republic and author of Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet — And How We Fight Back. She is co-author of A Planet To Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal and co-editor of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism—American Style. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff.