Republican U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker has declined to participate in a forum with his Democratic challenger, Sarah Hammond. The forum was to be a partnership of LNP | LancasterOnline and the York Daily Record. The two-term incumbent, who by June 30 had raised nearly $1 million to defend his seat in the deeply red 11th Congressional District, explained why in an email seeking campaign donations: “I will not participate in forums hosted by LNP,” he wrote. “They are no longer a trusted news source for the readers of Lancaster County.”
Where even to begin?
Perhaps we should start in 2015, when 600 union-backed protesters showed up at the North Prince Street office of then-state Sen. Smucker to rally for a Marcellus Shale severance tax. Smucker came out to greet and speak to the protesters, undeterred by their numbers or their loud chants.
Or perhaps we should start in October 2016, when, in endorsing Smucker for Congress, we contrasted his style with that of the then-GOP presidential nominee, Donald Trump.
While “Trump is brash, vulgar, volatile and self-aggrandizing,” we wrote, “Smucker is thoughtful, even-tempered, respectful and serious.”
Or maybe in 2017, when we were so impressed by Smucker’s accessibility to his constituents that we actually urged U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey to take a page out of the freshman congressman’s book.
Smucker seemed happy enough to meet with the LNP | LancasterOnline Editorial Board in those days.
The board’s members have changed, but its commitment to advancing the interests of Lancaster County residents and the cause of government transparency and accountability have not.
Smucker seems to have changed, however.
The congressman seems now to prefer events that he and his aides can control and places where he can be certain he’ll be met by people with whom he agrees.
Even before a pandemic made gathering in crowds dangerous, Congressman Smucker conducted only telephone town halls, favoring them over in-person events for the general public where he might have faced tough, unfiltered questions.
In April 2018, he initially balked at participating in a forum with his Republican primary opponent, Chet Beiler. Smucker’s spokesman questioned the legitimacy of Beiler’s campaign and said “we do not believe participating in a debate would be the congressman’s best use of time.” Smucker ended up reconsidering, and the editorial board lauded his “willingness to do the right thing for those whose votes he seeks.”
In October of that year, LNP Media Group and its partners — Lancaster Chamber and Eastern Lancaster County School District — invited Smucker and his Democratic general election opponent, Jess King, to answer questions from high school students as part of an event called Democracy Day.
Smucker initially declined that invitation, too.
As LNP | LancasterOnline Executive Editor Tom Murse recounted in a column last Sunday, Smucker’s campaign claimed that the adult facilitators working with students to develop debate questions were too liberal.
“Seriously?! WTF,” the campaign thundered in an email to Democracy Day’s organizers. “You must be out of your minds. You seriously expect me to agree to participate in a debate one week before the election with this panel and these terms?”
Unbelievably, Smucker’s campaign had conducted background research on the seven adult facilitators, employing surveys, voter rolls and consumer data “shown to predict their party and preferences with a very high degree of accuracy.”
As Murse wrote last week, “In the end, Smucker showed up and took questions from the students. They benefited. Citizens benefited. Democracy benefited.”
It was, in fact, an inspiring and memorable day, as Lancaster County students from public, private and parochial high schools joined their home-schooled peers to talk about the issues of the day and formulate questions for candidates running for Congress.
But because Smucker couldn’t be sure the event’s facilitators would be friendly, he almost didn’t turn up.
News vs. opinion
Now it’s happening again, this time because he blames the LNP | LancasterOnline Editorial Board for being mean to him.
As Murse pointed out, Smucker conflates news reporting and opinion pieces.
But LNP | LancasterOnline news reporters cover the congressman with the same commitment to objectivity they bring to all of their coverage.
The news reporters are not part of the editorial board — the opinion and news departments are distinct entities.
The editorial board currently includes two respected members of the community: Bright Side Opportunities Center President and CEO Willonda McCloud and retired attorney Stephen Kraybill. Over the years, the board’s community members have been Republicans, Democrats, independents — the aim, always, is for there to be a mix of political sensibilities on the board.
The board members meet weekly (now virtually) to hammer out issues, calling things as they see them, not according to partisan politics.
So in November, the editorial board praised Smucker for joining other lawmakers in seeking the reinstatement of federal Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals. We wrote that we appreciated “Smucker’s willingness to support legislation that may not be universally popular but is pragmatic and humane.”
But we’ve also challenged him: to do more for Lancaster County’s diverse immigrant and refugee community; to support legislation aimed at strengthening our electoral security; to do more than just march in lockstep with Trump.
Therein, we guess, is the problem. This editorial board’s cardinal sin is that we’ve disagreed with Smucker, and expected more of the man who once stood on North Prince Street and met confidently with a crowd of protesters.
And now he’s essentially taking his anger out on his constituents, who deserve to see him and hear him answer questions at an impartially moderated forum held, in part, by the second-largest daily newspaper in Pennsylvania — this community newspaper.
LNP | LancasterOnline forums offer the best opportunity for candidates to respond directly to community-sourced questions without any editorial filter, via livestream. Why would any candidate reject that opportunity?
In this serious time
In the view of Lancaster’s Kerry H. Whiteside, who writes a letter to the editor in today’s Perspective section, refusing to face “even potential criticism, while trying to discredit its possible source by spreading falsehoods,” is a move out of the authoritarian playbook.
Whiteside should know: He wrote his letter as a citizen, but he’s also a professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College.
He called on Smucker “to engage honestly with your constituents — of every shade of opinion.”
Smucker’s refusal to take part in the forum drew differing views from letter writers. Because we relish lively civil discourse, we’re publishing today all the letters on the subject that we had received as of our production deadline.
This is our view: Given all that this nation is facing, this is not the time for an elected official to hide, to refuse to engage with the citizens he expects to vote for him.
As Murse wrote: “The disruption to American lives in 2020 has been breathtaking. A deadly pandemic. An economic collapse that’s left millions jobless and, in many cases, homeless. The killing of Black Americans by police. Businesses shuttered. Widespread citizen unrest. Russia’s attempts to undermine the election.
“Citizens of the largely rural 11th Congressional District, a significant number of whom rely on their community newspapers for impartial news and information, are worried about their health, their homes, their jobs.”
Wrote Murse: “They have questions. They deserve answers.”
They do indeed.
The forum still will be held — it’s slated for 6:30 p.m. Monday, Oct. 5. (It can be viewed on LancasterOnline.) Hammond will have the stage to herself.
And Smucker can comfort himself with the knowledge that he’s likely to win on Nov. 3, even if he fails to show up to the forum. But if his aim is to be a representative in the true meaning of the word, and not just a self-protecting career politician, that victory will be hollow.