What Does Daryl Metcalfe Have Against Philadelphia?

For 20 years, the state rep from Western Pennsylvania has been waging war against Philly. One reporter's quest to find out what makes the man tick.

Illustration by Britt Spencer

December 5th, 2017, started out as just another low and mildly contemptible day in Harrisburg. But by midmorning, it had metastasized into one that would live in infamy. In the bowels of the State Capitol building, in the midst of an undoubtedly fascinating debate about landlocked easements before the State Government Committee, something both unforgivable and endlessly hilarious happened: Representative Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery County), in a futile effort to stave off interruption long enough to finish his sentence, briefly touched the arm of the man seated next to him, Representative Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler County), the committee’s glowering, authoritarian chairman. Although the man-on-man contact lasted less than one second, it sent Metcalfe into a full-blown gay panic and triggered the following cringe-inducing pronouncement:

Look, I’m a heterosexual. I have a wife, I love my wife. I don’t like men, as you might. But stop touching me all the time. It’s like, keep your hands to yourself. Like, if you want to touch somebody, you have people on your side of the aisle that might like it. I don’t.

There were gasps of disbelief as those present checked to make sure they hadn’t been transported back to their fifth-grade lunch line. The committee’s executive director, Kim Hileman, averted her gaze as if from a grisly crime. But on closer inspection — you can watch on YouTube — she was trying not to laugh in the chairman’s face.

It was the tap on the forearm heard round the world. What became known as Touchy-Feelygate made international news and was dissected on late-night talk shows. Neil Patrick Harris explained to America while guest-hosting Jimmy Kimmel Live that homosexuality isn’t contagious: “You don’t turn gay if a gay person touches you; we’re not like zombies.” (Bradford, for the record, is straight, not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

But the rant was hardly out of character for Metcalfe, who for the past 20 years has been holding up the far-right “God, guts and guns” end of the political spectrum in Harrisburg. He’s railed against “fake news” while sounding false alarms about voter fraud and libtard crusades to confiscate guns. On Facebook, he puts quotes around the word “students” when referring to the kids of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. During 10 terms in office, he has successfully opposed multiple versions of a bill that would offer LGBT people the most basic protections from housing and employer discrimination. He thinks mass transit is a taxpayer-funded people-mover for welfare queens. He once invited a white nationalist to testify at an English-only bill hearing.

Since 2010, Metcalfe, who’s 55, has chaired the powerful but dysfunctional House State Government Committee, which reviews legislation that broadly impacts government, such as election law. It’s also where all good Democrat-sponsored — which is to say Philly-friendly — legislation goes to die. That isn’t some anarcho-leftist exaggeration; it’s a statement of fact, one Metcalfe proudly acknowledges. “When [Democrats] oppose us on my committee, they lose every vote and we win every vote! I block all substantive Democrat legislation sent to my committee and advance good Republican legislation!” Metcalfe cackled on Facebook in April. “Liberals continue their lying attacks in an attempt to stop my work in defense of taxpayers and our liberty!”

It would be easy to dismiss Metcalfe as the troll prince of Western Pennsylvania, where he lords over a relatively paltry fiefdom of the roughly 70,000 residents of Pennsylvania’s 12th State House district, a bucolic patchwork of farms and suburbs north of Pittsburgh. But as chairman of State Gov, Metcalfe lords over all 12.8 million Pennsylvanians. And given that he’s been waging a two-decade-long proxy war on the people of Philadelphia through our lawmakers, Chairman Metcalfe is most certainly our problem. Which raises questions: Who the hell is this guy? And how does someone like him keep getting elected?

I came to Harrisburg in search of the answers and wound up on a manhunt for a fugitive on the run from this story: Daryl Metcalfe. I first reached out to Brooke Haskell, Daryl Metcalfe’s communications director, requesting an interview with the lawmaker in May. She assured me she would pass my message to him. Over the next two weeks, I followed up with multiple phone calls, then a heartfelt email about wanting to let Metcalfe tell his side of the story. Haskell wrote back: “Thanks for the follow-up, Jonathan. I will be sure to pass this onto Representative Metcalfe.” After continued follow-ups went unanswered, I decided to find him where he works.

