Building Blue Voters from the Ground Up
July 11, 2023. An outsider might think exurban Pike County, only 90 minutes from Manhattan, would be at least a purple county. But it’s actually deep red, with Republican-registered voters outnumbering Democrats 20,405 to 13,432, with about 6,700 Independents. And the red parts are deep red, with AR-15 toting members of the Rod of Iron Church flying in from Japan and Korea to attend a local Trump rally and regularly driving down the main street of the county seat in military vehicles.
But since the shock of the 2016 election, Delaware Valley Action (DVA), a member of Indivisible PA, has been rallying its 1,400 members in far northeast Pennsylvania for everything from canvassing to fighting local book bans and identifying liberal “Covid refugees” to register to vote in the county.
Now, like many other political groups in rural areas of the United States, DVA is focusing on long-term engagement
Delaware Valley Action
Community Action at Work: DVA Members participate in a community clean-up day
about local issues that affect voters across the political spectrum.
These include hunger, health care, the effects of a planned warehouse complex, and working to fund the area’s first community center that would welcome residents—and potential voters—of any political stripe. They have already seen their work start to bear fruit. For example, when presenters introduced the warehouse development issue, a number of individuals whose water quality might be negatively affected came for the first time to a DVA meeting and asked to become involved.
DVA began life as the Delaware Valley Democratic Club, but by mid-2017 rebranded itself to avoid confusion with the Pike County Democratic Committee. Its goal is to attract progressives unhappy with what they view as the party’s unfair treatment of Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election. Avoiding identification with the Democratic party also made DVA more welcoming to independents and voters who, says DVA co-founder and President Ed Gragert, “were not necessarily Democrats and included Republicans who didn’t like Trump.”
Gragert describes DVA's relationship with the local party as complementary. The party can do things DVA, as a 501C4, cannot, such as coordinate directly with campaigns. As a “C4,” DVA can honestly tell voters it is nonpartisan and focuses on education and advocacy for the good of the entire community, while still contributing time and money to campaigns as long as it doesn’t coordinate with them.
What we’re up against: Rod of Iron members in Milford, PA
Some of of DVA’s recent successes:
• Raising an estimated $50,000 with which it “literally flooded Pike County with information” for voters about how to register and to vote by mail
• Using a list of 17,000 recent property transactions from the county clerk’s office, sorting it by the former addresses of the purchasers, then sending the 6,000 who came from liberal areas letters encouraging them to register to vote in Pike County
• Obtaining a court order against local election officials who threw up obstacles to recent liberal arrivals registering to vote*
• Successfully organizing its volunteers to attend school board meetings to challenge right-wing demands for book bans. “We far outnumbered the other side, and the school board has never banned a single book,” says Gragert.
• Opening an office in Milford in the summer of 2022, when “we were inundated by people just walking by who said they had no idea there was an alternative” to the far-Right environment around them, according to Gragert.
But it is local, bipartisan issues that may hold the most recruitment promise. Gragert’s work with a local food pantry, for example, as well as opposing a major warehouse development have introduced him to many community members he might otherwise have never met. The planned community center (if DVA can raise money for the rent) might include a lending library, space for dance groups, and even a “free store” where residents can donate items they no longer need. Such work, along with general education efforts such as a DVA meeting during which a state police trooper described his work fighting local hate groups, leads folks to join in DVA's work, and even to working on local political campaigns.
Local issues such as hunger or housing, Gragert says, “are progressive issues” and a chance for DVA to explain how progressive candidates serve the community’s interests. Even if its members “don’t say a word” at a school board meeting, he says, their presence helps build a community that stands up to, and can defeat, the far right in Pike County.
* Pennsylvanians in other municipalities are welcome to contact Ed to learn from DVA's legal activities.