Kelly Keegan said she felt “so sick” over Donald Trump’s presidency she joined her local Democratic Party and ran for town council in 2019, hoping that getting involved might help. Less than two years into her term and two months after Trump left the White House, the U.S. remains deeply politically divided.
But Keegan’s bimonthly meetings at the Forks Township municipal building in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley are another story.
“We really get along,” Keegan, a high school nurse, said of the town’s governing board. “I know that’s probably boring to hear, but I don’t sit around and look at the three Republicans and think to myself, ‘Ew, I’m just gonna disagree with them because they’re Republicans.’ … I look forward to what they have to say.”
The Forks Township Board of Supervisors has a 3-2 Republican majority, in a politically split town in the politically split bellwether Northampton County, which swung from voting for Barack Obama to Trump and back to Joe Biden.
That kind of divided terrain has the potential to make for tense local government. But Keegan and about a dozen local officials on split town councils across Pennsylvania said that when it comes to the daily business of running a town, Washington’s vitriol hasn’t trickled down to Main Street.
They may disagree on big issues like voting rights, abortion, and climate change. But in municipal buildings and on council Zoom screens, it’s business as usual. And business is cordial.
“Party affiliation is checked at the door,” said Linda Lavender Norris, the Republican president of Coatesville City Council in Chester County. “We don’t bring it in the room because whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, once you sit in the seat, you help everyone. You try to.”
Governing on one of Pennsylvania’s more than 2,000 municipal town councils is very different from federal, state, or even county politics. You’re sharing a smaller community with your constituents, where local government’s powers are limited. It’s pointless to get into an argument about gun control or immigration without any power over those issues, officials said. And it’s a waste of time when there are potholes to fill or a community center roof that needs repair.
“We have to stay engaged with what our constituents want,” said Laureen Pellegrino, a Democrat on the Nazareth Borough Board in Northampton County. She said the dividing line is how long you’ve lived in town, not your party: “We don’t have the luxury of forgetting where we came from because we’re still here. We’re here 100% of the time.”
Still, there’s something pleasantly surprising about people from opposing parties working together these days. The country is deeply polarized, and as both parties’ centers of gravity have moved away from each other, bipartisanship is increasingly rare. Nearly three-quarters of Republicans and Democrats believe the parties can’t agree on basic facts, according to a 2019 Pew Research study. And negative feelings about the opposing party worsened from 2016 to 2019.
Not a single Republican voted for Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill.
But a vote by the Bensalem Township Council this year to install lights on the girls’ softball field? That was unanimous. So was the Forks supervisors’ decision to buy a new fire truck. And in Coatesville, debate over how to reinvigorate the economically distressed city rarely falls along party lines.
“There’s a saying, ‘There’s no Democratic or Republican way to fill a pothole,’ ” said William Marble, a Stanford researcher who coauthored a 2019 study on polarization at the local level.
The study surveyed 1,000 residents each in eight metropolitan areas, and found few partisan divides on local issues. Those issues included topics you might expect to trigger ideological splits, like tax incentives for businesses. Decades of research show a majority of Americans have far more confidence in local government.
“It’s basically good for everyone if there are more residents, more tax dollars, more companies investing in the city,” Marble said. “And this kind of limits the scope of partisan disagreement.”
Local leaders say they do have to work to keep divisive issues out of meetings. Bensalem stays away from ceremonial resolutions such as backing a certain group or voicing a stance on a specific issue outside council’s purview.
“It can be hard but we try to avoid that,” said Joseph Knowles, part of the Republican majority on Bensalem’s 3-2 council in Bucks County. “We have state representatives and congressmen … and that’s what they should do.”
Debates over charter schools still divide local school boards. Environmental issues can be another sticking point. Prior to joining the Forks council, Keegan pushed for a plastic bag ban that some Republicans opposed.
Calls for police reform, reignited by the police killing of George Floyd last year, can also become partisan flashpoints. Shortly after Democrat Jesse Sloane was elected to Bensalem’s council, he wrote an op-ed with suggestions for how to improve race relations between police and residents, inspired in part by Floyd’s killing and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests.
A few weeks later, his colleagues admonished him in an executive session. “It was a four-hour meeting and three hours of which was spent attacking me for saying … ‘maybe we can be better,’ ” Sloane said.
It’s one of a number of smaller disagreements that arise, he said. There are jabs at Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf from Republican members. Things tend to heat up closer to election season.
The pandemic has forced some cash-strapped towns to lay off employees or cut costs in other ways. While local officials interviewed expressed some disagreement over the scope of Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus bill, no one questioned the need for aid their town stands to get.
“I personally did not agree with Gov. Wolf and the lockdown and the impact it had on small businesses,” said Tim Hughes, a Republican supervisor in Forks. “But we can’t do anything at a local level.”
Personal connections help keep the peace. In Forks, Hughes lives on the same block as John O’Neil, the Democratic chair of the board. It was O’Neil who suggested Hughes run. Another supervisor knows several of his colleagues’ children from coaching soccer.
“I know people think Democrats and Republicans are like the Hatfields and McCoys up here, but we’re really not,” O’Neil said. “I just wish more politicians further up the chain were more about the people. It would go a long way.”
In Coatesville, the largely Democratic city is governed by a town council with a 5-2 Democratic majority. But Norris, a Republican, is the council president.
“She does a good job,” said Donald Folks, one of the five Democrats. “If she didn’t, we’d vote her out. No one really thinks of Linda as a Republican.”
Folks said there’s little time for partisan squabbling given the city’s problems. There is no supermarket, no community center for kids, and only one bank in town. With a median household income of $34,716, according to census data, it’s the poorest city in the state’s wealthiest county.
“If somebody’s trying to turn this city around, I don’t care who it is. It can be Santa Claus,” Folks said. “We have bigger problems than party ID.”
Norris hopes it stays that way: “I don’t ever, by the grace of God, want to see our community politics resemble the national.”
There are more than 2,000 municipalities in Pennsylvania. This story highlighted just a few. We want to hear how your local government is functioning right now. Is there an issue dividing or uniting your town? Tell me about it: JTerruso@inquirer.com