For two days, I sat in the House chambers visitor’s galley, enduring hours of murmured proclamations for an endless parade of high-school state champions, 4-H clubs, and something called the Center for Dairy Excellence, all while leaving voice messages for Haskell. I looked down on Metcalfe shooting the shit with fellow lawmakers, his mule-gray brush cut like a stiff broom in a closet full of wet mops.

Requests to speak with the House Republican leadership about Metcalfe were rebuffed, and attempts to buttonhole rank-and-file GOP lawmakers went nowhere. I couldn’t get a single Republican to say nice things about Metcalfe on the record. It was almost as if, as Martin Sheen’s character says of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, even the jungle wanted him dead. Democrats, unsurprisingly, were happy to talk.

Across a conference table in his stately, wood-paneled Capitol office, House Democratic Minority Leader Frank Dermody showed me a list of 80 Democrat-sponsored bills Metcalfe has deep-sixed in the past year. Dermody estimates that in the nearly eight years that Metcalfe has chaired the State Gov committee, he’s shanked hundreds of Dem bills. In April, Dermody asked House Speaker Mike Turzai to refer these bills to any other committee but Metcalfe’s. To date, Republican leadership has referred just six of those 80, and none has received a vote on the House floor.

In fairness, Dermody admitted that when the Dems were in the majority, they torpedoed their fair share of Republican bills, but never with such ruthless, undisguised contempt for colleagues across the aisle. “He doesn’t treat the Democratic members well at all. He cuts them off, doesn’t let them speak,” Dermody told me. “Sometimes when they insist on speaking — which is their right; they are representing their constituency — he calls security.”

Six months after Touchy-Feelygate, Representative Bradford still seemed taken aback. “You never think something you do could go viral,” he told me when we met in his Capitol office. “I’m asleep, but my cell phone is next to my bed, and I keep hearing ting ting ting ting, and there’s hundreds of people who have no interest in politics but are watching Jimmy Kimmel and blowing up my phone! The former borough council president in Norristown — he’s gay — calls me. He’s like, ‘Neil Patrick Harris is giving you props! This is the coolest thing! You’re going to be huge in the gay community!’ Dude, I have an 11-year-old son. This is fucking hell. This is not cool. My son’s like, ‘Dad, does he get fired for that?’ I’m like, ‘No. That’s not the way it works.’”

Other Philadelphia reps were present that fateful day, including Chris Rabb, a black progressive repping Northwest Philly, and Center City’s Brian Sims, the only openly gay lawmaker in Harrisburg.

Back in April, Metcalfe and Rabb all but came to blows over an anti-gerrymandering bill that Metcalfe gutted and rewrote in a way that would have enabled even more partisan gerrymandering. Democrats had just 30 minutes to review the amended bill. Rabb was livid. “I looked at Chairman Metcalfe and I said, ‘Wow, this is a real low, even for you,’” Rabb told me in his Capitol office. “I was baiting him. I admit it. He said, ‘Well, this would be a very different conversation on the street.’ And I muttered to myself, ‘Fucking disgusting.’ I went over to Bradford and said, ‘This guy just threatened me.’ If it were almost anyone else, I would’ve let it go, but because of his white supremacist leanings and the rumors that he carries a firearm to work, I took his threat seriously.” (Metcalfe won’t disclose if he actually carries a gun on the House floor. “I never reveal to anyone whether I’m carrying,” he told Lancaster Online.) Rabb filed a formal complaint against Metcalfe with the head of House security.

