43-year-old Annville resident Matt Duvall believes he can make a difference in the lives of the people who live in Pennsylvania’s 102nd district.
Duvall, a Democrat, is attempting to unseat incumbent state Rep. Russ Diamond, who has occupied his seat in the state House since 2015. The general election is scheduled for November 3.
The 102nd legislative district includes northern and eastern portions of Lebanon County.
Duvall said he’s concerned about the perception of power corrupting elected officials once they are elected.
“The popular perception of a politician is not what I view it to be,” he said. “With any new job you take, there are things you don’t fully understand about it.
It may be that, like any new job or position, holding public office affects a person’s behavior in ways that can’t be anticipated. Perhaps more than any other profession, politics doesn’t change one’s character, it reveals it – as well as his or her values, integrity and strength.
“To say, if I were elected, I wouldn’t change at all, that’s not true,” said Duvall. “There are some aspects of your personality — things like loyalty and integrity – that can stay the same. I think how people interact with others says a lot about who they are and how they approach things.”
Duvall said he tries to be careful about the promises he makes on the campaign trail.
“If you look at great politicians, and even the good ones or the average politicians, they have a good guiding principal on how they’re going to govern,” he said.
Duvall is a Democrat running in a predominately red district, at a time when the country is polarized along party lines.
In Pennsylvania’s 102nd district, there are almost three times more registered Republican voters than Democrats. Rep. Diamond won his last election running unopposed.
“I think that’s one of the reasons that the last election didn’t have a Democrat nominee,” said Duvall. “If you look at the numbers, that’s a little daunting. But there are a lot of things going on in the world and in Lebanon County that give hope. I think a lot of people are realizing there are some things going on. If you get individuals trying to change the system, it could resonate.”
“The 102nd district is fairly conservative,” Duvall added. “But, from a lot of the discussions, you can take away a lot of areas where we agree. One of the things I try to do is to be respectful of people. I try to listen to people respectfully, find common ground and move forward. I don’t want to say anything I don’t know as a fact. I know of times when [Diamond] has made factual mistakes, and when people have pointed it out to him, he hasn’t responded. I think a leader can acknowledge there’s times when he’s made a mistake.”
Asked for comment, Diamond acknowledged, “With 57 years of life on this earth, the list of my mistakes is as long as anyone else’s.”
“Owning up to them and not repeating them is always my objective,” Diamond said, adding that it was difficult to respond to Duvall’s comments without specific examples offered. “Many often substitute the term ‘fact’ for what is actually mere belief or supposition,” noted Diamond.
Duvall was born in Greensburg, Pa., and graduated from Emmanuel Christian Academy in Ohio. Duvall earned a Ph.D. from Drexel University in Education Leadership and Learning Technology.
A one-time high school teacher, Duvall now works for Vista Autism Services in Hershey.
He is also a self-professed family man. He and his wife of 14 years, Lebanon County native Dr. Natalie Duvall, are the parents of three elementary-aged children.
“The number one thing I’m most proud of is my wife and my family,” said Duvall, who has lived in Annville since 2006. “They keep me busy in a lot of ways. I’d like to do things that would make them proud, and set a good example for my children.”
Duvall said he’s voted in every election of his lifetime since he was of legal voting age.
“I always viewed that as part of my civic duty. But I never thought I’d be a politician,” he said. “I see it as service, just in a different way. In 2016, after the election of President Trump, I realized I had taken things for granted and maybe I wasn’t doing enough. I’m just trying to do my part to bring measured and responsive leadership into politics.”
Duvall possesses very little hands-on experience in politics. In 2017, Duvall was defeated in his bid to become an Annville Township commissioner.
“The main reason I’m running is that in the last election, there were no other options for voters,” said Duvall. “I don’t like to see that happen. I think our democracy is healthier when there are more options than the status quo. I see this as a service position. To me, that’s what it’s all about. I had asked around if other people would be willing to step up, and I couldn’t find anyone.”
For his part, Diamond seems to reflect the values and beliefs of many of the conservative residents of the 102nd District. Diamond has been an outspoken opponent of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and has co-sponsored articles of impeachment against him.
“That’s one of the things in political conservatism these days,” said Duvall. “I think we try to put things in black and white positions. But the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Russ has a hard time getting into that spot. I know there are people who like Russ. But I feel like his leadership with COVID-19 was not the kind of leadership I’d like to have as a constituent. There are people who are very responsive to him. I think his message is that we can control our own fortunes. But I think there needs to be more of a sense of community.”
Diamond pushed back on Duvall’s characterization when asked to comment on the remarks, saying that he could not recall Duvall reaching out to the people of the 102nd District in his time in office so far. “Communities are based on relationships, which require personal interaction and experience,” said Diamond, who cited his response to COVID-19 as an example of views developed “not by talking, but by listening.”
The 102nd isn’t in terrible shape, Duvall said, but there are things that he believes need to happen in order to make it better – things like raising the minimum wage and investing in technological infrastructure.
“I would say we’re doing sort of OK, but we could be doing better,” Duvall continued. “We can think of people who are not doing great. I think those are the people who are being let down the most.”
Since making his decision to run for office in January, Duvall has been working on the infrastructure of his campaign, soliciting private donations and just trying to get the word out about his platform. The election is five short months away, and there is still plenty of work left to do.
“The first hurdle was getting 300 signatures to get on the ballot,” said Duvall. “I have a very small formal committee. We’ve been working together to get volunteers. What I’ve been doing is building an infra-structure. You’ve got to start thinking about how to fund the campaign. I’m trying to get a grassroots organization going.”
Duvall said his campaign is only soliciting individual contributions.
“What I’m hoping to do is schedule events and meetings to get the word out,” continued Duvall. “With the COVID-19 crisis, it’s been difficult. I want to get out and meet people and see what their concerns are.”
In some ways, Duvall is trying to lay the groundwork for the potential for future Democratic success in his district. But winning or losing in November could go a long way in determining his future as a politician.
“I’ve been thinking about that, honestly,” said Duvall. “If you look at trends and stats with how this seat has gone in the past, there’s not a lot of hope for me. But you never know. I want to give people a choice, an option. But no matter what, my idea for service to the community will stay in place. I think I’ll try to figure out a way to serve the community. It depends on how the election turns out.
“Maybe I can’t win or I have no chance, but I think in a way, it’s time,” concluded Duvall. “But it’s not just me. Matt Duvall by himself can’t do it. But if we work together, we can overcome things. If we do, we’ll all end up in a better place.”
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An earlier version of this article misstated Duvall’s current occupation. We sincerely regret the error.