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Congressional candidates debate gun policy at forum

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On Monday, April 30, Delaware County United for Sensible Gun Policy held a forum at the college for candidates running in the 5th congressional district primaries on May 15th. The forum, which lasted about two and a half hours, was held to allow constituents to hear the candidates’ positions on topics such as gun lobbying, gun laws, and gun ownership.

There are currently eleven candidates running in the upcoming representative primary on May 15. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled in January that the old congressional map, created under the 2011 Pennsylvania Redistricting Act, was excessively gerrymandered. The Court released a new, non-partisan map on February 19. Delaware County, in which Swarthmore is located, was previously split between the 1st and 7th congressional districts but now lies in the 5th congressional district, according to the new map issued by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The incumbent representative for the 5th district is Republican Patrick Meehan, who announced that he would not seek reelection after the New York Times revealed that Meehan had paid out a sexual harassment settlement to a former staffer. Currently, ten candidates are running in the Democratic primary while Pearl Kim is running unopposed in the Republican primary. With the new congressional map, it is likely that Democrats will capture the 5th district seat in the November general election.

Candidates present at the forum were Mary Gay Scanlon, Lindy Li, Ashley Lunkenheimer, State Representative Margo Davidson, Rich Lazer, Mayor of Chester Thaddeus Kirkland, Molly Sheehan, Larry Arata, and State Representative Greg Vitali. Democratic candidate Theresa Wright and Republican candidate Pearl Kim did not attend. The forum was moderated by Reverend Peter Fredrichs and there were four forum panelists: John Linder, Movita Johnson-Harrell, Kiera Caldwell, and Swarthmore Professor of Political Science Tyrene White.

Over the course of the forum, nine questions were posed to the candidates regarding the influence of the NRA and gun lobbyists, gun violence, illegal gun sales, and gun suicide as a public health epidemic. Other questions included how candidates would approach bipartisanship, and what policies candidates would support in order to decrease the number of mass shootings.

During the forum, each candidate emphasized their strengths and areas of expertise.

Molly Sheehan, a postdoctoral fellow at UPenn repeatedly spoke about her determination in overturning Citizens United, the Supreme Court case that allows corporations to spend ‘soft money’ on political campaigns.

“When we talk about gun violence, we have to address corporate welfare and gun manufacturer lobbying,” Sheehan said. “If you elect me, I will fight not only to overturn Citizens United so that the type of power that the NRA has will be obsolete but also full public campaign financing so that every person has the same power over their elected officials”

Mary Gay Scanlon, an attorney and former Wallingford-Swarthmore school board president, spoke about her past experience with bipartisanship.

“We had a couple of Tea Party members on our school board and we had to work with folks to get things done. It’s about finding common points of interest,” Scanlon said. “My father and grandfathers were hunters and it wasn’t just they’re sons that they passed down those traditions to. I think that that experience with people who have handled guns gives me a point of intersection to speak with folks.”

Larry Arata also shared how his experience as a public school teacher affected his views on guns.

“I worked twenty years in software sales and took a pay cut to be a teacher,” Arata said. “I’ve had two of my students shot and this is something that I’ve seen upfront.”

The Delaware County Democratic Party has not endorsed a candidate in the primary. The Swarthmore College Democrats announced on April 26th that they would be backing Mary Gay Scanlon.

Cassandra Stone ’20, a Deputy Field Director for Scanlon, thought that the forum was a good opportunity to hear the positions of all of the candidates despite being set on who she would vote for.

“I think this forum definitely made me respect some candidates more––and others, less,” Stone wrote in an email to the Phoenix (the thoughts expressed are her own and not on behalf of the campaign). “I also found that many of the candidates got off topic from the specific question at hand and started talking too generally about gun policy or super PACs.”

While the forum was focused on gun policy, many candidates also discussed the large influence of money in politics and on campaign funding.

