A former Green Party member and longtime watershed conservationist, Michael Helfrich, is running for mayor of York City, and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has responded by pouring in resources in support of his opponent.
As the presumed Republican gubernatorial candidate, Scott Wagner of York County begins securing funding to battle incumbent Tom Wolf, also of York, the DNC seems to see York’s mayoral race as a proxy war with statewide and even national implications. The DNC has coordinated teams of phone bankers, mainly from other states. Political operative Mike Mikus from Pittsburgh has been brought in to lead the team with a message of fear for York City Democrats: if Helfrich wins, it will be seen as a mandate for Trump and Wagner.
Helfrich, a registered Democrat now and for most of his life, finds this narrative disingenuous, to say the least. Although he won a write-in campaign on the Republican ticket after incumbent Kim Bracey narrowly bested him in the Democratic primary, as the first Green Party member to have ever held elected office in York County, he eschews labels.
“I was a Dem from the time I was six years old until I watched China being signed into the WTO without equal labor and environmental laws,” he said. He then became a Green Party member at that time. “I don’t want to be pigeonholed,” he said.
Helfrich has succeeded in transcending the boundaries of the two main political parties in order to lead coalitions of voters from across the political spectrum—first, as the Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, then, beginning in 2011 as a member of York City Council, and now as City Council President.
For decades, he was able to draw conservatives into his watershed protection efforts by speaking with them in terms of the issues they cared about. “If you ask people, ‘Do you care about the environment?’ [They might say,] no. ‘How about fishing?’ [They say,] ‘I love my grandchildren, love fishing with them.’ Ok, pollution is a threat to that,” he said.
Instead of discussing political affiliation, Helfrich prefers to focus on the five major issues York residents talk to him about: taxes, crime, education, litter, and neighborhood upkeep. York City’s taxes are the highest in South Central PA, at 5.6 percent of property value every year. Helfrich would lower taxes by conserving resources and making government more efficient. His proposal to install solar panels in all York government buildings would have been paid for via a grant, investors who were already lined up, and through the savings on electricity. It would have saved the city $400,000 per year after the loan was paid off, he said, had Bracey accepted the proposal. Helfrich credits this focus on efficiency for the support he receives from conservative voters.
Taxes are a sore point for Bracey, whose campaign literature touts her reduction of taxes by three percent in the last year, while not mentioning that she raised taxes by 30 percent during the first two years of her tenure.
Helfrich would implement more community policing measures, such as having officers walk around neighborhoods with the neighborhood grandmothers, pastors, and Helfrich himself, knocking on doors and meeting all residents. He would also reintroduce block captains within the city, to increase communication between police and citizens.
In order to reduce crime and ensure all students have the support they need to succeed in school, Helfrich plans to open community centers every four or five blocks. To do so, he will utilize church meeting rooms, non-profits and volunteers, and federal block grants.
“Question number one that I will ask myself when I start work and when I leave work is ‘how are the children?’ Our children are the reflection of how it is we are doing,” he said. “When you see that test scores have dropped off, do you think it’s because the teachers are bad? It’s because [the children] are dealing with so much trauma. In York City School District, 15 percent of the kids have moved three times or more in the last year, 700 are homeless and almost all kids qualify for subsidized lunches. Close to 20 percent are in special education, which includes kids who are dealing with trauma and need emotional support,” he said.
Bracey, on the other hand, has said that she isn’t sure it’s the role of city government to open community centers.
In the primary, 1,144 Democrats voted for him, of whom about 800 were Facebook friends he knows personally, he said. Helfrich is well-known in the community due to his daily participation in community events, from fundraisers to litter cleanups. He received 223 write-in votes from Republicans during the primary, which allowed him to run on the Republican ticket, while Bracey beat him by 317 votes in the Democratic primary. To win this close race, Helfrich plans to mobilize both Democrats and Republicans who are more concerned about local solutions to the city’s problems than what the major parties are doing.
Helfrich said that due to the flood of DNC funding, he is currently being heavily outspent. However, as Bracey faces accusations of nepotism and ethics violations after information emerged surrounding her employment of her son, who faces assault charges, the outcome of the race is anyone’s guess.