Q&A Daylin Leach
Carroll - Daylin Leach Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

State Sen. Daylin Leach will announce in July if he'll challenge U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan in the Seventh Congressional District. He initially resisted the notion, but his daughter helped get him thinking. "Every night I would put her to bed and get a stern lecture from her – "Dad, you have a moral obligation to run. Why don't you see that?" he says. "It's hard to not at least respond to that."

June 14, 2017

Q&A with Daylin Leach: the danger of Trump, a Meehan challenge and those vicious tweets

'I tend to be unusual as a politician in a couple of ways,' says the state senator

Daylin Leach is not one to mince words: not on the campaign trail, nor the legislative floor and especially not in the Twitterverse. 

The Pennsylvania state senator gained national headlines earlier this year when he fired off a tweet urging President Donald Trump to try to destroy his career because he opposed civil asset forfeiture. For good measure, he called Trump a "fascist, loofa-faced, s***gibbon."

The tweet has generated more than 34,000 likes and 15,000 retweets. And, as Leach noted, a bit of backlash, too.

But Leach, who turns 56 later this month, is not afraid to take a stance, even if he initially finds few supporters. The Upper Merion resident has long been one of, if not the most, progressive members in the Pennsylvania legislature.

Years before the state legalized gay marriage, Leach introduced a bill to do just that. After leading the charge to legalize medical marijuana, Leach is fighting to allow recreational marijuana, too. And he sought a $15 minimum wage.


RELATED STORIES: Pennsylvania senator to Trump: Come after me, you 's***-gibbon' | In wild week at White House, Trump wasn't the only one firing


Leach's bid for an open seat in the 13th Congressional District in 2014 came up short. But he reportedly has decided to run for the Seventh Congressional District seat – currently held by Republican Pat Meehan – next year. 

PhillyVoice caught up with the Democrat recently to discuss his social media presence, the so-called Resistance movement and the 2018 election. (Leach's comments have been edited for length.)

PhillyVoice: Obviously, you've never shied away from sharing your opinions on social media. Why is that?

Daylin Leach: In politics, there is too much sort of pretending you believe something when you believe something different. There is too much concealing whatever beliefs you have because they may or may not be popular in the moment. I actually think candor is a good thing and being forthcoming is a good thing. I also think that I should be very clear about how I feel about things and my constituents can decide whether they like that or not.

It's just not in my nature to be sort of a human talking point. So I tend to be unusual as a politician in a couple of ways. Not only in expressing myself clearly, but also in taking positions on legislation or introducing legislation or taking positions on matters of public policy that sometimes are unpopular. People don't rush out to do that in my profession very often. But I think taking a position that's unpopular is very valuable because, in doing so, you're trying to lead. Theoretically, what we are is leaders.

I think it's healthy to say to your constituents: "People believe this, but actually this isn't true. Or this isn't the way it should be. This is a better way." Hopefully, over time you can persuade people.

So I have tried to do that. I have always felt that my career in politics was going to be aggressively fighting for things that I care about. If I ever lost an election, that would be fine with me. Once you have that attitude, it is incredibly liberating. You're not afraid anymore, so I'm not. The day I start being afraid is the day I probably have been doing this too long.

NoneThom Carroll/PhillyVoice

'I have always felt that my career in politics was going to be aggressively fighting for things that I care about,' says Daylin Leach, 55, a state legislator since 2003. 'If I ever lost an election, that would be fine with me. Once you have that attitude, it is incredibly liberating.'


PV: Do you ever have questions with your staffers about social media? Do they ever try to pull the reins in? How's that work?

DL: On most issues, I don't clear it with them. So, it's more of a "it's easier to get forgiveness than permission" type of thing. Every once in a while there is a moment of mortification, or whatever. And sometimes even I (think) I could have worded that better, or I could have been more insightful or less impulsive. 

But I do my best to make my social media interesting. And part of interesting is humorous, but also to try to have some type of life lesson. Not everything is humorous. I posted something (last week) about food shaming, which was a very difficult story for me from my childhood.

But that's another part of it – you have to be vulnerable. You have to let people know why you believe what you believe. I think that's important, too.

On the s***gibbon thing – I actually think, while people thought that was funny or whatever, I think it was the first part of the tweet that really resonated with people.

I don't know if you know the background of that Tweet.

PV: The state legislator in Texas on civil asset forfeiture. 

DL: Donald Trump said let's destroy his career for doing exactly what I'm doing here in Pennsylvania. So I just, as a personal matter, got angry and ... so I said why don't you come after me? I think that resonated more than the rest of it.