Sims has been going mano a mano with Metcalfe from the day he showed up in Harrisburg in 2013 and found himself assigned to the State Government Committee, like his predecessor, Babette Josephs. Metcalfe once, famously, asked Josephs to begin a meeting by leading the Pledge of Allegiance. When she refused, objecting to the line “under God,” the story became headline news in the culture wars.

When Sims showed up for a State Gov meeting in his first term, Metcalfe naturally asked him to recite the pledge, which he proceeded to do. In Spanish. An apoplectic Metcalfe, who once sponsored a failed English Only bill, began shouting the pledge in English. Ever since, Sims, the son of retired Army lieutenant colonels, has made a point of saying the pledge loudly in Spanish within earshot of Metcalfe.

Things escalated in June of 2013. Speaking under a House rule called unanimous consent, Sims attempted to address his fellow lawmakers to commemorate the Supreme Court having just struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, only to have his microphone inexplicably turned off. After much heated parsing of the House rules, Sims learned that if a lawmaker objects to another lawmaker speaking on this or that topic during unanimous consent, not only do you not get to speak; you don’t necessarily get to find out who objected or why. But this was no great mystery, and soon all eyes were on Metcalfe: “He looked up at me and said, ‘You want a name? It was me, I did it!’ and then he stormed out the back of the room.” Metcalfe would later tell a reporter that he used a procedural maneuver to shut down the speech because Sims — whom he would later call “a lying homosexual” — was in “open rebellion against God’s law.”

Since I can’t get to Metcalfe in Harrisburg, I determine to track him down on his home turf. As I drive across the Allegheny Plateau in the middle of the night, I mull over the scant facts of his life I’ve assembled: Born in Syracuse in 1962. He attended Kansas State University. He enlisted in the Army and was stationed in Germany as an air defense radar systems specialist. It was there that the future immigration hawk met the woman he’d marry, Elke, a German. In 1986 he settled in Butler County, taking a job as a field engineer for DuPont Diagnostics before winning a State House seat in 1998. Along the way, Elke became a U.S. citizen.

He has an adult daughter named Lisa, and according to published reports, hearing his granddaughter’s fetal heartbeat inspired him to push a bill to criminalize abortion after such a heartbeat is detected. He’s admitted to being a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the vast right-wing conspiracy of corporate lobbyists who ghost-write state legislation and the Republican lawmakers who then backdoor it into law. He’s been known to trigger ethics investigations against his enemies in the House. He’s notorious for waging jihad on challengers to his throne and refuses to debate all comers. He’s been reelected nine times. He ran unopposed in the 2004, 2006 and 2012 general elections. In fact, the only time he ever came close to losing was in the 2014 primary, when alfalfa farmer Gordon Marburger came within 544 votes of beating him as a write-in candidate after two Metcalfe associates challenged his candidacy, leading the state Supreme Court to kick him off the ballot for a paperwork technicality.

Metcalfe has been known to get into shouting matches with constituents at the polls. He voted against a state pension increase, then reportedly took it when it passed. He once called a veterans group “traitors” for believing in climate change. He opposed a public-school spanking ban. He’s a Reformed Baptist. His desktop is usually empty save for a Bible. He claims to be a superfan of Jesus but legislates according to the punishing dictates of the Book of Leviticus. He refuses to meet with anyone one-on-one. He really likes Burger King.

At the Blue Mountain rest stop, I gas up while pecking out an email to Brooke Haskell on my phone:

I will be on the ground in Butler County tomorrow from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. talking to voters. Hoping Rep. Metcalfe can find some time to talk to me.

I cross the Butler County line as the sun rises over the Allegheny Mountains in my rearview. The House isn’t in session, so I’m hoping Metcalfe’s around somewhere. I drive by his house in Cranberry Township hoping to catch him mowing his lawn. Turns out he doesn’t have much of a lawn, nor is he mowing it. I stop by his home office in the Cranberry Township Municipal Center unannounced, hoping to spring some ambush journalism that ends with Metcalfe running away with his suit jacket over his head. Instead I encounter Brooke Haskell, who smiles sweetly and tells me, with a hint of pity, that she’ll pass my message on to Metcalfe.

