Running for mayor post-2020

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 10/27/21

NORTHEAST PENNSYLVANIA — The aftermath of last year’s presidential election is still being felt throughout the country. In municipal elections this year, echoes of national politics can …

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Running for mayor post-2020

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NORTHEAST PENNSYLVANIA — The aftermath of last year’s presidential election is still being felt throughout the country. In municipal elections this year, echoes of national politics can still be heard ringing in some races, while falling silent elsewhere.

In Honesdale, Mayor Sarah Canfield prides herself as having no agenda except to act as a “voice of the residents,” and is being challenged by Derek Williams, a candidate who has eschewed political labels altogether, running as an Independent and campaigning on a nonpartisan, hyperlocal platform.

Milford’s election, between incumbent mayor Sean Strub and Republican opponent Lisa Emery, has been pegged as a bellwether for the highly contested Eighth Congressional District, encompassing both Wayne and Pike counties. It’s often been painted as a race between “Right and Left,” though the candidates themselves might not necessarily see it that way.

Milford race confronts national politics

Long before he became mayor, Strub built a national reputation as an advocate in the LGBTQ community. Someone who has lived with HIV for more than three decades, Strub is the founder of POZ Magazine, a publication that provides information to others living with HIV/AIDS. He is also the executive director of the SERO Project—a nonprofit aimed at fighting the criminalization and stigmatization of HIV—and has worked with several other similar advocacy groups and networks since the 1980s.

“I think my activist roots give me empathy for residents who are frustrated when they can’t get a clear answer or are stymied by bureaucracy. I’ve been there,” Strub told River Reporter in an email. “But as mayor, I also see some of the limitations on local government, there at times isn’t the flexibility the activist in me would like to see.”

A Milford resident since the mid-90s and owner of downtown’s Hotel Fauchere until just recently, Strub was appointed mayor in 2016 and elected to a four-year term in 2017. The novelty of a “lefty gay guy with AIDS” winning an election in such a conservative borough was the subject of the 2020 documentary, “My Friend, The Mayor: Small Town Democracy in the Age of Trump.”

“I got elected because people in Milford know me and they know my work for the community; many will ‘forgive’ my liberal views on some matters because they recognize I do a great job as mayor and we have kept the actual governance of the borough non-partisan,” Strub said. “Most of our elected officials in the borough are Republicans and most of them are supporting my reelection.”

Not all Republicans have been so forgiving. Last spring, his opponent Emery appeared in a Facebook Live video hosted by Teddy Daniels—a Republican looking to unseat Democrat Matt Cartwright (PA-08) in 2022. During that video, Daniels described Strub’s mayorship as a liberal “infiltration” of the conservative community.

Emery, however, said that she doesn’t want this race to framed as “Democrat versus Republican.” In fact, seeing the way that national politics has divided neighbors was one of her initial motivations for running in the first place.

“In Milford, people did feel that we were pretty much divided, and I felt bad about that, because I don’t remember a time ...when people were pitting neighbors against neighbors because of our political views or even our opinions,” Emery told River Reporter. “Growing up [in Milford], we didn’t even know who was a Democrat or who was a Republican; we just all agreed to get along no matter what.”

Emery describes herself as a third-generation Milford resident who has lived in many different places as a result of being a military wife and mother. In 2017, she and her husband bought a home in Milford, and she recently retired from a 35-year career in mortgage lending.

The national divisiveness she describes garnered national attention during the 2020 election season; specifically in a Washington Post video titled, “How the election is deepening divisions in a small Pennsylvania town.” Emery is interviewed in the video, discussing her support for then-President Donald Trump, and talking about a pro-Trump display that Emery’s husband had placed in their front yard. The display included a human-sized likeness of Trump in a military uniform, toting weaponry and holding an American flag. Next to him stood a Trump-Pence election sign with the words, “Democrats will destroy my country and my future,” written in black marker.

But as far as local government goes, Emery said national party politics shouldn’t figure into the discussion.

“I don’t feel that I’m entering this [race] as a Republican… It doesn’t matter whose sign you have in your yard; we’re still neighbors in the end,” she said.

