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Fighting the Good, Incremental Fight

Carbon County Democratic Committee

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Tina Henninger, the first woman chairperson of the Carbon County Democratic Committee, knows she isn’t going to flip her county blue any time soon. Democrats make up only about 20 percent of its voter base. And in the run-up to the 2024 election, the threat of MAGA intimidation is as bad or worse than it’s ever been, with Democrats and progressives afraid to identify as such, much less run for office. During the 2020 midterms, destruction of Democratic yard signs was so bad one Democrat put up barbed wire around hers, reporting that “my husband, who leaves for work at 5:30 AM…was afraid he was going to be shot.”

But Tina, a 25-year nursing veteran who now runs a wine-tasting shop in Lehighton (pop. 5,248) is undeterred. By boosting Democratic turnout three percent last fall, she reports, the county party helped to secure Congresswoman Rep. Susan Wild’s reelection in PA-07. And while only four people may have shown up to the first CCDC-sponsored “Lively Liberals” meeting in May of this year, by July, that number had grown to 35. Henniger believes the increase is due to politically-aware publicity: “I didn’t want to market our meetings as Democratic events because a lot of people in my area don’t want to identify as a Democrat,” she explains. “The more generic ‘liberal’ label lets people get to know us.”

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Carbon County Democratic Chair Tina Henniger

More outsiders moving into the county from urban and liberal areas, such as nearby Lehigh Valley, New York, and New Jersey to work from home in a less expensive, more scenic area is another hopeful sign for Carbon County progressives. This in-migration is “thinning out the red a little more,” Henniger says. The CCDM follows the “no county left behind” approach taken by John Fetterman in his successful Senate race last year: Contest every vote in every county to reduce, if not eliminate, the MAGA edge in rural districts. CCDM is also one of a number of effective activist groups finding creative ways to rejuvenate rural county parties, and to work around the often toxic “Democratic” label.

Building for the Future

Like many others, Tina first became politically active during the 2016 Presidential campaign, after which she was invited to join the Democratic county committee. She found it, as is often the case in

deep red areas, in need of rejuvenation. Since June 2022, she has been the county chairperson, putting her considerable energy and organizing efforts into rebuilding party membership and activism in nearby areas such as Jim Thorpe. The committee has also become more active on social media, “which helps in bringing in new and younger people,” she says.

Between COVID and spread-out rural homes, “door knocking is just not practical,” she acknowledges. So the CCDC offers other ways for volunteers to get involved, such as postcarding and texting. CCDC is also creating an infrastructure for texting which local candidates can use, paying only for the texts they send. Her special assistant Beth Hurley Is working with Mariana Chavarriaga, an intern from partner organization MAFlipPA, to reach out to Latino voters, who have grown from two to four percent of the county since 2010. The vast majority of these voters are under 30, which makes them “fabulous” prospects to become Democratic voters, and future party leaders,” she says.

While some county parties ossify over the years when an entrenched clique (or a single individual) holds onto power, Tina pledges “one term and done” as the county chair, hoping to leave with the tools and processes in place for future CCDC leaders can build on. To that end, CCDC is creating a framework, including Gantt charts and lists of requirements, that future first-time candidates can use to organize their campaigns. The committee’s biggest current challenge is raising $5,000 for basics such as yard signs for this fall’s statewide judicial races.

The June 2022 Supreme Court decision overturning a woman’s right to an abortion “is one of the biggest motivators” drawing voters, especially women, to the Democratic side, she says. “Even deep red women are saying ‘You’re not doing this to me or my daughter or my granddaughter.’” Hoping to tap the pro-choice energy they’re seeing in Carbon County, the committee just placed an order for choice-oriented yard signs in yellow, rather than in more typical Democratic colors, because “up here Democrat is a dirty word.”

Tina is reconciled to playing the long game in rural Pennsylvania. “We’re basically 20 years behind the times,” she says, even though the abortion issue has moved “a lot of Democrats, and women and younger people” to action. “I’m old enough to remember when if a woman wanted to have a credit card, it had to be in her husband’s name. Enough of us remember what it was like. We don’t want to see that again,” Henniger urges.

 

In rural areas like Carbon County, changing minds and policies “might just take a little longer.” But Tina and her fellow CCDC members are ready eager for the challenge!

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