Metcalfe has had a notoriously combative relationship with Cranberry Township supervisors since he was first elected in 1998. For years he’s been slow-walking their requests for state funding to expand traffic-clogged Freedom Road, the township’s main commercial artery. “We’ve never had Mr. Metcalfe’s support for any of the initiatives that we’ve put forth to try to get some of our taxes back from Harrisburg for this road construction … so we don’t even go to him anymore,” says John Skorupan, a Cranberry Township supervisor and, like the other four supervisors, a Republican. “I’m not sure how well-liked he is in Harrisburg, with some of the antics he’s pulled. He’s always fighting amongst his fellow representatives. I don’t think there are many people who want to work with him. He’s not working to get money back to his district, that’s for sure.”

As luck would have it, Metcalfe is up for reelection in the fall midterms, which many prognosticators expect will bring a blue tsunami of anti-Trump outrage. Metcalfe’s opponent is Daniel Smith Jr., a sweet-natured, openly gay, happily married bank executive/barbershop-quartet singer with a Mr. Clean haircut. Conor Lamb he ain’t, but in a district where the GOP enjoys a two-to-one registration advantage, Smith is the next best thing: a lifelong Republican in Democrat’s clothing. We agree to meet at the Starbucks on Freedom Road.

“Every time Metcalfe opens his mouth, I get donations,” says Smith. “I’m confident this is the year it could happen. It’s not just the blue wave everyone talks about. He’s like Old Man Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life.” Smith plans to sidestep culture-war issues and make hay with Metcalfe’s refusal to bring back the bacon from Harrisburg to expand Freedom Road: “After talking with constituents every day, I am confident this year is different. The political climate in this district is: They’ve had enough.”

Gordon Marburger, the farmer who nearly beat Metcalfe in 2014, isn’t convinced. “Daryl will win 66 percent to 34 percent, just like always,” he predicts, returning my call from the cab of his new tractor, paid for with fracking royalties. “The time to unseat him is in the primary. A Democrat just can’t win in the 12th. I know I would’ve beaten him back in 2014 if he hadn’t gotten me kicked off the ballot.” Marburger says Metcalfe played hardball during his run, threatening to primary his wife, currently the treasurer of Butler County. “I don’t hate the man, even though people say I should,” Marburger says. “I don’t even know the man.”

Pat Carone-Krebs held Metcalfe’s seat from 1991 to 1998, retiring after a self-imposed limit of four terms. She thinks career politicians corrode democracy. Krebs happens to have been Daniel Smith’s high-school civics teacher.

“I think he has a good shot,” she says. “My district got hijacked by Daryl. It’s full of moderates. I believe he doesn’t truly represent the opinions and feelings of many people in the 12th District. I think Daryl has exhausted many with his opinions.”

Twenty years ago, Mr. Metcalfe went to Harrisburg railing against the dry rot of career politicians and vowing to serve selflessly for a few terms as the kind of citizen-legislator the founding fathers envisioned. Ten terms later, he’s still there — and fighting for another two years. A funny thing happened on the way to the high road: He amassed power and infamy. He’s legislated with all the Solomonic wisdom and mercy of Hannibal Lecter, turning the State Government Committee into a viper’s den of hyper-partisan gridlock, intolerant of any perspective but his own.

Along the way, he’s managed to burn bridges on both sides of the aisle, cutting himself off from good-faith bipartisan legislative alliances. And for what? After two decades, what has he actually gotten done for his constituency beyond offering assurance that gay people in Pennsylvania can be fired and evicted without recourse by the kind of folks who would refuse to make them a wedding cake? To borrow a question from the Holy Bible he wields like a truncheon: “What shall it profit a man” — or, for that matter, Butler County — “to gain the whole world but lose his soul?”

Published as “Heart of Darkness” in the August 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.