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Lancaster County GOP reacts to commissioners’ spending on local committee races

  • By Tom Lisi and Jaxon White/ LNP | LancasterOnline
Lancaster County GOP Commissioners Ray D’Agostino, left, and Josh Parsons answer questions at a Rotary Club candidates forum Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023.

 Amber Ritson / LNP | LancasterOnline

Lancaster County GOP Commissioners Ray D’Agostino, left, and Josh Parsons answer questions at a Rotary Club candidates forum Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023.

The attempt by two sitting Lancaster County commissioners to influence races for precinct-level roles in the Republican Party had some party members upset over hardball political tactics uncommon in intraparty contests.

Commissioners Josh Parsons and Ray D’Agostino together provided $600 to a newly formed political committee that sent political mailers to voters in a handful of county Republican committee districts last week. The mailers, sent by the Lancaster County Pro-Life Conservatives PAC, backed several candidates as “pro-life,” leaving unsaid the implication that their Republican opponents favored abortion rights.

Nancy Fisher, who lost a race for a committee seat in Elizabeth Township, called the mailers a bit of dirty politics. “The wording was very slippery and deceiving,” she said, adding she opposes abortion and that she had never been contacted by the PAC asking about her views on the issue.

Fisher also said her opponent, incumbent Theresa Diehl, benefited from in-person help from Parsons, who showed up to the township’s polling place Tuesday and campaigned for Diehl.

“He was actively speaking with voters, actively advocating for her specifically,” Fisher said. “He never introduced himself to me – again, I’m running on the Republican ticket. I would think (in case) the results had been different, he would at least want to make my acquaintance.”

Diehl and Parsons declined to comment on Wednesday.

Justin and Karen Sauder – incumbent committee members for the Terre Hill district of East Earl Township — were also targeted by the PAC, which backed their opponents, Drew and Lynn Miller. The Sauders, who won easily Tuesday, said elected officials shouldn’t be involved in committee races because these elected roles ultimately decide party endorsements in local and countywide races.

“We should not be told who to vote for,” Karen Sauder said. “We are not puppets.”

Justin Sauder said Parsons and D’Agostino may have been retaliating against him and his wife because he voted against endorsing Parson’s wife, Christina Parsons, in last year’s court of common pleas contests.

Both major parties in Pennsylvania use primaries to elect precinct-level committee people, who are their party’s foot soldiers and play big roles in vetting candidates, getting voters to the polls, and knocking on doors. Many of the unpaid positions go unfilled out of a lack of interest.

“It can be a bit of a thankless job, but people who do it generally really love doing it,” said Shelley Castetter, a GOP political consultant in Lancaster County who served as a committeewoman in the past.

Both parties impose strict rules on their committee members: They can’t help non-endorsed candidates or candidates of other parties, and they’re expected to get out the vote from their neighbors twice a year.

The Lancaster County Pro-Life Conservatives PAC sent mailers endorsing at least two other committee candidates in the week before the primary.

That Parsons and D’Agostino chose to target a handful of committee members drew criticism from longtime GOP insiders.

Castetter, who has worked for state Rep. Bryan Cutler among others, said it felt like the commissioners were making the races personal.

“Like, ‘I’m a commissioner so I can kind of do what I want, and I don’t like you, or I don’t like how you voted;’ or, ‘I don’t feel that you supported me and I’m going to go in and get you out of there and put my own person in.’ I just don’t think that a sitting elected official should be doing that kind of thing,” she said.

Though Parsons and D’Agostino aren’t listed as official organizers of the PAC, they were the only two donors listed in its single finance report.

D’Agostino also did not respond to requests for comment.

Former Lancaster Township Area GOP committee chair Terry Christopher, a harsh critic of Parsons, said he thinks the mailers are meant to ensure Parsons has close allies in various local Republican committees. “I think there’s a lot of people that see Josh Parsons as a divisive figure in our party. They think he’s a bully,” Christopher said.

The chairperson and treasurer listed on the Pro-Life PAC’s paperwork are Josh King and Bryant Glick. King serves as the official spokesman to five-term incumbent state Rep. Dave Zimmerman, who doesn’t serve as a committee member but has regularly received its endorsement while in office.

