One year and six arrests later, Bucks County still debating its part in Jan. 6 insurrection

Over the past year, simmering political conflicts and resentments boiled over in the wake of Jan. 6 have cropped up repeatedly in Pennsylvania.

  • Katie Meyer/WHYY

(Doylestown) — After Jan. 6, 2021, Darren Laustsen felt something shift in the political atmosphere of his Bucks County town.

Laustsen, a Democrat, had never paid much attention to local politics. But in the weeks after a mob of supporters of former President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 election, the fallout reached Laustsen’s Pennridge School District.

Then-vice president of the board, Republican Joan Cullen, had been in D.C. for a pro-Trump rally held earlier that day. There was no sign she had done anything illegal, but people were, Laustsen says, “not happy about her involvement.”

Cullen had been controversial in Pennridge before Jan. 6, but Laustsen says the conflicts escalated post-insurrection. Critics piled on, and supporters then defended her vociferously.

“It really kind of garnered her a lot of political power and a lot of capital among certain sections of the community who looked up to the stand that she was taking,” Laustsen said. “I think that’s when it started to become a political proxy war in the school board, and things just kind of got weird from there.”

The conflicts have gone beyond Jan. 6. School districts in the county have been in the spotlight for debates over COVID-19 school closures and mask mandates, in addition to those over when and how students should learn about institutional racism. Board elections late last year were historically expensive and acrimonious.

Julio Cortez / AP Photo

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, at the Capitol in Washington.

Cullen, now president of the Pennridge School Board, declined to comment. But in the year since the insurrection put her in the crosshairs of her more liberal critics, she has been defiant. Over the summer, she spearheaded an effort to pause Pennridge’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion initiatives. More recently, the district limited students’ access to library books that address gender identity.

“I thought that things would die down kind of after [the recent municipal elections] were over, but I think things have actually gotten even more heated,” said Laustsen, whose wife, Kelly Laustsen, recently ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Perkasie.

“I don’t see any benefit for these people to moderate at this point, because I feel like the farther right they go, the more support they get, and the more they become kind of heroes.”

Over the past year, stories like these — in which simmering political conflicts and resentments boiled over in the wake of Jan. 6 — have cropped up repeatedly in Pennsylvania, resulting in lasting schisms.

It’s a closely divided state that often reflects national politics in miniature, and it had among the most people arrested for storming the Capitol. George Washington University, which tracks these federal cases, has counted 63 Pennsylvanians facing charges for their role in the insurrection.

Politically moderate, relatively affluent, Philadelphia-bordering Bucks County had more arrests than any other county in the state: six.

That tally puts Bucks County within the top 10 nationally, with three of those arrested so far pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges that could carry prison terms of up to six months.

Attempts to interview those arrested were unsuccessful.

Some of Pennsylvania’s leading state Republicans had been casting doubt on the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and many who went to Washington D.C. that day believed them. Ahead of the 2020 election certification, top GOP leaders in Pennsylvania’s House and Senate sent letters urging Congress to delay certifying the election due to “inconsistencies.”

A year later, many mainstream conservatives downplay the entire episode.

In Bucks, Pat Poprik, the longtime chair of the county GOP, dismisses any suggestion that the insurrection has had a lasting impact on county politics.

“It doesn’t come up much in any conversation I have with anybody,” she said. “It just doesn’t come up. It’s, you know, playing its own way through the courts.”

Seeking information flyers produced by the FBI are photographed on Dec. 20, 2021. The Justice Department has undertaken the largest investigation in its history with the probe into rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Jon Elswick / AP Photo

Seeking information flyers produced by the FBI are photographed on Dec. 20, 2021. The Justice Department has undertaken the largest investigation in its history with the probe into rioters who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6.

‘Mainstreaming’ conspiracy

But for Jim Worthington, a prominent Republican in Bucks, the last year has felt more complicated — and it’s been heavily shaped by the insurrection.

Worthington has for decades owned and operated the Newtown Athletic Club, a tony fitness and wellness center. He was an enthusiastic supporter of former president Donald Trump, and through his PAC, People4Trump, he funded three buses that brought about 200 people from Bucks County to Washington D.C. on Jan. 6.

Worthington also attended Trump’s speech, but he didn’t travel on the buses and there’s no sign he marched on the Capitol as part of the insurrection. He says he left D.C. before it happened, and now takes pains to distance himself from any wrongdoing. He pins the renting of the buses, for instance, on a woman who works for him — “I don’t even know the names of the people that went” — and says he only went to the rally at his son’s request.

He said the rally before the insurrection was “the most patriotic event I’ve ever heard of,” saying the “knuckleheads” who stormed the Capitol shouldn’t be grouped in with the many others who didn’t.

Like Poprik, Worthington puts little stock in the idea that the insurrection says anything significant about the state of American politics.

Still, he continues to feel the aftershocks with his involvement in that day.

He’s currently suing MoveOn.org and a Bucks County man for defamation, based on a petition calling for local businesses to stop partnering with Worthington’s gym, and he remains worried that people think he stormed the Capitol. He says he offered up his gym as a vaccination center shortly after the election, but was rebuffed — for political reasons, he thinks.

“It just goes to show you that, you know, politics is more of a blood sport than anything,” he said. “It’s sad it has to be such a blood sport because these are your neighbors, you know? Your neighbors, your friends.”

Jonathan Lewis, who has been studying the insurrection as a research fellow with George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, cautions against downplaying the ways in which Jan. 6 has rippled through local politics in places like Bucks.

Though the federal government hasn’t arrested everyone who behaved violently at the Capitol, at this point, Lewis says there are enough court records to begin analyzing who was involved.

More than half of the more than 700 people arrested are from counties where President Joe Biden garnered more votes than Trump, like Bucks.

FILE PHOTO: In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, photo, police form a line to try and prevent violent rioters from storming the Capitol, in Washington.

John Minchillo / AP Photo

FILE PHOTO: In this Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, photo, police form a line to try and prevent violent rioters from storming the Capitol, in Washington.

The troubling thing, he says, is how mainstream the conspiracy theory of a stolen election became. The alleged insurrectionists who have been charged are “a cross-section of average Americans everywhere,” he said — though most were white and male. He added, in many cases, these people weren’t overtly political for very long.

“All of a sudden, once you see this mainstreaming of conspiracy theories like QAnon, like this idea of a stolen election, like anti-mask, anti-vaccine stuff in 2020, you really see this perfect storm,” he said. “Individuals are swept up in this massive, overarching set of conspiracy theories that ultimately led many of them to the Capitol on Jan. 6.”

Lewis has heard from many people who think the significance of the insurrection is being blown out of proportion. It’s a view he thinks is particularly dangerous because he has begun to see the kinds of theories that drove people to D.C. everywhere.

“When you look at the evolution of some of that conspiratorial-type thinking, I think it’s really important to recognize that it has permeated down to the state and local level,” he said. “It is a significantly widespread problem that is really, I think, flying under the radar.”

That’s how Laustsen, who has one child in the Pennridge district and another starting school in a few years, feels about his school board these days. It became a big part of his life so quickly that he still has some whiplash.

“I had no idea that any of this stuff was going on, really, until the insurrection happened.”

 

Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaborative of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY. This story originally appeared at https://whyy.org/programs/keystone-crossroads.

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