WEST CHESTER—State Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-19th, of West Whiteland sees the dawn of a transformative change possible with the power of the people, and is calling an end to partisan politics.
“We are in the fastest era of change in all of human history,” Dinniman said. “Bar none.”
Dinniman, 75, has served in the state Senate since 2006 when he won a special election to fill the vacancy created by the death of state Sen. Bob Thompson. He had won re-election on three occasions over Republican opponent, but was facing a strong challenge this year from a member of his own party at the convention — Tredyffrin-Easttown School Board member and West Chester NAACP President Kyle Boyer.
He said technology can take society up or down. “We need to understand what change is about and transform our politics, our educational system and break through.”
Dinniman described a theory called cultural lag. “If a society can’t keep up with the rate of change, you have what’s called cultural lag,” he said. “Our politics now reflect cultural lag because we can’t keep up with the range of change that social media has created.”
Coupled with the pandemic: chaos. “The rate of change is increasing more and more,” Dinniman said. “And the pandemic has added onto that by creating chaos.”
The senator said the combination of change and chaos can either create the total breakdown of the society, an inability to function, or it can be a catalyst for a transformative renaissance that creates something new.
“This is what I hope to be a voice about,” he said. “You have to begin to understand that the worst thing you can do is to assume what’s worked in the past will work now, because it won’t. It fundamentally won’t. You have to change the way you think, the way you go about your work, and you have to educate a society to understand that change can be your destruction or your friend.”
The senator’s term expires at the end of 2020 as he did not seek reelection this year. However, Dinniman said his plan isn’t really to retire, rather, to become a voice to help people understand the vital necessity of transformative change as empowered individuals capable of sparking collective change.
“It is a way for me to build on what I’ve taught and what I’ve experienced and to be hopefully a voice as we go into the future,” Dinniman said. “I’m withdrawing from some of the burdens, from Harrisburg, where I believe you can only get so much done, and trying to create this public voice for demanding that we don’t allow cultural lag to do us in. Because it can. It’s already destroyed our politics because we can’t keep up with social media. It has already destroyed our jobs.”
Dinniman began his career in the Pennsylvania Senate after winning a special election senate race in 2006 as a newcomer to the state legislature, becoming the first elected Democratic state senator to represent Chester County in Harrisburg since the 19th century.
Dinniman and his team moved into his current office space at 1 North Church Street sixteen years ago after he won his first state senate election during a special runoff race.
at the corner of Church and Market streets, the historic building was a general store in the 1800s and then began a candy store in 1900 for 50 years. It is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and has the oldest largest remaining structural copper roof in the commonwealth. Dinniman said he worked with the building’s owner, Stan Zukin, on its restoration during his early years in office as a state senator.
Dinniman said he was grateful for the opportunity to work with the Zukin family to preserve an important landmark in West Chester for the community.
After winning the special election in 2006, Dinniman ran successfully as an incumbent to keep his seat again, again and again in 2008, 2012 and 2016.
Prior to becoming a state senator, Dinniman was a Chester County Commissioner for 14years from 1992 until 2004. He began his political career in education as an elected official of the Downing Area School Board.
In the 1800s the building was home to a general store. In the 1900s it became a candy store. It is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places and has the oldest largest remaining copper roof in the commonwealth. He worked with the building’s owner, Stan Zukin, on its restoration during his early years in office as a state senator. Dinniman said he was grateful for the opportunity to work with the Zukin family to preserve an important landmark in West Chester for the community.
Looking back, Dinniman said he measures the success of his work by the election results, thank you letters from constituents, and community awards. This year, he’s receiving accolades from the Humane Society, Main Line Mentoring, Movement Community Development Corporation, the Chester County Chamber of Commerce and the Pennsylvania Horse Breeders Association.
During his tenure in school board, county and state government as an elected official, Dinniman has received leadership and legislator of the year awards from a plethora of charitable organizations spanning the state and nation. Two honors include the President’s Medal for Service from West Chester University in 2015 and the Elected State Official of the Year from Pennsylvania Citizens for Better Libraries in 2007.
He’s also been a champion for veterans, too, advocating for transparency and accountability for people living at the state-run Southeastern Veterans Center in East Vincent, a senior citizen living care facility for retired members of the U.S. military and their spouses.
The facility has suffered tremendous loss of life from the pandemic despite a statewide shutdown for three months earlier this year to mitigate exposure and protect senior citizens.
“I wanted to make sure that I stood up for the constituents and the people of the district,” said Dinniman said during an interview with the Daily Local News at his office, located inside a nationally acclaimed historic structure with a fully intact copper roof, built more than 200 years ago, and first run as a community general store, at the corner of Church and Market streets downtown West Chester. “And I knew, from my previous experience, and as soon as I arrived in Harrisburg it was demonstrated that the concern in Harrisburg is special interest and money. Pennsylvania has a very old style of politics.”
