A holiday concert featuring Broadway’s original Annie, Pennsylvania native Andrea McArdle, was all set for December 4, with posters in creation and tickets about to go on sale. It was about as non-political as you can get. “She was going to sing Christmas carols, sing ‘Tomorrow,’ all that stuff,” said Mark Isom, a veteran producer who with his husband put on a handful of big-name shows the summer before Covid at the Milford Theater.
Isom was delighted after touring the historic theater on a Friday in October, as the “spectacular” renovation was getting its finishing touches. “It’s a professional venue now where before it wasn’t,” he said. He was already brainstorming other acts to bring to town for a concert series.
But the next morning, Isom’s phone started ringing – and ringing. Friends and theater regulars declared that they would not support a theater that supported Republican mayoral hopeful Lisa Emery, the candidate on the poster on the theater property. He got 30 calls over the course of the weekend. It was a boycott.
And so the nostalgic musical became the latest casualty of the political deadlock gripping the picturesque borough of Milford, population 1,172, in the lead-up to the Nov. 2 mayoral election. Politics are sacrosanct here, a liberal-swinging island in conservative Pike County. Candidate signs are thickly distributed around the borough, and so is the tension.
Isom called off the show, and has begun looking around for another theater to partner with on the future concert series, perhaps in nearby Hawley.
“The theater only seats 250 people,” he said. “Thirty people who were going to buy tickets who are not going to, is the difference between being financially viable or not.” After doing his own research, Isom’s reservations took on a personal aspect, too. “As a married gay man watching her videos, it became apparent she did not reflect support for diversity, inclusion or any of that stuff,” he said.
The theater is also the principal venue for the Black Bear Film Festival and the Milford Readers and Writers Festival, which has attracted big names like feminist icon Gloria Steinem, New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, actor Alan Alda, and former Fox News commentator Judge Andrew Napolitano.
When one show gets cancelled, another gets booked, said Bill Rosado, the theater’s new owner, in an email. “Things are not so bad.”
A self-made entrepreneur who emigrated from Mexico as a teenager, Rosado – named most athletic in the Delaware Valley High School class of ’78 and enshrined in the DV Hall of Fame – made his way as a car dealer and a name for himself as an arts patron. Recently, he has become locally famous as “the man who is buying Milford” with his purchases of the Milford Theater, Laurel Villa, Tom Quick Inn, Hotel Fauchère, 403 Broad, and Jive Bar & Lounge.
When his growing roster of iconic buildings began to sprout campaign signs for Emery – including the Hotel Fauchère, which until September was owned by Mayor Sean Strub, the liberal incumbent – the sudden appearance of Republican signage in prominent places fanned the flames of ideological discord to new heights. Now, locals say, even the act of eating out has become a politically charged decision.
“I never put political signs in front of the hotel when I owned it as I felt it was unwelcoming to guests who might support a different candidate,” said Strub. “The new owner has taken a different strategy, which is his right. Was I surprised? Yes.”
Rosado declined to discuss politics. “My interviews are about business, and progress,” he said. “I allow people to make up their minds politically, I don’t discuss that.” He does not, however, shy away from leveraging his corporate heft in the political arena, whether through campaign signs at his buildings or his business logos on a newspaper ad for Emery. And earlier this month, Rosado’s car dealership, Milford Chrysler Dodge Jeep, sponsored the far-right Rod of Iron Freedom Festival held at the Greeley headquarters of Kahr Firearms Group.
Gun festival brings together January 6 extremists
The gun festival has become a community flashpoint, with anyone associated with it getting heat, including this newspaper for covering it. It is put on by Rod of Iron Ministries, a Pennsylvania-based, pro-Trump offshoot of the late Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. This year’s event drew thousands of Second Amendment enthusiasts, including a notable contingent that took part in the January 6 insurrection, like Rod of Iron Ministries founder Pastor Hyung Jin “Sean” Moon, who was tear-gassed along with followers that day. The weekend’s speakers included Steve Bannon, former top strategist for President Donald Trump; and Teddy Daniels, a congressional candidate from Pennsylvania who was tweeting from the Capitol on January 6.
Even for a county built on different kinds of extremes, this is a new brand of extremism, said Strub. “The extremists in the county who advocated for, participated in or defend the insurrectionists at the Capitol on January 6 are definitely more extreme than we have seen previously in Pike County,” he said. “That concerns me as it should concern every person who believes in our democracy and Constitution.”
A small-town election with outsize stakes
Daniels has inserted himself into the Milford mayoral race as Emery’s most prominent supporter. That he is toggling between shaking hands with the Trumps down in Florida, and sharing a café booth with Emery in Milford, is a sign of the outsize role that the tiny municipality has in the broader scheme of things. This is not just about who will put on festivals or oversee the borough’s three-man police department.
It’s also about building up a political party for an historic year ahead. Milford is part of Pennsylvania’s hotly contested eighth Congressional district, which is up for grabs in next year’s midterm election. Democrats need to keep the seat to maintain the narrow margin keeping them in power. Republicans are bullish on taking it on the way to seizing control of both chambers.
“This isn’t just about my reelection,” wrote Strub in a fundraising message, “it is about building the longer-term organizational infrastructure necessary to elect candidates in our region... who believe in science, fair elections and aren’t driven by QAnon, conspiracy theories and other extreme ideologies.”
In a conversation with Emery broadcast this spring via Facebook Live, Daniels derides Mayor Strub, who is openly gay and living with HIV, as “a weakling beta-male.” He called Milford a “liberal cesspool” and ground zero of an “infiltration” into conservative Pike County. “Lisa is one of the ones who is going to stop the infiltration,” he said.
Emery did not respond to an interview request by press time, and declined an invitation from the Courier’s publisher to participate in a debate with Strub. In the sit-down with Daniels, she lamented: “We have a huge cancel culture in our town.” She described being yelled at when she campaigned for Trump around Milford.
