While keyboard warriors clash for online likes and America’s leaders bicker with each other in an “uncivil war,” driving up cable-news ratings while also driving away more moderate voters, Jeff Coleman still believes it’s a beautiful day in his neighborhood of Harrisburg.
The 46-year-old founder of Churchill Strategies and a former Republican member of Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives is fashioning himself as a Mr. Rogers of Republicans in his bid for lieutenant governor, which he announced last month on Facebook.
In many ways, Coleman’s nice-neighbor persona is a throwback to the big-tent GOP that the late President Ronald Reagan embodied, with his 11th commandment “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”
Coleman knows he needs voters of “every political persuasion” to win.
“Politics is so harsh today that we are closing all of the roads back and basically we’re saying, ‘Stay in your silo, your blue silo, I stay in my red silo. I’ll listen to our media sources, and you listen to yours,’ and we make daily judgment calls on people because of their bumper stickers and their preferences,” Coleman told Delaware Valley Journal. “We’re scanning people to find the point of disagreement. Whether they shop at Whole Foods or whether they shop at Walmart. Whether they’re Chick-fil-A people or whether they would dare to go to McDonald’s. Or whether they’re independent coffee owners or Starbucks owners.”
Coleman’s tempered beliefs can be traced to his early beginnings.
The son of parents who were missionaries, he spent his early years living outside Manilla, in the Philippines, where he recalled going to a wet market each morning to get vegetables and meats as he got in touch with his mother’s culture and learned a second language.
The family lived through the People Power Revolution, resulting in the forced exile of dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who was dogged by election-fraud allegations and for violently cracking down on protestors who opposed his regime.
Coleman credited that experience with awakening his appetite for politics.
“The events were amazing because two million Filipinos, in the course of several days, rallied to the side of the new Philippine president. And democracy won,” Coleman said. “The idea of politics was pretty hopeful to me. I thought you could really do anything.”
After returning to the U.S., Coleman settled down in Apollo Borough, an old coal-mining town about 35 miles from Pittsburgh, where his dad led a small Presbyterian church.
He volunteered for his first political campaign at 13, went on to graduate from Liberty University, a longstanding Mecca of conservative politics, and later became a member of his hometown council.
At 25, Coleman was elected to a seat in the Democratic stronghold of the 60th House District, relying on a door-to-door campaign to defeat longtime Democratic incumbent Tim Pesci, who was criticized for running a “condescending” race.
Pesci derisively referred to Coleman as “Jeffy” and called campaign volunteers “the Children from the Corn.”
Politics so consumed Coleman that they were intertwined in all facets of his life. He proposed to his wife the day he was sworn in. Their marriage suffered while he was in office, so he retired ahead of the 2004 election, looking to salvage their relationship.
He later founded the Harrisburg-based Churchill Strategies, a communications and political consulting firm that prides itself on “telling each story with grace and authenticity.”
With his marriage and family life stable, Coleman is dipping his toe back into politics, believing it’s still possible to win with old-fashioned, respectful debate.
“Rebuilding the public square is the only way that a conservative or a progressive is going to get long-term sustained changes on issues we care about,” Coleman said. “If you burn down the public square, and don’t have political opponents but political enemies, there is really no recourse but to take your politics into the streets. And that’s what you see in a banana republic.”
Coleman’s supporters believe he’s a refreshing reprieve from politicians besotted with winning Twitter wars.
“Jeff’s what the Commonwealth needs. He comes to the table with built-in credibility. He’s a guy who has a good heart and will be civil,” said Philly pastor Joe Watkins, one of Coleman’s friends who served as a White House aide to George H.W. Bush and previously ran for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor. “Nobody should mistake his kindness for weakness. It takes great strength to be kind and not be retaliatory.”
For his part, Coleman is focused on a narrow menu of issues that he says are important to Pennsylvanians of all stripes, including restorative criminal justice — naturally, Colemans says, since the lieutenant governor sits on the state’s pardon board — education that gives parents a voice in their children’s experiences, and perhaps above all, sober and competent leadership in times of crisis.
Pennsylvania has one of the nation’s highest rates of incarceration, at 659 per 100,000 people, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Local school board races have become battlegrounds for many national issues, as Democrats and Republicans slug it out on everything from the teaching of critical race theory to whether students should wear masks and be vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Coleman may come across to some Republicans as too liberal for such beliefs as reforming the criminal justice system to rehabilitate ex-offenders and espousing a softer view on critical race theory as one explanation for “the horrors of racism and consequences of generational poverty.”
But he says civility and compromise are musts if Republicans want to remain relevant.
“Politics amplifies that entire series of questions that are irrelevant when it comes to actually deciding should we pave the road, should we build a store, should we legalize something, should we ban this?” Coleman said. “I have been very careful not to single out any one political figure because when I do that the conversation ends. There’s got to be amnesty for people who voted for Joe Biden. We need Joe Biden voters to come back to the Republican Party, or we don’t win the suburbs. That’s a fact.”