Glick, a New Holland Borough Council member, was elected Tuesday to serve as an alternate delegate to July’s Republican National Convention.

Neither responded to requests for comment.

State Sen. Ryan Aument, a committee member in West Hempfield Township, said personal letters and postcards are sometimes sent in races for committee seats, but it isn’t often that political mailers are used.

“I’m not seeing any evidence at the end of the day that it moves the needle,” Aument said. “People are resistant to some of the outside pressures.”

Aument declined to comment on Parsons and D’Agostino intervening in the committee races, instead stressing that he doesn’t see the point because it doesn’t seem to affect the outcomes.

Republican ‘turf wars’

Manheim Township GOP area chair John Bear said incumbent members of his committee were “targeted” this year by Elizabethtown chair Nicky Woods and members of FreePA, a conservative group born in opposition to former Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

He said the township’s sheer size, with 23 separate districts, “tends to create turf wars” among ambitious Republicans who want to gain favor with its members.

But Bear said Woods’ interest in his area this year was “unprecedented.”

He said Woods told the crowd at the Elizabethtown Area Republican Committee’s Lincoln Day Dinner in February that this year’s primary was the time to replace Manheim Township’s current lineup with more conservative members.

“I’ve never heard of outside area chairman getting involved in other people’s districts,” said Bear. “If you’re not living in someone else’s district, how do you know what is important to voters there? It’s none of your business because you’re not elected to represent them.”

Bear added that Woods’ status as the elected county clerk of courts, a position she won with the endorsement and financial support of Parsons and D’Agostino, also muddies the waters.

“I don’t think its ever good when elected officials ever get involved in individual committee races,” Bear said.

Woods did not respond to a request for comment.

Several candidates who led failed bids for the Manheim Township Committee this year were photographed at that dinner in a post to the Elizabethtown Area Republican Committee Facebook page.

Tabitha Valleau, who helped found FreePA and was a key ally of state Sen. Doug Mastriano in 2022, secured just 29% of 284 total ballots cast in her race in District 16. Joe Augeri, a member of the security team for state Sen. Doug Mastriano of Franklin County during his 2022 gubernatorial run, also lost his District 16 run with less than a third of the votes.

In Manheim Township’s District 13, Chad and Becky Casey lost their challenge to two incumbent committee members. Both Caseys were at the Elizabethtown dinner in February.

Three incumbent committee members were also photographed at the dinner. Doug Schmuckle in District 20 and Julie Rudisill in District 10 lost their races on Tuesday, but Duffy Johnson won reelection in the 1st District seat.

Meanwhile, Eric Beezer, who had help from Valleau and Augeri in obtaining petition signatures for his state House campaign, beat Thomas Ponessa in District 15. Ponessa is one of the largest Lancaster County donors to Republican candidates and the state party.

Peggy and Joe Buhalo lost their challenge to incumbent committee members in the Blue Ball section of East Earl Township. Peggy Buhalo is the president of Patriots for PA and participated in a Feb. 29 protest outside Lancaster County Courthouse in support of Amish farmer Amos Miller. Patriots for PA was a key backer of Dave Nissley’s primary challenge to state Rep. Bryan Cutler and has worked with FreePA and other groups.

Solanco GOP area chair Scott Frantz said members of his committee identified several people involved with FreePA who were handing out sample ballots urging voters to write their names into ballots at precincts around the Southern End, like in Bart, Providence West, Colerain and Little Britain.

“Groups like FreePA want to get their groups on so they can influence things,” Frantz said.

The split in the local party is less about policies and ideas and more about tactics and character, according to Christopher. “The FreePA people rely on a more crazy, radical approach, and there’s certain parts of the county where that will never appeal … just because (some places) being, maybe, more moderate, but also just being more traditional Lancaster County conservative.”

“I’ve personally had this happen: you’re giving enormous amounts of time to the party and different candidates, and yet you’re still labeled a “RINO,”or you’re still pushed to the side because you’re considered not good enough,” Castetter said. “Well, last night I think finally some people were saying, ‘You know something, we are good enough.’”

Reporter Nathan Willison, who writes about campaign finance for LNP | LancasterOnline, contributed to this report. His work is funded by the Lancaster County Local Journalism Fund. For more information, or to make a contribution, please visit

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