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Rep Yaw's Letter

Read Yaw’s full letter—Let’s Get Things Straight—here.

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Charlottesville Comes to the Capitol

A day after thugs waving confederate flags and wearing “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirts breached the Capitol, a talk with a Trump-supporting Republican state senator offers some hope

Charlottesville Comes to the Capitol

A day after thugs waving confederate flags and wearing “Camp Auschwitz” sweatshirts breached the Capitol, a talk with a Trump-supporting Republican state senator offers some hope

VideoCould it be a coincidence that the domestic terrorism visited upon the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday took place literally the day after the state of Georgia—Georgia!—elected a Black man and a Jew, respectively, to the United States Senate, making Chuck Schumer that body’s first-ever Jewish majority leader?

Yes, as so much of the coverage has made clear, Wednesday’s riot was nothing less than a coup attempt fueled by the President and his enablers, an all-out assault on Democracy. We ignore threats to Democracy at our peril, as Philadelphia Congressman Brendan Boyle expressed so eloquently on the floor of the House around midnight on Wednesday:

I must concede, Madam Speaker, I have been naïve about one subject. I always just assumed our democracy would naturally endure. I never even questioned it until the last several years.

Two centuries ago, one of our Founding Fathers, cautioned against this. John Adams wrote, “Remember democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

I now realize the wisdom of his words. Never again, will I take for granted our democracy.

Boyle’s right, history proves there is nothing inevitable about self-government. But too few have seen the Capitol assault also as the explicit offspring of that horrid 2017 day in Charlottesville, proof that there is something long brewing in the American body politic, a toxic stew of racism and anti-semitism, a type of anti-Americanism cloaked in patriotic language, stoked by those who should know better.

Do SomethingJust before the violent breach, after all, Rep. Mary Miller, an Illinois Republican, said in a speech outside the Capitol to an audience overrun with Trump signs: “Hitler was right on one thing: he said whoever has the youth, has the future.” At Tuesday’s “Stop The Steal” rally, there was rhetoric from speakers about “evil globalists like George Soros” orchestrating the “fraud” that was November’s free and fair election.

What a coincidence that, during the riot, just as at Charlottesville, there were white supremacist group leaders front and center. Know-nothings like Nick Fuentes of Groyper Army and Tim Gionet, known online as “Baked Alaska,” both live-streamed from inside Nancy Pelosi’s office during the siege.

There was at least one fleeting sighting of a Nazi flag, as well as the “Kek” flag favored by white supremacists, modeled after the flag of the Nazi military. (If you don’t know “Kek”—short for the fictional nation of Kekistan—it will give you chills.) Did you see that shirtless dude in a Buffalo headdress on the Senate’s dias? That tattoo on his torso was the image of two Norse symbols favored by white supremacists.

All this is to say that, as Thursday morning dawned, it was easy to feel depressed, hopeless. Civil wars will do that to you, make you question just how much you know your countryman, and yourself.

What a relief it will be to return to the halcyon days when our fights were over policy and the mere means by which we get to the same end: The common good.

We’d just seen more than the Capitol breached, and the uniquely American idea of Democracy attacked; also imperiled, as for the last four years, was the notion of shared American values itself. In some way, we had come face-to-face with the “Don’t worry, be happy” lies we tell ourselves. Who we are was suddenly in serious question. “Well, we had 243 years,” I told friends. “It was a good run.”

But then I talked to State Senator Gene Yaw, who has represented Bradford, Lycoming, Sullivan, Union and parts of Susquehanna counties in Pennsylvania’s 23rd District since 2008. Yaw is an amiable, folksy grandfather, a U.S. Army veteran, and a lawyer who spent nearly 20 years as the Lycoming County solicitor prior to running for the senate.

He not only voted for Trump twice, he also donated to the president’s campaigns. But, unlike so many other Republicans—locally, Philadelphia’s own state Rep. Martina White comes to mind—Yaw has resisted enabling Trump’s assaults on truth and Democracy.

It’s a sign of the times that just being loyal to facts qualifies as an act of political courage, but Yaw’s December 28 open letter—“Let’s Get Things Straight”—is just that. I reached out to him because so few Republicans anywhere had, before Wednesday’s insurrection, risked the wrath of the president and his cult-like followers. In his missive, Yaw, as in a good closing argument, methodically lays bare the Big Lie of election fraud. And he does it in an especially plainspoken way:

Saying a problem exists is easy. Proving a problem exists is difficult. Repeatedly saying a problem exists is not proof of existence…

To my knowledge, Trump’s lawyers have filed at least 40 lawsuits throughout the United States, including several in Pennsylvania. Thus far, the number of decisions favorable to the Trump claims of fraud and irregularities is zero. It cannot go unnoticed that many of the decisions were issued by judges who we would say have a Republican leaning. Some were appointed by Bush, some by Obama and some by Trump but all reached the same conclusion. We all recognize a 0-40 record as not being a good performance. The overwhelming consensus in those decisions is that there is no evidence of widespread fraud or irregularities in the November 3rd election. Moreover, we cannot ignore the fact that the United States Attorney General and the Director of the FBI, both of whom are Trump appointees, have publicly stated that there is no evidence to support claims of widespread fraud and irregularities. Either Trump has the dumbest lawyers on the planet or there really is no proof of widespread fraud or irregularities.

“You remember that Wendy’s commercial, ‘Where’s the Beef?’” Yaw asked when I caught up with him yesterday morning. “As a lawyer, I kept wondering, where was the evidence? I sat down by myself and wrote the letter.”

The fallout has been predictable. One local editorial accused him of supporting Joe Biden, Yaw said, and his colleagues haven’t said much—at least not to his face. “But that’s not why I wrote the letter,” he said. “I wrote it because, yes, I wanted my candidate to win. But facts are facts.”