And also the term s***gibbon – keep in mind this is a president who fat-shames people. This is a president who calls people ethnic slurs. A s***gibbon doesn't actually exist. It's not a real thing. I'm Scottish, in part, and the Scottish have a great ability to construct insults. They're terrible cooks, but they're great at that. So, I sort of drew on my heritage.

If you go through my history, I'm not someone who speaks intemperately. I'm not someone who uses a lot of intemperate language. But I did that deliberately in that tweet. I wanted it to be unusual because I felt it was important to say that this is not normal. This is not John McCain, Mitt Romney, George Bush – some Republican who I did not vote for and, if they were president, I would be disappointed and not happy with their policies. You'd expect that.

Trump is an entire different level of magnitude in terms of his threat level to our basic Democratic values, to the – frankly – security of the world, (and) to so many things that are important to me and important to a lot of Americans. And I think the biggest danger we have is that he becomes normalized. And it becomes normalized because it's so crazy....Every 15 minutes he does something crazy and damaging and horrific.

"I was able to pull myself out of very difficult circumstances because there were opportunities provided by my larger community for me. I want to make sure that other people have those opportunities."

So, the danger is you just become numb to it. Oh OK, he fired the FBI director because he was investigating me. Ho hum. Or, you know, he said a judge can't possibly do his job because he's of the wrong ethnicity. Yeah, yeah. This should be eye-popping.

I had no idea it would become the viral thing it became, but I wanted to send a Tweet that was eye-catching in an effort to say, look this is not a normal situation. It's like grabbing people by the lapels and I think we have to continue to do that.

PV: Were you surprised by the reaction it got?

DL: Yeah. We – my family – has had three viral moments in the last few years and all of them were a surprise. You can't make them happen. You can't (say) I'm going to say something viral today. It just doesn't work.

The first one was – it was another situation during the voter ID debate. Speaker (Mike) Turzai was speaking to a Republican audience and I guess he forgot cameras existed. He said, "We passed voter ID, which is going to allow Mitt Romney to win Pennsylvania."

I said at a press conference on that, if you have to stop people from voting to win elections, your idea sucked. That became this big thing for awhile. I was surprised, although I knew when I said it and all of the reporters immediately dove into their notebooks. I was like, "Oh OK, that happened."

I don't know if you're familiar – my daughter had her own viral moment.

"If you're feeling dainty about the language, you really may want to consider your support of someone who you're giving the nuclear codes to."

My daughter asked a question of Hillary Clinton at a town hall in Haverford during the campaign about body shaming of women. It became the lead story on every (news outlet) – NBC, ABC News, Buzzfeed, RawStory, Huffington Post. Her picture was on every one of those, which was kind of cool for her. 

But the next day, we got the blowback. We got, literally, tens of thousands of hate messages, either tweets or phone calls or Facebook (messages) or whatever from Trump supporters suggesting she commit suicide, suggesting that she do other horrible sexual things. She was 15 at the time. 

Finally, she went on national TV, on the Smerconish show, to defend her honor and did a wonderful job. So we had that moment, and then this (s***gibbon) moment.

When I tweeted it out, we were sitting in caucus. Sometimes, caucus gets a little dull. Someone is explaining why they want to name a certain bridge in their district after somebody. Good. You look at the news and I saw that (Trump) story.

I wrote it and I said send. Again, I thought I'd get the usual 75 likes from friends of mine. But when I got back 15,000 notifications, I was like, "Oh, my God." We started getting people mailing us stuffed gibbons from New Zealand and Germany. The New York Times calling, The Wall Street Journal – I'm like it was just a tweet, after all.

But what I'm proud of in that tweet is that thousands of people contacted us and said, they were so sort of demoralized by the election and what was happening. This actually gave them some hope, a feeling of we can fight this. I think that's a great thing.

NoneThom Carroll/PhillyVoice

'When you take away people's access to healthcare, that is an extremely personal and intimate thing,' says Daylin Leach. 'And people are just going to go nuts.'


PV: How did you respond to people who took offense to the Tweet, or maybe were offended by a politician using such a term toward the president?

DL: To the extent that I engaged them, I did note that, for example, Donald Trump – you remember the commercials during the campaign when he was giving a speech to a large crowd as a presidential nominee who said, "And you can tell them to go f*** themselves?" If you're feeling dainty about the language, you really may want to consider your support of someone who you're giving the nuclear codes to.