Strub has questioned Emery’s qualifications for the office, saying she has “no particularly professional experience relevant to serving as mayor.” Emery disagrees, saying that her career in mortgage lending suits her well for the position.

“I feel that the financial end of it, and being able to relate to people, talk to people, feel comfortable with people is a wonderful quality for dealing with a town,” she said. “Because I’m dealing with a community that does have all different positions in life.”

Strub said that his top priorities include providing better compensation for local government employees, better filling out the local police department’s schedule during peak hours and securing grant money for local projects.

In addition to reducing divisiveness, Emery said that improving transparency in local government—especially during borough council meetings—would be one of her top priorities.

Honesdale candidates leave politics out

About 35 miles up Route 6 from Milford in neighboring Wayne County, Honesdale’s current mayor—who works nights as a nurses’ aide at the local hospital—is running for reelection against a county planning department employee, in a race absent of last year’s pervasive, national rhetoric.

Canfield ran unsuccessfully in 2016 but was elected mayor in 2018. Working evening into overnight shifts at Wayne Memorial Hospital and raising two children. Her nightly work does tend to limit her ability to attend borough meetings, which usually take place on Mondays at 6 p.m., but she said she’s been able to strike the right balance.

When she is in attendance, you probably won’t hear her trying to shake things up.

“I don’t have an agenda, I think that’s the biggest thing,” Canfield said. “I’m not going in there trying to change everything, I’m just trying to be the day-to-day mayor that the borough deserves... I’m more of a figurehead, the face of Honesdale.”

That’s not to say that she won’t voice an opinion when she has one. But she said tries to make sure her voice is only used to relay those of residents.

For example, Honesdale Borough Council is currently considering instituting an earned income tax, which would collect one percent of borough residents’ and workers’ yearly earnings but result in lower property taxes. With residents almost unanimously against the idea, Canfield has spoken against it as well.

“[The tax] affects me and my family, it affects my neighbors, it affects the town in general,” she said. “I believe we can find different ways and different avenues… to offset the borough’s costs.”

Williams, the mayor’s opponent, was another resident concerned about the proposed income tax. A common fixture at borough council meetings, Williams voices his thoughts on most of the proposals the council considers.

A local festival planner (and River Reporter columnist) who turned his attention toward ordinances and downtown development during the pandemic, Williams said that as mayor he’d want to promote deeper and more frequent community discussion in Honesdale.

“What I like to do as a citizen is have as many discussions as possible, so that’s been my approach with citizen planning reports: keep people thinking about different things with whatever insights I happen to have as a professional planner,” he said. “Some of that thinking baked into the process a little further upstream, I think, would be helpful so then you don’t need to wait until something’s wrong… to deal with it.”

Rejecting the assumed competitiveness of a typical race for political office, Williams has framed his campaign as “walking,” not running for mayor. The phrase also describes his grassroots style of literally meandering down the sidewalks of Honesdale, meeting residents and talking about issues. “If given a chance, people want to talk about their community, and get to some shared understanding, and see what they can do to get involved,” he said.

Williams has ideas about how to encourage these discussions: using the post-COVID tools available to make meetings more accessible; creating a more “Mr. Rogers-style” welcoming government atmosphere; and reimagining the public meeting structure to create more consistent dialogue between councilors, residents and other officials, rather than the current public comment period that takes place once at the beginning of meetings, before most business is discussed and voted on by councilors.

Neither Canfield, a Republican, nor Williams, an Independent, cares to bring politics into this year’s election. Canfield said that she considers the mayorship a position free of party platform.

“It’s not about an agenda; we are there for the people of Honesdale,” Canfield said. “We are there to support and do what’s best for the people of Honesdale, and for our businesses and for our visitors.”

Williams’ slow-paced approach to campaigning inherently contradicts that type of competitiveness seen in many state and national races. Instead, he’d rather keep talking to people about the topics that affect them daily.

“[Politics] ends up being a distraction from the actual issues,” he said. “At the local level, the actual issues are right there for everybody to touch… and because of that, I’ve found that talking about those things is kind of the ultimate icebreaker… to melt politics before they start melting you.”

In-person voting for this year’s elections will take place on Tuesday, November 2. Mail-in ballots must be received by no later than 8 p.m. on November 2.

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