State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a gun-toting 48-year-old who represents Pittsburgh's fast-growing, far-out Butler County exurbs, has spent more than a decade slogging his way toward power. For years, he was a nobody in Harrisburg, and the media paid far more attention to his strong-worded comments about gays, guns and immigrants than his colleagues ever did to his legislation. But in the wake of President Barack Obama's election, things changed: A national movement of angry conservatives took hold and voted out any Republicans or Democrats who smelled of moderation.
Or, as Metcalfe put it to the liberal news website Talking Points Memo, "I was a Tea Partier before it was cool."
In 2010, as right-wing challengers took on establishment conservatives nationwide, Metcalfe ran for lieutenant governor, promising to be an ideological watchdog rather than a running mate: "If Pennsylvania's next governor breaks his word and raises taxes, supports more government programs that redistribute wealth or signs laws that infringe on our Constitutional rights, then I will publicly expose his actions and be ready to challenge him in the next primary election," he wrote in a letter to Republican State Committee members.
Metcalfe lost that race, but the Tea Party tidal wave sent him 21 mostly conservative freshmen House Republicans as colleagues. The midterm elections saw the GOP pick up nearly 700 seats in state Houses nationwide, and there are more Republicans in state legislatures today than at any time since the Great Depression. In Pennsylvania, the party now controls the Governor's Mansion, House and Senate. That victory added to a right-wing core established in 2006, when many mostly moderate Republican incumbents were ousted after legislators from both parties infuriated voters by giving themselves a sneaky midnight salary hike.
Metcalfe is now chairman of the powerful State Government Committee, and he's savoring the political moment: He was a key supporter of an expansion of gun owners' rights to fire on an assailant, a bill signed by Gov. Tom Corbett. The House passed Metcalfe's legislation requiring voters to present government identification, which could disproportionately keep the poor, elderly and nonwhite from the polls. This fall, he is expected to move legislation to pass a constitutional amendment barring same-sex marriage; anti-immigrant measures modeled on Arizona's draconian law; and an anti-union "right-to-work" bill that Corbett pledges to sign.
Crucially, Metcalfe, who did not return repeated requests for comment, will help oversee the decennial process of redrawing congressional districts to reflect population changes from the 2010 census. He wields enormous power to reshape districts and, thus, elections, for years to come.
This busy seventh term comes after a decade sounding off at the political margins.
"Daryl has waited a long time to be heard in the caucus," says Karen Beyer, a former Lehigh Valley state representative and moderate Republican defeated in last year's primary by a 23-year-old Tea Party-backed candidate.
Rural and suburban politicians have always gained political advantage by denouncing the symbols of urban sin — homosexuals, immigrants, poor minority neighborhoods — and, often, the city of Philadelphia itself. Metcalfe has made attacking those people and our city a blood sport.
As Bob Guzzardi, a conservative Ardmore-based real estate tycoon and Republican fundraiser, puts it, our problem may be Metcalfe's solution. "He gets all this attention as hated in Philadelphia," Guzzardi says. "Well, if you're hated in Philadelphia, you're loved in the rest of the state. So it plays into his hands."
Metcalfe is the House's most prominent critic of gays: He opposed Philly's program to market the city to gay tourists, saying that tax dollars should not be used to "promote immoral behaviors"; he tried to cut state funding to universities such as Temple because they offer domestic-partner benefits; he sued a gay New Hope couple for attempting (and failing) to get a marriage license; and he opposed Domestic Violence Awareness Month, calling it part of "the homosexual agenda" to support a "sinful lifestyle" because it recognized male victims of rape. "The gentleman from Butler has made this problem even worse and more men may be abused, even killed in their homes," decried Rep. Babette Josephs, a Democrat from Philadelphia, on the House floor in 2009.
Regardless of whether his legislative agenda flies in the more moderate Senate, or whether it addresses issues relevant to his constituents, Metcalfe — and a GOP in thrall to Tea Party voters — benefits. The outbursts look great to his audience of hard conservatives throughout the state and, increasingly, nationwide. Take his campaign against "illegal alien invasion": Though Philadelphia grew for the first time in half a century thanks to Asian and Latin American newcomers, Metcalfe's Butler County counts just 745 Mexicans. But while visiting Philly for an anti-immigrant rally, he made it a point to meet "with one of America's most outspoken English-only advocates and Gino's [sic] Cheese Steaks owner Joey Vento," as noted on his website.