It's not like when we were kids. You can say this on TV now. It's just a word. I think the more important thing is the sentiment. And the sentiment is you can't try to destroy someone's career because you disagree with them politically. And you can't, as president, be a bully. And we're tired of it and we're not going to take it. That's what I said to anyone who objected to the message. 

I will tell you, literally, 95 percent of our response was positive. Some effusively so.

PV: Shifting gears a little bit, you've been very progressive in the state Senate for quite some time. These values that you hold, when and where did they start to take shape?

DL: I had a very difficult childhood. I was in a series of foster homes. I went to eight elementary schools. I got out of that, frankly, because society invested in me. Whether it was when I was a kid with food stamps and free school lunches, that enabled me to survive. I was able to go to college with a lot of help from guaranteed student loans, Pell grants, other grants that I received. I was able to go to law school.

I was able to pull myself out of very difficult circumstances because there were opportunities provided by my larger community for me. I want to make sure that other people have those opportunities.

That's No. 1. That's why I believe in economic justice. I believe in a reasonable minimum wage. I believe in paid family leave – things that enable people to live reasonable lives. I have a bill allowing everyone in Pennsylvania to go to college and pay back loans at zero-percent interest as a percentage of their income. So it's manageable to go to college. Because if I didn't go to college I never would have gotten out of my circumstances. That's No. 1.

"One of the things I don't understand is we have a president who says basic things that are antithetical to everything that America stands for. And yet we hear silence from the people we elect to protect those things."

No. 2 – the other big influence on me was the fact that I'm Jewish, but I don't have a Jewish name. My father was not Jewish. Therefore, people didn't think I was. And I heard things that I would not have heard if my name were Goldberg or something like that. I learned very young that anti-semitism was still very prevalent in our society. And then of course you study the history of where that leads. And the history of where dehumanizing leads, across the board, whether it's a religious dehumanizing, a racial, geographic. Whatever it is, it never leads to a good place. So, I became viscerally angry at any policy or tradition that, in my view, treated people as not human or lesser because of their status in a group.

When I first got to the legislature, I was almost like, we're doing good things here. But I kind of missed my time, in the sense that I really would have wanted to be part of the Civil Rights struggle, which was largely over, although not entirely, when I got there.

But then, I had the epiphany that as the gay rights movement matured, that that is the civil rights struggle of my time. So I wanted to be a leader on that. So I introduced the gay marriage bill, became co-chair of the LGBT caucus in the legislature. I actually married, when it became legal briefly before Obergefell (the Supreme Court ruling) in Montgomery County when Bruce Haines started issuing licenses, I was marrying gay and lesbian couples in my back yard at the rate of two or three a day to get them in before the court struck it down.

"How do we stop this? .... The answer is three simple words: win more elections. Which is why the Jill Steins of the world just drive me insane."

But discrimination and dehumanization, very little makes me angrier than that. Which is why, just think of (Eric) Trump's quote from yesterday or the day before – The people who oppose my dad aren't even people. Eric Trump said that. I mean, that is breathtaking. And it's breathtaking that (to) his father, the entire Republican Party – that's OK. No one said anything about that. That leads, historically, to gas chambers and ovens, that sort of rhetoric.

I want to make sure I'm a loud voice. One of the things I don't understand is we have a president who says basic things that are antithetical to everything that America stands for. And yet we hear silence from the people we elect to protect those things.

If I have any unique role, it is in fact my willingness to speak out ... and take the political hits and be attacked by the other side, which I am constantly. That is a small price to pay to do whatever I can to fight this.

PV: Speaking of national politics – the so-called Resistance movement that you're seeing. How do Democrats turn that from a movement into actual votes in 18 months?

DL: That's a great question, because it is about votes. At the end of the day, people ask me how do we do this? How do we do that? How do we stop this? Why can't we pass that? The answer is three simple words: win more elections. Which is why the Jill Steins of the world just drive me insane. Because elections are not about making statements – elections are not about finding purity. Elections, ... in this country, they are binary choices. There is a better choice and there's a worse choice. The people who win, as we see, get to make policy. It's really important. It affects people's lives.

I believe we are headed toward a Democratic wave year. There is no way to know for sure. Things can change in 17 months. Jared Kushner could make peace in the Middle East. But, today, I think there would be a wave.

We saw that even in the turnout of the primary in a completely, sort of non-exciting year. ... Everyone is very angry right now. Everyone is freaking out on not only the crazy stuff, but the policy stuff, which gets little coverage because there's so much crazy stuff. What's happening to the environment? What's happening to labor protection? What's happening to education policy? So people are very angry.

How do you sustain that? That is the key.

PV: That's my next question.