We were talking the morning after the assault on the Capitol, and Yaw called those rioters “despicable,” whose “disrespect shown to the institution of Congress runs counter to their argument that they’re patriots.”

If we’re going to get our country and state back, the Left will have to find common ground with the likes of Gene Yaw in the Pennsylvania Senate, just as Democrats on Capitol Hill will have to learn to compromise with the likes of another profile in courage—Mitt Romney—in the U.S. Senate.

And he has similar contempt for those elected officials who have long fostered this era of incivility. “I see it infiltrating the Pennsylvania Senate,” he said. “Sometimes I think I’m a dying breed around here. A moderate who wants to work with the other side.” (Turns out that one of his colleagues, State Senator Doug Mastriano, decidedly not a moderate, was at Wednesday’s protest in D.C. with former state rep. Rick Saccone, who posted this on Facebook: “We are storming the capitol. Our vanguard has broken thru the barricades. We will save this nation. Are u with me?”)

Yaw is no progressive; you won’t find yourself in a long conversation with him about critical race theory. But you would have found him occasionally working on environmental legislation with Democrat Andy Dinniman, who retired from the state senate last year. “Andy was either my Achilles heel or a fellow advocate,” he said. “When we worked together on an environmental bill, I’d say, ‘Oh my God, Andy, I can’t believe you worked with me. What’s the world coming to?’”

Custom HaloIt’s that kind of jocularity across the aisle that is more and more in short supply—as evidenced earlier this week, when Senate Republicans refused to seat State Senator Jim Brewster, whose 69-vote win in the 45th senatorial district, which includes parts of Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, has been appealed to the federal courts by his opponent. The dispute devolved into a shouting match on the floor and the removal by Senate Republicans of Lt. Governor John Fetterman from presiding over the body.

Only 25 Senators took part in the debate and vote, however; like Yaw, the others had not yet been sworn in. But Yaw’s distress at the tone of the debate is palpable. “I felt very uncomfortable watching that,” he said. “I don’t know why the two sides couldn’t have sat down in advance and worked it out, with respect.”

Yaw argues that, unlike with Trump’s phantom evidence, there is a real legal issue to be worked through in Brewster’s case. Brewster’s election had been certified by the state, but his opponent, Nicole Ziccarelli, has objected to the certified results, claiming Allegheny County’s Board of Elections illegally counted 311 mail-in ballots from voters who failed to write the date on the mailing envelope. Westmoreland County’s election board, however, rejected ballots with dateless envelopes. Given that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld Allegheny County allowing its dateless ballots, the Ziccarelli campaign argues that the dateless ballots in Westmoreland County should count, too—which just might give her the win.

Seems like a reasonable argument to me, but there are those who claim—citing states’ rights, ironically—that once an election is certified and the State Supreme Court has ruled, we have a winner. But if the goal is to most accurately reflect the will of the voter, the Democrats’ rush to seat Brewster in advance of the federal ruling may just be the Trump-like partisan move here.

What ails us isn’t policy disagreements or ideologically-opposed world views. It’s that we’re stuck in our silos, we don’t hear one another, we assume the worst about each other, and we too often have leaders who profit from that lack of connection.

Regardless, what struck me about Yaw’s take is not the legal back and forth, but his instinct for something that is in such short supply nowadays, the recognition of which just might be our first step toward getting on with the work of forming a more perfect union. Yaw’s intuitive reaction was—like yours and mine—to recoil at the tone of our politics.

Yaw trots out two quotes when talking to colleagues or constituents about the sickness in our political life. “Ronald Reagan used to say, ‘The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally—not a 20 percent traitor,’” he says. “And LBJ once said, ‘God gave us one mouth and two ears for a reason.’”

Tellingly, Yaw hosts these adorably boring cable TV shows, “A Conversation With Senator Gene Yaw.” It features Yaw interviewing local businesses; here’s the senator on a tour of the Bradford County Heritage Village and Farm Museum in Troy, and there he is behind the scenes of the International Harvester Collectors Museum in Millville, Pa. At a time when so many pols are bloviating talking heads, talking to hear themselves talk, here’s Gene Yaw, asking questions and listening to their answers.

What ails us isn’t policy disagreements or ideologically-opposed world views. It’s that we’re stuck in our silos, we don’t hear one another, we assume the worst about each other, and we too often have leaders who profit from that lack of connection. Yaw’s Trump-voting constituents, by and large, aren’t racist thugs storming the Capitol. They’re voters who long ago tired of being condescended to by the elite, of being called “deplorables,” of being told that they “cling to their religion and their guns,” of having, as they see it, their religious beliefs subordinated to a liberal expansion of rights.

I suspect Senator Yaw and I would disagree on some of these perspectives, but all I can say is that, after talking to him, I felt reminded of what’s good and decent in our system. Here was a decent, affable guy, willing to speak truth to those in power on his own side of the aisle, willing to work with those on the other.

Read MoreIf we’re going to get our country and state back, the Left will have to find common ground with the likes of Gene Yaw in the Pennsylvania Senate, just as Democrats on Capitol Hill will have to learn to compromise with the likes of another profile in courage—Mitt Romney—in the U.S. Senate.

In my conversation with Yaw, I told him that, when I was growing up, there was little daylight between Senators Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a Democrat, and Warren Rudman, a Republican. “Well, if you remember Scoop Jackson, you remember that Ronald Reagan and [Democratic Speaker of the House] Tip O’Neill used to fight over taxes and then have dinner together,” he said.

We shared perhaps a naive fantasy together. What a relief it will be to return to the halcyon days when our fights were over policy and the mere means by which we get to the same end: The common good.

Header photo by Elvert Barnes / Flickr

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