During the last 16 years, Dinniman said he’s undertaken his work with three principles: stand up for the people; education reform to balance off great inequities in Pennsylvania; and bipartisanship.
He said the first principle has been advocating for his constituents and standing up for the people, rather than agreeing with what is popular. In Harrisburg, Dinniman said, there is an “old style of politics” run by special interests and powerful people.
Dinniman described the most powerful people influencing Harrisburg today as representing the energy sector whereas the coal and rail sectors had held that role in previous years. Yet there’s still one constant crux: “The focus is always on the politician, not the people,” the senator said.
To counter this, Dinniman said he worked to stand up for the disenfranchised and the voiceless.
“I wanted to stand up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves,” Dinniman said.
Second, as a principle, Dinniman said he focused on education. He holds a doctorate degree in education from Penn State University.
In 2006, the State Senate appointed Dinniman to its Senate Education Committee in Harrisburg where he still sits today, as minority chairman. In this role, Dinniman has fought against inequality and advocated for the right of all children in Pennsylvania to receive a fair and equal education.
Third, Dinnaman’s final key principle as a senator during the last 16 year has been to lead with bipartisanship strength and integrity.
“Be bipartisan,” Dinniman said. “Speak for the people. Do good.”
And by working with lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle, Dinniman leveraged unpopular causes across the political aisle on the basis of finding common ground to move forward. This helped him ultimately gain support for quintessential issues including education reform and action against animal cruelty.
Dinniman said the key has been to work on an issue, gaining public support, then turning the matter over to a majority chairperson for introduction. Once he handed off an issue to a college, that meant not inferring with partisan politics and also letting others take the credit for his ideas over the years, too.
“I didn’t mind as long as the bills got passed … And by being bipartisan, Dinniman ultimately removed himself of the “blame game” in which partisan politics holds more weight than human lives.
The senator cited two examples in which he harnessed the power of bipartisanship to move forward just causes from idea to legislation to law.
For instance, Dinniman said he worked with the Senate Education Committee majority chair, a Republican, to end exam requirements from the state for high school seniors in order to graduate by developing trust and finding areas of agreement. The result was a law creating five pathways to graduation, something essential for students who are disenfranchised.
He also gained bipartisan support for his work on an animal bill to stop the gassing of dogs at kill shelters in Pennsylvania. The measure received support from around the world, and he again worked with a Republican colleagues to ensure the legislation could reach the governor’s desk and become law instead of playing partisan politics.
The key, he said, has been to create support for a cause and pivot that issue to majority leaders with the means to harness it into legislation and “not interfere” when Republican colleges began to champion causes he carried about and, behind the scenes, helped the majority leaders harness into action.
The environment in Harrisburg is much more partisan, Dinniman said, noting that it has increased significantly recently, making it much more difficult to create change for good.
This is compounded, he said, by the lack of local newspapers covering important government affairs. Dinniman said when he served on the Chester County Board of Commissioners from 1992 until 2006, at least six newspapers sent local beat reporters to cover the meetings. Newspapers present included the Daily Local News, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Phoenixville Record and the Kennett Paper and Chester County Press, among others.
“There was much more accountability. Now what you have is less press covering things,” Dinniman said.
“From 2004 to 2019, 2,100 newspapers in the United States had gone out of business,” said Michelle Ruiz in a special report published last week by Vogue on the death of journalism. “Since the pandemic began, dozens more have closed their doors. The main thing that has kicked the legs out from under all these newspapers has been the loss of print advertising. This pandemic comes along and, suddenly, travel goes away, restaurants go away, and when there’s no ads, there’s not a lot of revenue. So many more have laid people off or furloughed staff at the same time when the news that they’re providing is even more important.”
Newspapers print articles on happenings written covering both sides of any issue with unbiased intent to present information for the readers to decide what is, and what’s not, important on their own and for themselves. That’s journalism.
Today in America there are fewer local journalists chasing news stories and fewer beat reporters covering government meetings routinely than ever before. Often questions go answered, or moreover, with so many local newspapers now extinct, there’s no reporter at the meetings to even ask the questions. Today more and more, often basic, public information is withheld from reporters by the government.
This means less information is reaching the public from an unbiased vantage point and instead people have become more dependent on social media and partisan cable news, Dinniman said.
Hence the senator’s plan to become a voice for transformative change in the near future.
“Having talked about change and globalization all these years, having seen the destruction that social media has brought about, understand that we are also entering a new age of robotics and artificial intelligence, our educational system is going to have to produce new skills for people,” he said. “This is going to happen very quickly.”
As the interview ended, the senator took his family dog, Jagger, downstairs from his second floor office for a short walk outside prior to his next meeting.
Dinniman said, “Change comes about in a combination of chaos and a degree of hope. You have to have hope. What we need is elected officials who are not afraid of change but also give people hope that you can persevere, in terms of change, and create a new society.”