And while there has always been a bipartisan enthusiasm for weaponry outside of Pennsylvania's big cities, Metcalfe has raised Second Amendment advocacy to a more potent form of political theater. Though it's not supposed to be comedy, Philadelphia ends up the butt of the joke.
"This cultural problem is the breakdown of the family and the subsequent absence of positive parental influences and supervision in children's lives," he said in 2006, explaining why he opposed gun control as a means of fighting violent crime in Philadelphia. "Absent fathers, financial hardship and lack of meaningful parental influence and availability in children's lives are a disastrous formula for social unrest and violence."
"Philadelphia," said West Philly Rep. James Roebuck, responding to Metcalfe and others, "is not the center of evil as some of you suggest."
Metcalfe's legislation often targets racial and religious minorities. In 2006, he blocked a resolution honoring a Muslim organization because, he explained, "The Muslims do not recognize Jesus Christ as God." (He later defended his remarks, saying that he objected to comparing the organization's beliefs to those of William Penn, a Christian.)
In response, then-Gov. Ed Rendell told the Inquirer, "I don't think I have agreed with anything Rep. Metcalfe said in the last three or four years, and that statement doesn't change anything. ... I don't think many people take much of what Rep. Metcalfe says seriously."
Metcalfe also introduced "birther" legislation that would require presidential candidates to prove they are citizens, fueled by the discredited theory that President Obama is not; with more dire consequences, his voter ID bill could significantly depress voter turnout since the poor, elderly, black and Latino are far less likely to possess identification.
"My district is probably 80 to 90 percent African-American," says Rep. Vanessa Brown, who represents parts of West and North Philly. "The disheartening part of this bill is that it will affect seniors between 80 and 100 years old — and these are the seniors who fought for the vote for all African-Americans."
Metcalfe's agenda has made him a number of friends and fans on the political fringe. In October 2010, he decided to appear on the radio show of popular conspiracist Alex Jones, who believes that 9/11 was an "inside job"; who promotes the idea that Obama and a secret global cabal of bankers is going to round up Americans in FEMA-operated concentration camps before setting into motion a eugenics plan that will wipe out 80 percent of the human population via poisoned food; and who claims to "have the government documents where they said they're going to encourage homosexuality with chemicals so that people don't have children."
During his appearance, Metcalfe did not contest Jones' statement that "federal Homeland Security is fully infiltrated" by the Israeli government and that "Israeli art students" involved in the 9/11 attacks were now in Nevada undertaking surveillance against the National Security Agency. Instead, Metcalfe responded that Obama and other political enemies "embrace these socialist leftist policies of the Eastern Bloc nations that when I was in the military, we were prepared to go to war against during the Cold War."
Metcalfe has used such inflammatory rhetoric before. In a 2009 statement, he called anyone joining Operation Free, a group of environmentalist war veterans, "a traitor to the oath he or she took to defend the Constitution of our great nation!"
And yet it is Metcalfe who has associated with people who pledge to take up arms against the government. In 2010, he announced he would speak at an Ohio meeting of the Federal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Coalition alongside a representative of the right-wing militia group Oath Keepers, which calls for police and soldiers to mount an armed resistance when the time comes that the Obama administration declares martial law and forces Americans into concentration camps.
Of all the ideological fancies, it is Metcalfe's involvement in the anti-immigrant movement that has made him a right-wing rising star. He has cultivated relationships with Fox News regulars such as Arizona State Senate President Russell Pearce, who drafted that state's anti-immigrant legislation, and former Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, a one-time anti-immigrant presidential candidate who has called for the bombing of Mecca. In January, when Metcalfe founded a coalition of anti-immigrant state legislators who pledge to eliminate birthright citizenship for the children of noncitizens granted by the 14th Amendment, his name landed in media nationwide, from The New York Times to Fox News.
It has also brought Metcalfe and other right-wing Republicans into contact with alleged white supremacists.