Politics at Musikfest? Campaigning is a no-no, but free speech is welcome

Abortion rights. Gun control. Closely contested races for Congress and Pennsylvania governor.

None of it’s cause to do anything different at Musikfest, the 10-day festival of tunes, food and drink that kicked off with a preview night Thursday and continues through Aug. 14 in Bethlehem.

“We operate the festival every year,” said Kassie Hilgert, president and CEO of Musikfest’s nonprofit parent, ArtsQuest. “We experienced this in 2016, ‘18, you name it. There’s always a political situation going on.”

As the Lehigh Valley continues to cement its role as a population center that candidates need to court, according to one expert, one place the campaigns won’t be doing outreach is Musikfest, according to Hilgert.

“We don’t have political campaigns or candidates on the festival grounds,” she told lehighvalleylive.com. “We have a long-standing policy of that. It doesn’t really add to the atmosphere of the festival.”

“People have been fairly respectful over the last several years,” she added.

The prohibition on campaigning only applies to festival grounds, she said. There are areas near the festival, such as along Main Street, that ArtsQuest does not control during Musikfest, where property owners may permit politicking, she noted.

ArtsQuest differentiates between campaigning for office and rallies or protests for causes that are important to people. It’s spelled out in the “Festival Rules” at musikfest.org:

“ArtsQuest and Musikfest fully respect the right for individuals to assemble peacefully to share their viewpoints and opinions,” the rules state, continuing on to say “to accommodate groups who wish to gather peacefully, designated areas for assembly have been established” at:

  • Musikfest’s Southside Arts District, at East First and Polk streets on the south sidewalk near the barricades.
  • Musikfest’s Historic Moravian District north of the Lehigh River, at Main and West Church Streets across from the Main Street Ramp Bridge.

ArtsQuest asks that anyone gathering not interfere with festival patrons or vehicular or pedestrian traffic.

“But no, we’re absolutely believers in freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and we’ve provided space for that,” Hilgert said.

Political science Professor Chris Borick, director of the Institute of Public Opinion at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, said there’s no shortage of interest in both issues and Lehigh Valley voters this mid-term election cycle.

“The Lehigh Valley’s impact on state races continues to grow as the population grows for the area,” he said. “Its nature as a competitive swing area makes it attractive for both parties to come to and work for votes.”

During the primary season, candidates for the contested Republican nomination for U.S. Senate, in particular, made a point of visiting the region. David McCormick kicked off his campaign with conservative star U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at Lehigh Valley Sporting Clays while Dr. Mehmet Oz, who would go on to win, also swung through to meet voters.

Borick said he expects that attention to continue as Oz, a household name through his TV show, faces off against Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman. The Lehigh Valley also features a race Republicans hope to win in their efforts to wrest control of Congress, with Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Susan Wild seeking re-election for a second time against GOP challenger Lisa Scheller in Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District now covering Lehigh, Northampton, Carbon and parts of Monroe counties.

“Book it: They’re going to be here,” Borick said of candidates or high-profile surrogates visiting, pointing to Monday’s stop by U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to tout infrastructure funding on behalf of President Joe Biden.

“He can go to a lot of places,” Borick said. “He’s coming to the Lehigh Valley. It’s with an eye toward the importance of the region.”

The governor’s race in Pennsylvania seems to crystallize one of the most divisive issues in America: abortion rights. Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano faces Democratic state Attorney General Josh Shapiro to seize control of the power to sign or veto bills from the Republican-controlled Legislature, Borick said.

“In Pennsylvania, the governor’s race, I can’t think of another race across the country where that issue will be more central because we know that the next governor is going to have an incredibly important role in deciding which direction Pennsylvania takes in reproductive rights,” he said.

For voters who want to see abortion rights limited, a Mastriano administration would in all likelihood work with the GOP-held Legislature to make that happen, while if Shapiro is elected “the veto pen will be broken out quickly and often,” Borick said.

“Their differences are there and it really matters because they’re going to be able to impact what happens,” he said. “It’s not just a lot of rhetoric; it’s real.”

States’ role in deciding reproductive rights came to the fore in June when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade and sent the decision on whether to allow abortions to statehouses across the nation. Just this past week, in the first test of voter sentiment after the high court’s decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion, Kansas voters on Tuesday sent a resounding message about their desire to protect abortion rights by rejecting a ballot measure that would have allowed the Republican-controlled Legislature to tighten restrictions or ban the procedure outright.

The court’s abortion ruling came just one day after justices, in a major expansion of gun rights after a series of mass shootings, said Americans have a right to carry firearms in public for self-defense, a ruling likely to lead to more people legally armed.

Bethlehem, traditionally a Democratic stronghold, was the scene of rallies in June both to end gun violence and maintain access to abortions.

“There’s a lot of issues to be engaged around,” Borick said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Kurt Bresswein may be reached at kbresswein@lehighvalleylive.com.

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