Arata took aim at former federal prosecutor Ashley Lunkenheimer because her campaign is backed by a super PAC. Lunkenheimer revealed to philly.com that her mother is a major funder of the super PAC, which is called Progress in PA-05.

“One person shouldn’t have control over millions of dollars and have the ability to contribute unlimited amounts to one candidate,” Arata said. “The person that has the wealthiest family and is able to set up a super-PAC to fund their daughter’s campaign should not have the greatest influence.”

Though the focus of the forum strayed occasionally, constituents were given an opportunity to hear candidates’ thoughts on guns and to learn more about the candidates’ platforms in a crowded race.

Brief: P.A. redistricting likely to amplify Swarthmore students’ voices in midterm election

in News/Regional News by

Under the 2011 Pennsylvania Congressional Redistricting Act, the Republican-majority Pa. General Assembly moved Swarthmore out of the 7th district, of which it had been a part for over 75 years, and into the 1st district, grouping it with reliably Democratic Philadelphia suburbs. Outside of a district so gerrymandered it has been nicknamed “Goofy Kicking Donald Duck,” the cutout of Swarthmore now outlines Goofy’s left arm, and at the neck of the peninsula-like shape that envelops the town, the 1st district is no wider than ½ mile.

According to Philly.com, the 7th district was 52.8 percent Democratic voters and 47.2 percent Republican before redistricting, while the new Congressional lines created a 51.8 percent Republican majority. Republican Patrick Meehan has represented the district since 2011, but will not be running for the 2018 midterm elections. The New York Times reported on Jan. 20 that Meehan used taxpayer dollars to fund a sexual assault settlement with a former aide he called his “soulmate.”

On Jan. 22, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued an order stating that the Congressional district lines drawn in 2011 “clearly, plainly and palpably” violate the state constitution. The decision was made on the “sole basis” of the state constitution instead of relying on the national Constitution, as did recent gerrymandering cases concerning Wisconsin and North Carolina. On Feb. 5, Justice Samuel A. Alito rejected GOP lawmakers’ appeal to the Supreme Court for review of the decision.

The General Assembly is scheduled to submit the new congressional map to Governor Wolf on Friday. The court decision stipulates that it will create a redistricting plan itself–an unprecedented move–unless Wolf approves the plan by Feb. 15. Based on Swarthmore’s historical inclusion in the 7th district as well as the tenuously incongruous shape of the map around the Swarthmore area, the new map is likely to re-incorporate the town of Swarthmore into the 7th district. Pa. is one of the few states in which Congressmen can run for office outside of their district of residence, the district will be more competitive than it has been in years as candidates contend to fill incumbent House member Republican Patrick Meehan’s soon-to-be-vacant seat. This all comes at a critical time, when Democrats seek to flip 24 Republican seats in order to win back the House under Trump. There are 18 congressional districts in Pennsylvania, 13 of which are currently held by Republicans; according to reports from The New York Times, a more nonpartisan map would make three of these seats likely to swing Democratic. Adding to the chaos is the vacancy of Bob Brady’s seat, a House Democrat who has represented the 1st district since 1998. His retirement, announced on Jan. 31, followed the release of court documents from a still-ongoing F.B.I. investigation in November 2017 concerning a $90,000 payment Brady made to one of his opponents during his 2012 campaign.

In addition, for the first year in many years, the competitive primary falls during finals, so registered Swarthmore students will be able to vote in the primary without having to request absentee ballots. As the Phoenix reported on Nov. 16, Swarthmore student turnout had a major role in the results of local elections, when two Democrats were elected to the Delaware County Council, which had not had Democratic members for over 30 years.

“In Pennsylvania as a college student, our vote probably matters more than nearly anywhere else in the country,” Ben Stern ’20, president of the Swarthmore College Democrats, said. “Especially in 2018, because we have a vulnerable governor and a senator and new highly contested Congressional elections.”

The Phoenix will follow-up with news following the expected release of a new map on Feb. 15.

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