Shelby Gutshall had never been to a town hall meeting with an elected official.
But on a Thursday morning in March, she was sitting in the packed Carlisle Borough Council chambers with a pen and notebook listening to what state Rep. Stephen Bloom had to say about the state budget.
She was also there to hear what others in attendance had to say.
And those in attendance had quite a bit to air on everything from health care to immigration to the public education system.
“I was actually relieved to realize I’m not alone,” Gutshall said. “I’m very concerned about what’s happening in this country. I just wanted to be better educated at all levels. I want to be an educated citizen.”
Gutshall certainly isn’t alone when it comes to an increased interest in political issues. Regardless of where someone falls on the political spectrum, there’s more interest across the board for advocacy.
Though the election of President Donald Trump stirred opposition to national and state Republican lawmakers — as seen in numerous town halls across the country — Democrats aren’t the only ones becoming more vocal. Local members of the GOP and grassroots groups are also seeing an uptick in numbers.
One of those people is Lisa Vranicar-Patton. As the owner of Twin Ponds West in Hampden Township, Vranicar-Patton had mostly in the past focused on her career as a professional ice skater and later as a local businesswoman. She had been a political science major in college, but it wasn’t until recently that she became involved in politics.
Twin Ponds West became the headquarters for local Trump supporters, and it is now home to the grassroots group Eagle Strike Force, which Vranicar-Patton leads.
“I always paid attention but I was never entrenched in the GOP or any of that,” she said. “I never had a problem with the GOP before, but I was energized by (state GOP chairman Val) DiGiorgio and the grassroots effort.”
Vranicar-Patton said she was convinced to keep up what as a supporter she was doing for the GOP even after Trump took office. And she found that others were quite willing to continue that work as well.
“We’re not alone in this. There are a lot of people who believe in President Trump and his message,” she said. “I believe in fresh blood. President Trump is working, and we have to roll up our sleeves. Be the change you want to see in politics. We need good people.”
One of those people includes Theresa Myers. As the Upper Mifflin Township committeewoman for the Cumberland County Republican Committee, she’s long been involved in politics and the party. However, it wasn’t until after the election that she found herself joining Eagle Strike Force. Now she finds herself attending support rallies in opposition to protests at the offices and town halls of Republican lawmakers.
“I think it’s good,” she said. “It’s people being engaged in the process.”
Laura Wagoner, finance director of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania and secretary of Chester County Young Republicans, said younger Republicans are also getting involved in politics. She said Chester County has always had a strong Republican presence especially among high school and college students, but the state party is looking to get more youths involved.
“(In February) there were nine chartered Young Republican groups. We’re already up to 15 in a month,” Wagoner said of their efforts to organize more young Republicans in the age group of 18 to 40. “Our goal for the year is 25 to 30. There’s been a real uptake in membership with young Republicans.”
Two local grassroots groups promote the fact that they don’t necessarily fall along party lines.
Katie Clark is the president and one of about 11 founders of Cumberland Valley Rising. The group formed a few weeks after the presidential election in November and has grown exponentially.
“We have about 200 people coming to our meetings, and our online mailing list is close to 500 people,” she said. “We’ve been very surprised and excited about the growth. We’ve been growing rapidly, and people keep coming back. I think there’s a real fire and interest here.”
The members range from environmental scientists to professors to hairdressers to janitors to librarians, she said. Part of the reason is that she said the group focuses on issues rather than the Democratic Party.
“There’s a wide range of people and talents,” she said. “Our members include Democrats, Republicans and independents. We are issue-based primarily.”
Myers says Eagle Strike Force has also attracted Democrats and independents.
“The group wanted to be more inclusive than just the Republican Party,” she said.
Myers said the group is a local branch of the Federation of Republican Women, so all full members have to be women. However, in the group of 52 members, 11 are men in what they consider “sustaining” roles. They don’t get a vote on council matters, but they can participate in the rallies and marches the group attends.
Residents of all political beliefs have been out in droves for a variety of reasons. While town halls attract residents who wish to speak to their local legislators, some don’t wait for their legislators to come to them.
One group held a town hall protest against Sen. Pat Toomey at his Harrisburg district office. Another organized a protest outside of U.S. Rep. Scott Perry’s district office, which also attracted members of Eagle Strike Force to show their support.
While the sudden presence of another group mistakenly led to a nice chat between Vranicar-Patton and a protester who hadn’t realized she was with the wrong group, the local businesswoman said emotions can run high and get ugly.
“We don’t have to be ugly or contentious,” she said. “We’re all on this plane, so let’s fly it forward.”
“I think there is less listening, and that’s when people get entrenched,” Myers said. “That is not healthy for our government or for America to have that polarization. I don’t know how to move past that.”
For now, moving forward means getting involved.
“There’s massive enthusiasm in getting involved, but also getting involved on the local level,” Wagoner said, noting that volunteers were working the phones for a special election recently in Philadelphia while others work on judicial nominees in the state.
Myers has noticed interest on a local level from both major political parties, which has prompted her to help with a local Republican’s row office campaign.
“Democrats do not usually run for row offices (in Cumberland County),” she said. “This year, they’re running for four county row offices. They don’t want to just sit by — which is good. But if Trump hadn’t won, that wouldn’t be the case.”
Cumberland Valley Rising has a number of committees focused on different areas. While one works to let members and residents know about upcoming rallies and town halls, another committee works to organize educational events.
“Early on, we put on a gerrymandering documentary at Bosler library, which included a talk with a Pennsylvania representative. A hundred people came to that,” Clark said.
Among other events planned by Cumberland Valley Rising is one on April 15 where librarians will discuss sources of information in an attempt to better educate the public about “fake news.” A yet-to-be-scheduled May event will cover the basics of civics.