Kangaroo court. At least that’s what activists at the Pennsylvania House State Government Committee hearing were thinking in April 2018 as they watched committee chairman Daryl Metcalfe unexpectedly gut the gerrymander-reform bill on which they had worked so hard for over a year.
Since 2011, Pennsylvania has been one of the most gerrymandered states in the country. So rigged was its congressional map that the state Supreme Court stuck it down, and, after the legislature failed to pass a replacement, implemented a new one for the midterms. (The state-legislature districts, just as egregious, were left untouched.) After over a year of organizing across Pennsylvania, democracy reformers had fostered significant momentum for an independent redistricting commission to end gerrymandering for good.
They pressured the Pennsylvania Senate State Government Committee to hold hearings on the bill, and got a near-majority of state legislators to cosponsor it. Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf even signaled he would sign the bill. But State Representative Metcalfe called a House State Government Committee meeting with virtually no public notice, and, with his Republican allies, gutted it, thereby killing any possibility the bill could pass as introduced.
This brazen act came on the heels of a handful of committee members’ publicly announcing that they would file a “petition to discharge” to get the bill out of committee in an attempt to bypass Metcalfe (who openly said he would never bring the bill up for a hearing). Metcalfe then pulled the same maneuver (some lawmakers claimed to have had only 10 minutes’ warning before the amendment was discussed), to gut another gerrymandering-reform bill that had an additional petition to discharge behind it.
And with that, the movement to end Pennsylvanian gerrymandering before 2020 was all but dead.
As all eyes focus on high-profile midterm races, few focus on state elections, which can often fundamentally realign power within a state.
Metcalfe represents part of Butler County, a rural, conservative area about 20 miles north of Pittsburgh. Currently serving his 10th term in the statehouse, he proudly boasts about the title given to him by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s “No. 1 Conservative.” And conservative he is: He’s a strong proponent of natural-gas drilling, is anti-choice, anti-gay marriage, anti-union, and disavows regulation of firearms.
Moreover, to say Metcalfe is anti-immigration is an understatement. He has strong ties to the far-right Federation for American Immigration Reform, and his own website proclaims that he is a statewide leader on “ending the illegal alien invasion” (phrasing that remains on the site despite its ominous resonance with the language used by the man who murdered 11 Jews earlier this month in a Pittsburgh synagogue just 30 miles from Metcalfe’s district office).
Metcalfe’s conservative credentials are also bolstered by his work with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing outlet providing state lawmakers with corporate-sponsored model legislation, including “right to work” and voter-ID bills.
Metcalfe “is what the alt-right is,” explains Sean Kitchen, associate editor of the Pennsylvania muckraking website Raging Chicken Press. He is also one of the most powerful politicians in Harrisburg, and as chair of the aforementioned House State Government Committee oversees bills related to elections, immigration, and ethics.
“Metcalfe, as committee chair, controls everything—when the committee meets, what topics are discussed, and most importantly, if a bill will ever see the light of day,” explained Rabbi Michael Pollack, executive director of March on Harrisburg, a statewide nonpartisan democracy-reform group. (Full disclosure: I have served as an adviser to MoH.)
Earlier this year, a video went viral that showed Metcalfe bizarrely lambasting his colleague, Representative Matt Bradford, for touching him on the arm. “Look, I’m a heterosexual,” Metcalfe exclaimed. “I have a wife. I love my wife. I don’t like men, as you might. But stop touching me all the time.”
Many laughed at and ridiculed the video, but few grasped how dangerously powerful Metcalfe was.
Metcalfe often goes viral for his infamous, vitriolic outbursts. In September 2015, he held hearings on a bill to make English the official language of Pennsylvania, and he invited ProEnglish executive director Robert Vandervoort—whom the Southern Poverty Law Center has called a white supremacist—to testify.
Metcalfe later justified the invitation by arguing that Vandervoort was a “white nationalist,” not a white supremacist—implying there was a difference. The Daily Stormer, a notorious white-supremacist website, praised his comments.
Two years later, in the wake of the Charlottesville neo-Nazi attack, Stephen Miskin, the spokesman for Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, was asked about this incident and whether it should be grounds to remove Metcalfe as committee chairman. Miskin demurred. “It’s not like he’s constantly sharing that rhetoric,” he said. “I would not overstate what had happened.”
But for some who interact with Metcalfe, white nationalism is a key part of Metcalfe’s identity. “Without a doubt, without any hesitation,” Kitchen exclaimed when asked whether Metcalfe himself is a white nationalist. For State Representative Rabb, who sits on Metcalfe’s committee: “All indications are that he is a white supremacist.… if it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck.”
Metcalfe has also espoused Islamophobic and homophobic rhetoric over the last decade. In 2008, Metcalfe voted against and ultimately derailed a symbolic resolution in the statehouse to honor the 60th annual convention of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, an Islamic community in the United States. His reason? “The Muslims do not recognize Jesus Christ as God.” Metcalfe claimed his words were taken out of context, but soon thereafter, the White Christian Nation, a white-nationalist group, tried to give Metcalfe a “Christian National Soldier Award” for “standing up against the Islamic Muslims, illegal immigrates [sic] and gays that have taken over our country.” Metcalfe refused to accept the award and denounced the group, though he is reported to have taken a $500 campaign contribution from them.
A few years later, Metcalfe used a procedural maneuver to keep State Representative Brian Sims, Pennsylvania’s first elected openly gay state representative, from speaking about the Defense of Marriage Act. Why? According to Metcalfe, letting Sims speak would be “open rebellion against what the word of God has said.”
