by Christiaan A. Hart-Nibbrig
“I decided to run for commissioner because none of the other candidates were willing to take a position against the convention center.”
— Jim Clymer, Constitution Party candidate for Lancaster County Commissioner in 2003, explaining why he ran for the office.
Watching the primary campaign for commissioner in the spring of 2003 was a courtly, 55 year-old lawyer named James N. “Jim” Clymer. Jim Clymer was something of a renaissance man in fenced-in LancasterCounty. A former farmer, truck driver, and carpenter, Clymer was also a licensed, instrument-rated pilot.
Clymer was then, and is now, the national Chairman of the Constitution Party. In 1994, he ran for Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor on the U.S. Taxpayers Party ticket (which became the Constitution Party in 1999). In that election, Clymer siphoned about 16 percent of the overall turnout. He also ran for another Pennsylvania state post as a Libertarian candidate for Auditor General in 1992, and again for Lieutenant General in 1998 with the U. S. Taxpayers. In the latter race, he garnered 10.5 percent of the vote.
Foreshadowing his basic campaign platform for Lancaster County Commissioner almost a decade later, Clymer wrote in 1994:
“It’s frustrating to see politicians use funds that came from Pennsylvania’s families to advance their ambitions. They treat [tax] funds as their funds – doling them out to help pet projects, reward their supporters, or gain publicity.”
Jim Clymer was born, raised, went to college, and married in LancasterCounty. (He went to law school in Kansas.) A father of five, who served his church as a deacon, elder, and Sunday school teacher, Clymer was a quiet community pillar who knew the values of conservative ChristianLancasterCounty very, very well.
The senior partner of a busy Constitution and religious freedom-based law practice, Clymer had a reputation for integrity and professional competence. With a direct, soft-spoken, gracious personal manner, Jim Clymer was also known as a good guy.
Clymer’s political ideology might be called social-conservative, or ultra-conservative, or paleo-conservative. Many Constitution Party members disaffectedly departed the Republican Party because it wasn’t conservative enough for them.
The Constitution Party’s positions include abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Department of Education, withdrawal from the United Nations, and a non-negotiable, one hundred percent opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
While these values might not resonate in San Francisco, or even nearby Philadelphia, they do in LancasterCounty, where they are in the middle of the mainstream. Taxing regular Pennsylvanians to pay for a convention center struck Jim Clymer as just plain wrong. And he was going to speak up about it.
One week after the primary, on May 28, 2003, Jim Clymer indicated to the Lancaster New Era that he was leaning toward running a third-party campaign for commissioner, saying his conservative principles were more in line with LancasterCounty voters than either Democrat candidate.
Weeks later, Clymer filed papers to run for Lancaster County Commissioner with the board of elections. To get his name on the November ballot, Clymer was required to collect a minimum 1,500 signatures from voters attesting to his fitness to serve as a county commissioner. By July 31, when Clymer turned in his signatures, he had almost 3,000 valid names, nearly double the necessary number. Jim Clymer was now going to have a voice in this election.
(One of the signatories on the Clymer petition was James Huber, the former county commissioner, who ran unendorsed, and lost, in the Republican primary. Huber was also a GOP committeeman for nearly three decades. After signing the petition, Huber was stripped of his committee position.)
What most people anticipated would be a traditional two-way contest between Democrats Bill Saylor and Molly Henderson, was now a battle that included Jim Clymer for the third commissioner, since only two were permitted to be a Republican.
The issue that sharply distinguished Jim Clymer from the other candidates was his complete opposition to the convention center. Not only was the project dependent on taxpayer dollars for support, but it was a bad idea as a basic business proposition. The issue was the centerpiece of his campaign.
“In business, you don’t just go out and start a new project without looking at what’s happening in other places. Convention centers are failing all over the place. What does this city have that will make a difference? We don’t even have air service,” Clymer said during the campaign.
Although Clymer was buttoned-down and mild of manner, he acquired considerable campaign savvy with his multiple state bids. He was also closely aligned locally with a unique and valuable campaign weapon: Ron Harper, Jr.
In 2003, Harper and Clymer were friends who shared many of the same social and political views. Like Clymer, Harper and was a born and raised Lancastrian. Both were born-again Christians (Harper a LancasterBibleCollege graduate) – both married, fathers of five.
And on the convention center issue, Clymer and Harper’s positions were identical – the project was “big government” at its worst. The center should not be built on the backs of the taxpayers . . . and it should be stopped.
Although not an official member of the Clymer campaign staff, it is clear the colorful Harper was more than a typical backer of the candidate.
“Ron was a very active supporter of my campaign,” says Clymer today. “And his website was very helpful in raising some important issues at the time, particularly concerning the convention center.”
Harper has no doubt about Clymer’s impact on the race.
“Oh, there is no way the convention center issue would have come up except for Jim,” says Harper today. “The county bond backing was the biggie. Shaub voted not to back the convention center bond because of Jim!”
The “bond backing” referred to a $40 million Convention Center Authority issue that would be guaranteed by LancasterCounty taxpayers. All of the commissioner candidates were on record opposing the county guarantee.
But the candidates still had weeks before the election, and Paul Thibault was still chairman of the board of commissioners. And Thibault still had some time left on his clock.