Congressional hopeful Brier courts Black voters in tough Democratic primary fight

Tom Brier, a Hershey attorney, speaks at a fundraiser on Monday, February 10 in Lower Paxton, PA outside Harrisburg. He is running to win the Democratic nomination for the 10th Congressional District. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

LOWER PAXTON TWP., Pa. — In a packed room with soul music softly playing in the background, Democratic congressional hopeful Tom Brier told a friendly crowd about a rough few days.

Brier’s family home in nearby Hershey, Pa., burned down a week earlier, and with it went all of his possessions.

But, with “50 Irish Catholic cousins who dress the exact same way as me”, Brier joked, he wouldn’t want for a sharp suit while traveling to meet-and-greets throughout central Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District.

The audience laughed. And Brier, a 28-year old attorney, continued. The fire, he said, “put into perspective for me, really, how lucky I am.” He had support to fall back on.

But “what happens [to] a single mother, whose house burned down? Who had nowhere to go? Who didn’t have insurance … who had to change schools, who had to miss work, who didn’t have a car, didn’t have a cell phone?” he asked. “What happens to somebody who actually struggles?”

The whole experience “put into perspective something that I’ve been studying, and learning, and reading about — but never really felt,” Brier added.

Capital-Star Q&A: PA-10 Democratic candidate Tom Brier talks climate change, DePasquale

As the political hopeful — who is white — acknowledged his privileged life, the crowd, majority Black, nodded and murmured in agreement.

Brier’s upstart campaign, for a seat that stretches from rural northern Dauphin County through Harrisburg and its growing suburbs to York County, hopes that the backing of the district’s Black community can help him become Pennsylvania’s youngest and newest face in D.C..

But the strategy is not just politics — it’s common sense, Brier said.

“How else are you supposed to do it? If you want to run for office you have to go where people are struggling,” he told the Capital-Star after the fundraiser. “It’s not going to people in Hershey, it’s going to Harrisburg and York and Steelton where people are really looking for a hand and putting myself in positions to learn.”

Since the 1960’s, African-American voters have been one of the Democratic Party’s most important voting blocs.

Competition for Black support can shape Democratic primaries, as is the case with the ongoing presidential contest

And Black turnout can make or break competitive general elections — like the one the eventual Democratic nominee in the 10th District would face against incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Perry.

But to flip the seat, Brier first needs to win the Democratic nod. He’s facing state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a seasoned politician, in the April 28 primary.

DePasquale has much of the Democratic establishment’s backing — including Gov. Tom Wolf and the campaign arm of Congressional Democrats. DePasquale’s allies believe his mix of name recognition and crossover appeal could win against Perry. 

But despite those advantages, some members of the Black community don’t feel that DePasquale has done enough to earn their support.

“Traditional white Democrats have taken the Black vote for granted. That’s manifest[ed] in the ways the establishment has signed off on DePasquale without seeing where he stood within the Black community, which they need as a core constituency in the party,” Reggie Guy, a Harrisburg resident and community leader, told the Capital-Star.

From gun violence reduction and health care to voting rights, Guy, who organized Monday’s event, said Brier would be the better candidate.

According to Census data, the 10th District’s population is approximately 11.6 percent Black.

A spark

In a statement to the Capital-Star, DePasquale pointed to his record as auditor general — from reports on wasted school spending to high prescription drug costs — arguing that his “style of leadership brings people together” and that he “will make sure everyone in South Central Pennsylvania has a voice.”

“In all of my campaigns, I’ve never taken anything for granted and I am looking forward to building on the relationships I have built with the diverse communities here in Pennsylvania’s 10th Congressional District,” he added.

Capital-Star Q&A: PA-10 candidate Eugene DePasquale on his congressional run, budget cuts

To be sure, DePasquale has attracted support from elected officials in the Black community. State Rep. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York, endorsed DePasquale, as did Carlisle Mayor Tim Scott.

The campaign also said it is creating a black constituency group to advise on policy and canvassing precincts with low turnout, majority minority precincts.

But Guy said those actions were “belated” and “too little, too late.” And the endorsements, Guy added, weren’t going to bring along support in Harrisburg’s and York’s barber shops, beauty shops and bars.

What Guy and other attendees Monday saw in Brier was a candidate who could inspire new voters to come out on election day.

“He’s what we need for Pennsylvania. We need some spark to get people out,” Pat Stringer, a former Harrisburg councilwoman and Democratic committeewoman, said.

But not all attendees were, like Guy or Stringer, already behind Brier. Some, such as Les Ford, a 73-year-old Harrisburg resident, said he attended to get a better feel for the newcomer.

During a question-and-answer session with the crowd, Ford posed two queries to Brier. Ford asked how Brier would inspire voters, and the role that women play in his campaign. 

Brier said he’d strive to restore trust in public service, and pointed to two aides in the room, both women, without whom the campaign “would simply not be possible.”

Afterward, Ford was still undecided — but impressed.

“He’s young … he has the right words. He wrote a book. So, he’s off to a good start,” Ford said.

Some who attended the event at a posh restaurant in suburban Harrisburg had already endorsed DePasquale. They included Harrisburg City Council President Wanda Williams. Williams declined an interview request at the Brier event.

Despite the establishment’s cold shoulder, Brier said a fresh face was the best way to fix what was broken in Pennsylvania and Washington D.C.

“For me it comes down to getting new people involved, running an honest and candid campaign, and trying to restore some trust in politics,” he said. “Running as someone new, I think we have more credibility to do that.”

A forum with the two candidates is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. on Feb. 25 at Widener Law School in Harrisburg.