LANCASTER — The idea of a progressive movement in Lancaster seemed pretty far-fetched to Eliza Booth in 2016. This small Democratic city of about 59,000 — in the middle of a conservative county in southern Pennsylvania that includes Amish farm country — was hardly synonymous with liberal politics.
But driving home from work one day that year, Booth saw that Bernie Sanders had opened a field office here. She’d been following Sanders’ insurgent campaign and liked him. She pulled over to photograph her then-8-year-old son, an early adopter of her politics, outside the campaign office.
Sanders just "brought something out here,” said Booth, 42.
Sanders went on to carry Lancaster County in 2016, one of 30 he won even as he lost the Pennsylvania primary to Hillary Clinton. This time, he’s the Democratic front-runner, headed into the state’s April 28 primary with something he didn’t have before: a ready-made infrastructure of activists across the state that sprung out of places like Lancaster.
The momentum from 2016 has grown, fueled by anger over President Donald Trump and morphing into an organization called Lancaster Stands Up. The group now rivals the county’s Democratic Party in influence and size. Its rise mirrors similar movements around the state, most also founded by Sanders supporters, often in areas neglected by the party establishment. That network could wield tremendous influence in the primary — and in a general election with Sanders atop the ticket.
“Lancaster, as conservative as it is, there’s a lot of independents here and there’s a progressive streak now," said Booth, now an organizer for Lancaster Stands Up.
Booth said Sanders speaks to people here “who identify with the frustration of our broken political system. And he names a culprit of the 1%. He doesn’t do the left-vs.-right politics. People get turned off by that.”
Lancaster Stands Up membership voted to endorse Sanders on Tuesday, though that wasn’t a surprise. The Sanders campaign has close ties to the group. His national field director, Becca Rast, and deputy field director, Nick Martin, cofounded Lancaster Stands Up. Rast is married to Jonathan Smucker, another cofounder, who helped start Pennsylvania Stands Up, a larger network of progressive groups that includes Lancaster’s.
With Sanders emerging as the front-runner going into the March 3 Super Tuesday primaries, establishment Democrats are increasingly sounding the alarm about his prospects against Trump, and the impact his candidacy could have on down-ballot races in battleground districts.
But his so-called electability will also hinge on those places where Sanders inspired new political involvement in 2016. Activists awakened then have, from the time his campaign ended, been building their own power structures.
“I would estimate 80% of our base or more was not politically active prior to the 2016 election," Smucker said.
If Sanders and his supporters succeed in mobilizing new voters — something that hasn’t happened in the early primary contests so far — it could prove critical in Pennsylvania, a key swing state Trump won by less than 1%.
All but one county that Sanders won in the 2016 primary went on to vote for Trump in the general election, often by wide margins. Most of those areas were already conservative, but the overlap doesn’t surprise Rast.
“People were looking for a vision for the country that actually meets their needs and I think there are people who believed that Donald Trump would do that for them,” she said.
When Lancaster Stands Up started, the group tapped into the frustrations that helped get Trump elected, as well as some of the anger his win stoked. The city of Lancaster is about 40% Latino and 17% black. The surrounding county is more agricultural and mostly white. The region also has a high number of refugees, and a Mennonite community that has embraced them.
“Even among the conservative Mennonite community, there’s an antiwar, loving-your-neighbor sentiment,” said Zak Gregg, 22, a Stands Up organizer who grew up next to a farm in Leola before moving to New Holland.
Gregg, who supported Sanders in 2016, left the Democratic Party after begrudgingly voting for Clinton. Raised in an evangelical conservative household, he started challenging his beliefs when his best friend came out to him as gay in high school.
“I sort of had to pick my life or her," Gregg said. “I picked her.”
His political reawakening followed when he got a mailer for Jess King, a progressive Mennonite who ran unsuccessfully for Congress in Lancaster and York Counties in 2018. He saw she had Sanders’ endorsement. Sanders would later hold a huge rally for her in Lancaster.
“I looked at the flier,” Gregg recalled, "and I was just like: ‘Oh my God, the Revolution survived. And it made it to New Holland.’ ”
Mike Mikus, a Democratic political strategist based in Pittsburgh, said he’s encountered a kind of ultra-progressiveness in very Republican areas. “I think it’s people that are progressive and figure, ‘We’re not gonna win, so why not be true to our beliefs,’ ” he said.
But Mikus is unsure how far Sanders’ appeal will go in more rural areas. “I think there’s a lot of skepticism over whether or not some of the things he’s proposing are realistic,” said Mikus, who’s unaligned in the primary.
Lancaster Stands Up uses an unconventional approach to canvassing. Organizers don’t say they’re with a party, but rather that they’re looking for people frustrated by both parties.
“It’s counterintuitive to go to the door and say, ‘We’re not happy about the Democratic Party, but we hope you register as a Democrat,’ ” Smucker said “But that’s kind of what we’re doing — we say both parties have left us behind.”
That messaging hasn’t always gone over well, Smucker said. “Some local Democrats get mad at us for pointing out failures of the Democratic Party. But they shouldn’t be," Smucker said. “The Democratic Party has been bleeding out working-class voters for 40 years. … When we are organizing in these rural areas, a lot of people come to the door and Bernie Sanders is the only thing they like about the Democratic Party.”
Booth said she’s been accused of trying to destroy the local party: “I say, ‘No, no, no, we’re trying to make it better.’ ”
In Lancaster County, the party recently pushed out its chair. The newly installed leader, Diane Topakian, supports Sanders, but ideology had nothing to do with the change, she said. Topakian said the party is stronger when it works with progressive organizations.
“We are at that place in time, in history, now where there is a shift for sure, and that’s a good thing,” said Topakian, 66. “I think it’s important to have fresh ideas and I certainly — when I was that age, I certainly wanted a voice in politics, so I think we’ve gotta make room at the table.”
Lancaster County, Topakian proudly noted, ranks ninth in the state in the number of registered Democrats, even though it went for Trump in 2016 by 57% to 38%. Her organization won’t do much work on the presidential election until there’s a nominee.
But Lancaster Stands Up isn’t waiting, and that’s fine with her.