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Lehigh County

League of Women Voters and Lehigh County GOP host dueling candidate workshops

Schweyer vs. Labenberg debate
Sarah Mueller
/
LehighValleyNew.com
The League of Women Voters is known for compiling voter guides and hosting forums, like this 2022 debate between Peter Schweyer, D-Allentown, and Brent Labenberg, R-Emmaus, for the 134th state House seat.

UPPER SAUCON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — For the 10th time in 20 years, the League of Women's Voters of Lehigh County will host a workshop Saturday that's designed to teach potential political candidates how to run for local office.

But for the first time, it'll have competition.

The Lehigh County Republican Committee will host its own candidate workshop at the same time. Both candidate boot camps are advertised as non-partisan, though the committee's flyer notes its workshop is being run by the Leadership Institute, a Virginia non-profit that says its been "training conservatives since 1979."

  • The League of Women Voters of Lehigh County is hosting its biennial candidate workshop Saturday
  • Lehigh County Republicans are holding a competing event scheduled at the same time
  • Tensions between the league's national chapter and the Republican Party have spilled into public view

The dueling workshops come as the league nationally has become more vocal about calling out what it views as attacks on democracy. At the same time, Republicans have increasingly taken aim at the league, claiming its actions and advocacy don't match its reputation for non-partisanship.

An introduction to campaigning

Mary Erdman, president of the league's Lehigh County chapter, said their workshop is intended to help potential political candidates of all parties prepare to run for office. Many first-time candidates have no experience in campaigns or politics, and the workshop is designed to teach them about everything from necessary paperwork to organizing volunteers. The league provides attendees with a guidebook nearly 100 pages long that's been developed over the last 20 years. A ticket for the event costs $41.95.

"When they come to this workshop, we give them everything from soup to nuts," Erdman said.

The half-day event has always been bipartisan, she said. 2021's speakers included the the two chairs of Lehigh County's two political committees. This year's keynote speaker is former U.S. Senate candidate Malcolm Kenyatta, a Philadelphia Democrat. Erdman said the league intends to have a Republican keynote speaker in 2025.

"We have representatives from each party. It’s only fair they be upfront to [the candidates] and have the party explain how it will help them," she said.

As of Friday morning, Erdman said about two dozen people have registered for the workshop, short of the 35 to 40 who usually RSVP. She believes the numbers are down due to the Republican committee's Campaign Management Workshop.

Joe Vichot, the chair of the Republican committee, said the timing of the events is a coincidence. Vichot said the same Republicans candidates keep running for office, and he worried that was because others didn't know how to get themselves involved.

"We haven’t been very good at providing the resources a Republican or conservative would need to run for office," he said. "It’s just the basics. We should have been doing that in the past."

Vichot said he was unaware the league has been running the workshop for 20 years; he was not chair the last time it held a workshop in 2021. But at the same time, he made clear he did not believe the league's workshop was an appropriate venue for conservative candidates.

"It's obvious it's a leftist organization," he said.

One of his first interactions with the league was during last year's statehouse races. He was upset with the way the league handled the debate between Democrat Nick Miller and Republican Dean Browning, saying the questions were slanted in favor of Democrats.

He also questioned how Erdman could lead a non-partisan group, pointing to anti-Trump posts on her social media accounts.

"For a leader of a non-partisan group, it’s disingenuous. You’d have to be a fool not to notice that," Vichot said.

The promotions for the committee's workshop have highlighted the divide. A December email viewed by LehighValleyNews.com said the Learning Institute's event "is catering to a conservative audience." The email's unidentified author said they attended the league's workshop in 2021 and walked way "isolated, unheard and unprepared for the journey that lied ahead me."

Vichot said he was unfamiliar with what the Learning Institute's program will promote. The committee selected it after seeing it produced conservative lawmakers such as U.S. Reps. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, and Jim Jordan, R-Ohio.

The committee's website said the eight-hour workshop will teach attendees how to develop a campaign strategy, structure their campaign, research the district and any opponents and develop a get-out-the-vote strategy. Attendance costs $25 and includes lunch.

Erdman declined to comment regarding remarks against her personally. Regarding the league, she said Vichot was invited to attend its workshop but never heard back from him.

"We have moved on. We are taking the high road. Our league does not operate or build a relationship based off one person. We have a good relationship with our Republican legislators," Erdman said, adding that conservative office holders routinely participate in league events.

Local drama reflects a national trend

The divide in Lehigh County reflects a broader national conflict. Reports of Republican slates skipping league-organized debates have surfaced in New Jersey and Ohio. GOP officials elsewhere have also claimed the league is biased towards Democrats and asks leading questions.

Last year, ProPublica reported that just 30% of Republican candidates participated in the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters vote411.org guide compared to 70% of Democrats. The league posts candidates unedited answers to questions and allows them to spell out their platforms and goals in the guide.

The league has also been at odds with high-profile Republicans in recent years, but for reasons it says are not partisan. In the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, the league's national board of directors called for President Donald Trump's cabinet to remove him from office. In 2018, the league's CEO was arrested while protesting Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Erdman said that along with its non-partisan efforts to educate voters through debates, forums and guides, the league has always promoted policies that support democracy and good government. She said that includes fighting gerrymandering and opposing policies that would suppress voting.

Lately, that's put the league at odds with Republicans over mail-in ballots and voter ID. Some Republicans have also taken umbrage at claims of gerrymandering, Erdman said, but she accused both parties of abusing the redistricting process when they were in power.

"What we try to do is to educate people about the facts, and we don’t take a side. Sometimes it's interpreted that we favor one over the other, but that’s not the case," she said.

The local chapter's work is appreciated by Lehigh County Commissioner Ron W. Beitler, R-Lower Macungie Township. He attended the candidate workshop in 2013 and still has his binder. He's eager to share his experiences on the campaign trail this weekend at the league workshop, he said, so potential candidates will know what they're in for, regardless of their political persuasion.

"It’s not a process you’re going to understand unless someone helps you walk through it," he said.

Beitler was unaware of the dustup between the committee and league when he agreed to do it, and said he did not know about the simmering tension between the league and the Republican Party nationally.

"I made the decision to do this based off my experience with [the league]," he said. "I've never experienced that with the local chapter."