Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

How one Philly-area Democrat is trying to break the political divide: Listening to Republicans

Deb Ciamacca, a Delaware County Democrat, hopes her listening tour is a small antidote to the malaise of polarization and tribalism infecting American life.

Deb Ciamacca, a Delaware County Democrat, pictured in September knocking on doors in Media. She lost a state House race last year and is considering another run.
Deb Ciamacca, a Delaware County Democrat, pictured in September knocking on doors in Media. She lost a state House race last year and is considering another run.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

On a breezy weekday afternoon this month, Deb Ciamacca parked her SUV outside the home of a 64-year-old woman along a leafy street in Media, Delaware County.

Neighbors’ lawn signs said “Keep Media Green” and touted Black Lives Matter. Ciamacca, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for the state House last year, and a friend walked up the driveway and approached the homeowner, a registered Republican, as she unloaded groceries from her trunk.

They asked her about the state of the country; she expressed support for President Joe Biden’s handling of the pandemic and decision to withdraw the military from Afghanistan.

On the surface, it was a fairly unremarkable scene: a politician going door-to-door.

Except that Ciamacca, a 63-year-old former teacher and Marine Corps veteran from Media, wasn’t canvassing for votes. The new legislative map required for decennial redistricting hasn’t been drawn yet, so Ciamacca doesn’t know what the district will look like next year. She isn’t even sure she’s running.

Her campaign-style stop was part of a different project: Since June, Ciamacca has been knocking on hundreds of doors to talk with Republicans and independents.

Ciamacca (pronounced see-uh-MA-ka) hopes her listening tour is a small antidote to the malaise of polarization and tribalism infecting American life. When asked to think about people who support the opposing candidate, about 80% of supporters of former President Donald Trump and of Biden told pollsters at Pew Research Center last fall that they have “fundamental disagreements on core American values and goals.”

Her conversations — 175 of them already — could also help Ciamacca and Pennsylvania Democrats in 2022 as they again try to take control of the GOP-led legislature. She’s largely seeking Republicans who voted for Biden but not other Democrats on the ballot.

“I don’t know how we get past this almost civil war-type thing going out there ... without doing something like this,” Ciamacca said. “When we go out and talk to people, we feel better. Because it’s too easy just to watch MSNBC and CNN or Fox News, and just, you know, rail against the system. And that’s not getting us anywhere.”

In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Democrats in Pennsylvania and across the country devoted a lot of energy to figuring out what went wrong in down-ballot races. The party’s majority in the U.S. House of Representatives whittled to the narrowest of margins. National Democratic groups targeted multiple state legislatures and didn’t flip a single chamber. Far from gaining the nine seats needed to take the Pennsylvania House, Democrats ended up losing three.

Republicans, by contrast, have largely avoided any comprehensive introspection after losing the presidency and control of the U.S. Senate, in part because Trump has retained his grip on the party and continues to deny his loss to Biden.

Ciamacca was seen as one of Pennsylvania Democrats’ best challengers last year.

She spent almost two decades teaching social studies at Conestoga High School in Chester County before retiring in 2019 to run for office.

A catalyst was the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Fla. After Trump proposed arming teachers in schools, Ciamacca wrote an essay in Time magazine trashing the plan under the headline “I Was a Marine. Now I’m a Teacher. Don’t Give Me a Gun.”

The piece went viral and Ciamacca — inspired, she says, by her students — left teaching and set her sights on the state House seat in the 168th District.

The district includes Media and Newtown Township, among other municipalities, and about 46% of voters there are registered Republicans, compared with 40% Democrats.

She ended up losing to GOP State Rep. Chris Quinn by about 900 votes out of roughly 44,000 cast. Biden carried the district by about 6,300 votes, according to data compiled by Every District, a Democratic data and elections company working with Ciamacca.

Beyond ballot-counting, said Nicole Hobbs, Every District’s cofounder and executive director, the group’s analysis homed in on Pennsylvania districts where Biden won but so did incumbent Republicans down the ballot. Every District also tried to identify voters who might have either split their tickets like that or who voted in the presidential election but left their ballot blank in lower-profile races, Hobbs said.

Of course, ballots are secret, so the group doesn’t know who voted for whom, but it uses demographic information and other data to make an educated guess.

In Ciamacca’s district, Every District developed a list of about 1,300 voters possibly worth talking to. Most were college-educated Republicans.

By connecting with some of these voters now, more than a year before the general election, Ciamacca hopes to learn whether Every District’s modeling could help her prospective campaign.

That’s how she ended up in the Republican woman’s driveway around lunchtime earlier this month.

Ciamacca spoke privately with the voter, who did not grant a reporter permission to listen or publicly identify her. But after they spoke, Ciamacca huddled with her friend Bill Clinton ― “the better Bill Clinton,” as she introduces him to voters — outside the SUV and jotted down a few takeaways from the conversation.

“We’re gonna get through this” was a common reply of the homeowner.

“She said that several times,” said Clinton, a 75-year-old Democratic activist and community organizer. “The other thing that she said was, ‘I think Biden’s doing a good job with very difficult issues around the mask mandate — you know, dealing with COVID.’”

Ciamacca said discussions with other voters on her listening tour have at times lasted 30 to 45 minutes. A Trump supporter, she said, “went on a 20-minute Fox News highlight reel” then pivoted into how she’d lost both of her kids to opioid overdoses.

Ciamacca said she told the woman she had relatives battling addiction to heroin. “We talked for another 20 minutes,” she recalled. “I don’t know if she’ll vote for me. But I made a connection with this woman.”

During her two-hour stretch in Media earlier this month, Ciamacca knocked on 10 doors. Only a few people answered.

A 34-year-old woman and registered Republican didn’t offer an opinion of Biden or politics generally, and said she was generally happy with things in the community.

Even that was instructive because she didn’t have a visceral negative reaction to Biden’s name. Most detractors don’t try to hide it, Ciamacca said. “When we’re talking to Republicans, the number-one thing I’ve heard is ‘I couldn’t take the chaos from Trump anymore,’” she said.

At another house, one with a “Hate Has no Home Here” sign out front, a 42-year-old who wasn’t affiliated with either major party answered the door wearing a mask.

It turned out that she had voted for Ciamacca last year. Her top concern, she said, was keeping her kids safe during the pandemic, adding that she’d been vaccinated against COVID-19.

When Ciamacca and Clinton asked about Biden, she said: “I don’t have time for politics right now.”

Not everyone is interested in talking. Ciamacca recalled how one 45-year-old man from Middletown Township remembered her as “the teacher” but then launched into a rant about the teaching of diversity and gender.

Ciamacca has faced some criticism from the left, too. After she told supporters about her interest in hearing from Republicans, Ciamacca said one sent her a note saying, “How dare you talk to people who have done all these horrible things.”

“And I said to her, ‘Look, I’m not changing my ideology,’” she said. “`I’m listening to people, and I’m trying to figure out where they’re coming from.’”