“They bully people,” she said. “There’s people afraid to speak out on different things because they will be under attack. There are several people that they’re even too afraid to endorse me because of the retaliation. Honest to God, when did we all get to the point where we lost our family and friends because of our political views? How about we agree to disagree and go out and have a beer together, right?”
‘The sign of the devil in front of my store’
Signs for both candidates are fairly evenly distributed around the borough. So is the abuse. Nasty language is being dished out in both directions, and few expect the rancor to fade away after the election.
“I was called ‘a gay-hating Trumper’ in my store, and was told that if they ever knew I was a gay-hating Trumper they would never have come into my store to begin with,” said Ashley Carter, who endorses Emery. The customer, who’d been a regular of Save the Bees Sola Boutique in Milford, told Carter that she “had the sign of the devil in front of my store,” in reference to the Emery campaign sign.
Carter opened her eco-friendly general store in 2020 and made it her policy to keep mum about politics. “That’s always been my stance, during the presidential campaign and everything else,” she said. “I listened to people coming into the store, ranting and raving about how they hate Donald Trump. I listened to people come in talking about how they can’t believe people are voting for Sleepy Joe. I heard it all and just literally maintained silence the entire time.”
She made an exception to her rule after Emery paid a visit to her store. “I honestly thought I was doing something innocent in supporting somebody,” said Carter. “A very nice woman comes in, she talks about uniting our community, building business, and I was like heck yeah, go for it.”
It’s too soon to tell whether the loss of customers will hurt her business, said Carter, especially since Republicans from around the county, who’d never heard of her tucked-away boutique before, “have stepped up and have started following my store,” she said. “All of a sudden they’re sharing, and I guess supporting my store a little more in other ways.”
What Carter does know is that her first foray into public politics will be her last. “I firmly believe that we should go back to old-school values where politics and religion weren’t discussed at the dinner table,” she said. “Unless it’s in a private conversation, business related-wise I’ll support those in silence and where it really matters. Sometimes I feel like the quieter you are, the bigger difference you make. You don’t have to be screaming at people, telling them who they should vote for or who you’re voting for, because at the end of the day those ballots are private.”
Welcome to small-town America, and the boycott list
The proprietor of BetterWorld Café & Coffee was surprised to learn his café was on “the boycott list” even before they started brewing coffee.
“We have heard that people are avoiding the store as a result of what they assume to be our political perspectives,” said Liam Hutchison, proprietor of a new organic café and healthy living store whose landlord put up an Emery sign outside the building. Then came emails accusing them of being “anti-immigrant, anti-environment and all the things that we’re actually all for,” he said. “Plus other contacts in town have told us we’re on the boycott list.”.
“It did genuinely surprise us, especially being, like, thrown in the mix, and assumptions made, without anyone coming in and actually having a conversation,” said Hutchison. “We’re actually Aussies, and we can’t vote here. We don’t have a political perspective. We want to actually just be a safe space for all. We just want to focus on making the world a better place. That’s what our store is dedicated to, bringing people good coffee.”
Plenty of customers are coming through, said Hutchison, but nonetheless it’s a shame to be branded with a completely unfounded reputation right out of the gate. “We’ve been in the States for a couple years, but this is the first time we’re in Pennsylvania, in small town America,” he said. “We did not realize how big a deal it would be. In Australia we don’t ask people’s political perspectives.”
They had taken pains to avoid even the appearance of partiality. They’d told both mayoral candidates that they wouldn’t carry any political literature in the café. Later, they put up a Facebook post of a Swiss flag, saying: “During the fierce and bloody battle for Milford this kiss-the-baby season, we would like to openly declare BetterWorld a safe-space for all. We will maintain a neutral territory in your local politics.”
Even if they did have a political perspective – which they don’t – that should be okay, said Hutchison. “We’re in a unique situation, but it shouldn’t matter if we did have a side that we favored,” he said. “We’re just looking to serve the community, like all the other businesses in town.”
The sign that sank the show comes down
The Black Bear Film Festival, a longtime signature event of this arts-centric community, did not have time to switch gears once the controversy over political affiliations erupted. It went ahead last weekend at the Milford Theater – with one tiny change to the venue.
“We didn’t have a choice to go anywhere else at that point because we had already signed a contract,” said festival organizer Max Brinson, who lives in Dingmans Ferry and teaches high school math in Middletown, N.Y. He is president of the Black Bear Film Festival Board. “We decided we were just going to make the best of it. We were going to let people know we did not want to politicize anything to do with the festival. We asked them to remove any political signs.”
As requested, the Emery sign came down on Thursday and stayed down all weekend. By Monday, it was back up, said Brinson.
A few people decided to boycott the festival, and they got refunds. But the theater was still more than maxed out, said Brinson, given their self-imposed Covid restrictions limiting capacity to 125 people at a time. “It’s unfortunate that that happened because politics and art don’t mix very well,” he said.
It mixes even less well on this particular side, he acknowledged. “There’s nothing explicit, there’s nothing in there that says we vote for any particular person or any particular party,” he said. “However, it’s implied by the type of films that we show, the type of issues that we support, that we are progressive. That’s why the vast majority of our audience is like-minded, and some of them were offended, and they said they just couldn’t come. And I told them, I completely understand.”
As for next year’s venue, that conversation is coming. “We’re tired,” said Brinson. “We don’t want to meet right now. We had a long weekend, so we’re going to kind of like collect our thoughts before we have another meeting, and I’m sure that will come up.” Whatever they decide, he said, he thinks the community will trust their judgment and be as supportive as it’s always been. “When we take a good deep breath,” said Brinson, “I think we’ll be ready to do it again next year, wherever, however we’re going to do it.”