And after the mass shooting at Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, Metcalfe went viral again for intimating that the Parkland students were not from the school, but instead so-called “crisis actors.”
And the lines between inflammatory rhetoric and physical threats aren’t always clear to at least one of his colleagues. After Metcalfe gutted the gerrymandering-reform bill, he and Rabb got into a heated argument. The conversation concluded with Metcalfe explaining to Rabb, “We’d have a very different conversation on the street.”
“I don’t know how it could not be taken as a threat,” said Rabb, explaining that because he already saw Metcalfe as dangerous, and knows him to carry a gun to work, he felt the need to file a formal complaint. Rabb told The Nation that Republicans contacted him afterwards to thank him for speaking up against Metcalfe.
“I know for a fact that he is not liked within his caucus, especially among more moderate Republicans from Southeastern Pennsylvania,” recounted Kitchen, the editor. An anonymous Republican staffer agreed: “No one will go on the record, but the frustration with Metcalfe is palpable.”
So why does he still hold power?
Many believe that the reason the Pennsylvania Republican Party puts up with Metcalfe and his outbursts is because, like Donald Trump for the national Republicans, he proves to be a needed ally to pass conservative policies.
Turzai’s staffers “have to cover for Metcalfe because Metcalfe provides votes within the right-wing caucus that they wouldn’t get and need,” explains Kitchen. “That’s the only reason they tolerate Metcalfe, because he provides them votes.”
But partisanship at the expense of decency has proven costly. Metcalfe’s committee meetings are reportedly dysfunctional. “He will hold meetings where the maker of the bill is allowed to speak, but committee members, both Democrats and Republicans, are not allowed to ask the maker of the bill questions,” said Rabb, who further noted that no other committee has such a rule. Metcalfe also openly admitted to only considering Republican bills.
Rabb said other Republican committee chairs operate “honorably and civilly” and embrace “bipartisanship.” But Metcalfe “bullies moderate Republicans who believe in bipartisanship.”
While Metcalfe may only represent a section of Butler County, it is every Pennsylvanian who suffers from his antics, for he decides what gets through his committee. As stated, Metcalfe destroyed gerrymandering reform, despite wide bipartisan support (and the fact that his own constituents in Cranberry Township passed a resolution in favor of the reform). He also perpetually blocked a Republican gift-ban bill. (Pennsylvania is one of 10 states with no limits on gifts to state politicians, and this bill would have ended that practice.)
Unsurprisingly, Metcalfe has been downright antagonistic to Pennsylvanians who have advocated for these bills.
Rabbi Pollack and March on Harrisburg walked 105 miles from from Philadelphia to Harrisburg to raise awareness for these democracy bills (I also attended this event). Both before and after the march, they tried to get a meeting with the chairman, but “he refused to even acknowledge us,” explained Pollack. A sit-in inside and outside Metcalfe’s office, as well as in the State Government Committee hearing, also failed to prompt a meeting. Instead, Metcalfe had them all arrested. March on Harrisburg has tried numerous other times to get a meeting, but Metcalfe has responded, according to Pollack, by calling them “leftists,” “paid out-of-state protesters,” and “violent thugs.”
“He is a one-man show, not a representative, and Pennsylvania’s democracy is hurting because of it,” said the Rabbi.
But this November, Metcalfe is facing serious competition from an openly gay political neophyte, Daniel Smith. Smith, a 43-year-old bank manager, has focused heavily on local issues, such as easing traffic in the district, a problem many constituents believe Metcalfe has failed to address. While Metcalfe reportedly has tried to make Smith’s sexual orientation a campaign topic (most recently circulating a mailer featuring a photograph of Smith, who is legally married, with his husband, but printing the word “husband” in quotes beneath the picture), Smith has tried to bridge the political divide, canvassing both Democrats and Republicans.
Allegations of Metcalfe’s role as absentee representative have taken on new significance after the mass murder in the Pittsburgh synagogue. “Our leaders and lawmakers at the state and local levels must be prepared to take any action that will keep our communities safe,” Smith told The Nation. “That requires bringing resources and funding back to our district, which Mr. Metcalfe has gone on record as saying is not his responsibility.”
The challenger said it is “well documented” that Metcalfe doesn’t advocate on behalf of the communities in his district, “but would rather spend his time sowing discord and spewing hate speech that inspires the people who commit these atrocities.”
Smith joins a number of other insurgent candidates this year who have leveraged their opponents’ absenteeism and lack of constituent services. In New York, for example, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez used it effectively against her opponent, longtime incumbent Representative Joe Crowley. And J.D. Scholten, running against Iowa Congressman and vocal white supremacist Steve King, has also made it a point to highlight that Representative King spends more time attending foreign, racist rallies than tending to his district’s agricultural concerns.
And maybe Metcalfe has noticed. In late September, he actually brought a gift-ban bill to a vote. “He passed a gift ban out of committee right before his toughest election in 20 years just so he can say that he did it. But he knows it’s meaningless,” said an unimpressed Pollack, noting it came at the end of the legislative session and would never get a vote from the full House. “It’s a political theatrical trick to deceive voters so that he can continue to protect and maintain a culture of corruption.”
(Metcalfe’s office declined to comment for this story.)
It all sets up an interesting test in conservative Butler County to see whether disgust for an individual can break party allegiance in the age of Trump’s GOP.
No matter what happens in this race, Metcalfe’s antics in Pennsylvania serve as a reminder that, far from the White House, a right-wing, racist Republican Party has also breached the power structures in state governments. But perhaps even more importantly, it is a reminder that Americans must work harder to support state-level candidates that seek to oust such hate-filled politicians, and to eradicate their hate-filled politics.