DL: Things tend to peter out. It's a lot of hard work. People have lives. To continue to go to marches, to continue to go to resistance meetings, to continue to build a social media network and feed it – that takes a lot of effort. So how do you sustain that?

No. 1, Donald Trump is actually our biggest ally in this. As we've seen, he throws wood on the fire every hour. It's not like something happened and we're mad about it, but we're going to get over it. New stuff happens every day. There's new stuff that keeps this going forward as long as we don't normalize it and become numb to it. Which is why I'm fighting against it.

No. 2, in my view, he's not going to get better. That's not going to happen. He has proved himself incapable on a basic human level of being anything better than he's been in the last two years. It's not like he's suddenly going to become Ciceronian in stature and reassure people. So that's going to happen. 

"Someone came up and said: You just gave a speech where you said everyone of us has a moral obligation to do everything we can do to fight this. But you're not doing everything you can do. 

I also think the third thing that's going to happen – and we're starting to see a little bit of this. He does something, whether it's crazy or a policy matter and we're like I can't believe he did that. He withdrew from the Paris (Agreement). I can't believe he did that. Betsy DeVos says we can discriminate against gay people in schools – I can't believe he did that. North Korea, whatever, it is. 

That is sort of an initial shock. But then the consequence of these actions will start manifesting themselves. The fact that our European allies basically have abandoned the concept of an alliance at this point because they don't feel like they can work with him, that's going to have real consequences. It's going to have economic consequences.

When you take away people's access to healthcare, that is an extremely personal and intimate thing. And people are just going to go nuts. It's one thing when they didn't have it. But to give it to them and then take it away and your son can no longer get his diabetes medicine. Your daughter – we can't do that heart valve replacement that she needs. When that starts happening, I think you're going to see an outcry that I can't remember the last time you've seen something similar. I think, again, the consequences of his actions are going to be a second hit after the actions themselves.

PV: Speaking of 2018, you're considering a run for Pat Meehan's seat. You have an announcement coming up in July. Tell us about that decision-making process and what attracts you to a national seat like that?

DL: Well, initially I was very reluctant. A lot of people asked me, because I'm very public about the Resistance and other stuff. A lot of people said you have to run. I was very reluctant because it's a huge commitment, which I know intimately. My life was pretty good. I was doing a lot of important things in the Senate. Plus, I was being asked to speak at all different types of things around the state – and around the country – on important issues. We're getting our medical marijuana protocol set up and my daughter is starting to look at colleges. There's a lot of things going on.

Two things changed my mind into looking at it. No. 1, someone came up and said, You just gave a speech where you said everyone of us has a moral obligation to do everything we can do to fight this. But you're not doing everything you can do. Frankly, that's a valid point. 

Then my daughter, who was the subject of the situation I described earlier, became sort of radicalized because of that experience. She used to want to be a Broadway actress. That was her career path – she was going to go to theater school or something like that. It's completely changed. All she wants to do is get into politics now.

Every night I would put her to bed and get a stern lecture from her – "Dad, you have a moral obligation to run. Why don't you see that?" It's hard to not at least respond to that.

"If I do it, I will be full-throated about it. People will like it or they won't like it. And I'll win or I won't win. But people are going to have a choice."

So, I decided to look at it, but I didn't want to be impulsive about it this time. I wanted to make sure that I was the right candidate. Because to me, the top priority is winning the seat. I have a decent gig. It's not like I need this for my own personal needs. I have to make sure that I'm the right person to win the seat and I have to make sure that it's a winnable seat. 

There may or may not be a wave nationwide. There's almost certain to be one in Southeast Pennsylvania. My poll[ing] revealed a level of toxicity that is hard to – I can't remember another level of toxicity. You have to get into, like, Jerry Sandusky, before you start getting into these numbers. Frankly, there is a feeling that this isn't a year to vote for an affable person because they're affable or someone for a reason of familiarity. 

People aggressively want someone who is going to resist this, including in our poll about a quarter of Republicans in our district. So, once we gathered all of the information, I can't publicly say anything definitive before July 1 – that triggers all kinds of things. But I can tell you that the information that I got was very encouraging to the notion that I should do this.

If I do it, I will be full-throated about it. People will like it or they won't like it. And I'll win or I won't win. But people are going to have a choice.

This is a propitious moment in history for people who are outspoken because the threat level and the level of troubling developments is so high and the stakes are so high now that we need someone who will be actively engaged in that.

I have very few skills in life but the few skills have, I think serve this cause well. And so that's what, assuming I run, I will be offering to the voters.