People across the country and the world were stunned by the images of neo-Nazis and other ultra-conservative groups gathering in Charlottesville, VA, for “Unite the Right,” a white supremacist rally that culminated with the gruesome murder of counter-protester Heather Heyer.
For state Rep. Donna Bullock, the chaotic weekend provoked an unwelcome analogy. She was reminded of her colleague, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, chair of the House Committee on State Government, defending his decision to invite someone he later called a “white nationalist” to testify at a legislative hearing.
“In light of recent events in our country, having leadership that stands by and defends white nationalism should be questioned,” she said earlier today.
In 2015, Metcalfe, who frequently describes Pennsylvania as being under attack by “illegal aliens,” was promoting a bill to make English the state’s official language. During a hearing of the committee he chairs, he invited Robert Vandervoort to testify. Vandervoort was executive director of ProEnglish, which campaigns against bilingual education and against multiculturalism, at the time.
Vandervoort is also the former head of the Chicagoland Friends of American Renaissance, a group that promotes a magazine that had been repeatedly described as a white supremacist publication for its promotion of racial science, the pseudoscientific belief that empirical evidence exists to support or justify racism. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the group has held joint meetings with the Council of Conservative Citizens, which criticizes miscegenation.
When now-convicted state Rep. Leslie Acosta denounced Vandervoort as a “white supremacist” at the time, Metcalfe was outraged. He rushed to the defense, emphasizing that Vandervoort was, in fact, a white nationalist.
“It was an email put out alleging that somebody was a white nationalist, which is quite a bit different from a white supremacist. To say somebody is a nationalist and for the independence of their country and a patriot to defending their country, is a lot different from saying somebody is a racist," Metcalfe said at the time.
His statement notably drew seeming approval from white power outlet The Daily Stormer (which was recently booted off its web server in the wake of Charlottesville).
In response, Bullock says she doubted there was a worthwhile distinction between the two supposedly distinct ideologies – white nationalists often advocate in favor of white dominance in all aspects of government and society.
“He tries to paint a difference between white nationalists and white supremacists. I don’t think there’s much of a difference,” she said.
Bullock said Metcalfe’s views were more corrosive than equivocation around racist ideologies. His committee is a gatekeeper for bills ranging from tweaks to the election code to political redistricting.
“When you have someone who is chairing the State Government Committee who defends white nationalism, you can understand why it’s difficult to pass legislation that improves the quality of life for people of color,” she said.
PA Democratic Party spokesperson Beth Melena issued similar criticisms.
“Racist views or sympathies have no place in any level of government, let alone society, and individuals who hold those views should not be elevated or validated by being rewarded with leadership roles,” she said. “If Metcalfe fails to denounce white supremacy groups, he has no business holding office or a leadership position."
Metcalfe declined comment on the incidents in Charlottesville or his past dalliance with Vandervoort. His social media pages and YouTube channel, “The Metcalfe Minute,” which he uses to denounce rising taxes and government waste, today featured him decrying the “regulatory overreach” of the Susquehanna River Basin Committee.
Metcalfe was appointed to chair the House Committee on State Government in 2011. Although he predates Mike Turzai’s ascent as House Speaker, all committee chairs serve at the pleasure of the speaker. Turzai spokesman Stephen Miskin today defended the controversial state Rep’s continuing committee leadership role.
“It's not like he’s constantly sharing that rhetoric,” Miskin said, of Metcalfe. “I would not overstate what had happened, like some on Facebook are trying to do. One individual came and testified at a hearing. In explaining that something came to light afterward, he made that one comment.”
He suggested the invitation was possibly accidental.
“Basically, when you’re looking for people to testify, you look for these groups that support your position. I guess it wasn’t on his resume and the guy denied he was part of that. It was on, like, Page 3 of his background when the staff was researching it,” Miskin said.
But he struggled to explain Metcalfe’s defense of the speaker’s credentials and nuanced ideology once his background became known.
“You can discern a difference or not. One group believes this premise that the white or Caucasian race is superior to everyone else and the nationalists just want a white or Caucasian majority in the country. I’m not advocating that; that’s just what was explained to me,” he said. “It does sound like a nuanced difference but some people believe that. I don’t think it's right and I don’t think our current leadership or members believe that, including Rep. Metcalfe...When the KKK was coming to march in the Rep’s district, he vehemently fought that.”
Bullock wasn’t so sure.
“When he brought this white nationalist to speak, he cut off my colleague, a woman of color, to let him speak. That’s indicative of his behavior generally,” she said. “I have heard some of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle complain about his behavior and that they don’t share his views. It’s unfortunate because he’s one of the louder voices and in committee leadership.”
Indeed, Metcalfe has drawn frequent criticism for his inflammatory rhetoric around illegal immigration, his association with groups like Vandervoort, his description of public transit as welfare, and other outlandish legislative proposals.
One Republican House staffer said there was indeed anger with Metcalfe’s antics within his own party – but not enough to strip away his leadership roles.
“No one will go on the record,” the staffer said, on the condition of anonymity. “But the frustration with Metcalfe is palpable.”
At least one rank-and-file member of the House GOP was more than willing to call out Metcalfe: Philadelphia Rep. John Taylor.
"I believe white supremacists and white nationalists are synonymous and Daryl should repudiate both and their recent actions because I certainly do," he said.