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Rep. backing new Pa. flag is ready for your angry emails

State Rep. Joe Webster (D., Montgomery) has introduced a resolution to replace Pennsylvania’s 100-year-old flag.

Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.
Your Postmasters: Colin Deppen & Tanisha Thomas

June 23, 2023
Inside this edition: Good witches, old house, Gettysburg dinosaurs, legal ruins, I-95 jet dry, and the push to redesign Pennsylvania's flag. Welcome back.
🏆 PA POP QUIZ: Think you know your news? Prove it with the latest edition of The Great PA News Quiz: State budget battles, record-low unemployment, and the return of I-95.
A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

Pennsylvania native Taylor Swift set an all-time attendance record with her Eras Tour stop at Acrisure Stadium in Pittsburgh last week. What was the head count?

A. 68,501
B. 73,117
C. 80,203
D. 83,455

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)

Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.

» One thing worth reading: Rachel Yoder wrote about "The Good Witches of Pennsylvania" for Harper's and the Amish woman she met practicing "powwow or Braucherei or pulling pain or active prayer or witchcraft," though she'd never call it any of those things.

» One place worth knowing: America's oldest residential street is Elfreth’s Alley in Philadelphia. A three-bedroom, one-bath house there is going for $500,000. It was built in 1728, when Pennsylvania was a colony.

» One place worth visiting: Dinosaur enthusiasts can find footprints right here in Pennsylvania. Three dinosaur prints lie across a bridge at the foot of Big Round Top in Gettysburg, with no surrounding fanfare. 

» Several PA ruins worth exploring: There's something exciting about visiting places no one frequents, but trespassing laws may apply. WHTM has a guide to abandoned places you can legally explore.

» One update worth sharing: Data show the collapse of I-95 in Philly didn't create a traffic nightmare after all. The road is set to reopen this weekend with a little help from a Pocono Raceway jet dryer.

Support vital journalism for Pennsylvania. The future of local news is in your hands. Donate now.
» COVID-19 UPDATE: Your guide to finding resources on cases, vaccines, and tests

» Democrats dismayed by Shapiro's school voucher support

» Pa. lawmakers pursue billions for hydrogen hubs amid concerns

» Report blames staff exodus for county's midterm debacle

» Pa. lawmakers clash over billions in family tax credits

» Why does Penn State spend millions on outside law firms?
The Pennsylvania flag hanging alongside a staircase at the state Capitol building in Harrisburg, the dome of which is visible in the background of the photo.
The Pennsylvania flag at the Pennsylvania Capitol. (Tom Gralish / Philadelphia Inquirer)

Utah’s redesigned state flag is barely three months old and the governor already regrets it — or at least the public response to it.

"I was hoping this would be a thing that brings people together," Republican Gov. Spencer Cox said of the makeover, per the Wall Street Journal. "I should have known better." 

Soon, it could be Pennsylvania’s turn. 

As Cox suffers the slings and arrows of a partisan backlash over a “woke” beehive flag that doesn't take effect until 2024, Pennsylvania state Rep. Joe Webster (D., Montgomery) has decided to try his luck here with a resolution to replace Pennsylvania’s 100-year-old Seal on a Bedsheet, or S.O.B

He’s not alone. Amid Utah’s contested overhaul (a repeal effort launched almost immediately), lawmakers in Minnesota have teed up a redesign of their own, and Illinois and Maine are set to consider their own changes. It is, put simply, a banner time to be a banner revisionist. 

Ted Kaye, a flag expert and secretary of the North American Vexillological Association (NAVA), told PA Local the wave of reassessments has roots in the nationwide purge of Confederate symbols seen in recent years and a broader reexamination of American symbology. 

But, he added, it also owes to the popularity of NAVA’s Good Flag, Bad Flag guidebook and Roman Mars' TED Talk on flag design with almost seven million views, both of which spurred people to “reexamine the effectiveness of their state flags and advocate for change.”

That change, Kaye noted, is more politically feasible when the underlying motive is “removing offensive symbolism” and not just “this flag isn’t very good.”

And Pennsylvania’s flag is firmly in the latter camp, having been called drab, forgettable, unmarketable, undistinguishable, old-fashioned—the list of pejoratives goes on. Webster agreed with those adjectives, and Kaye said while “a wonderful repository of the state's heritage,” Pennsylvania’s flag “fails the fundamental function of a flag—signaling at a distance.” 

PA Local caught up with Webster this week to ask why he’s doing this in the throes of budget season, how the process might actually work if greenlit by the General Assembly, whether he’s ready for the hate mail, and, to paraphrase and sanitize a favorite question posed by readers of stories like this one: “Don’t they (meaning legislators) have better things to do?” 

On that last one, Webster said yes, he does, and he’s doing them. 

An alternative to the Pennsylvania flag colored green, yellow, and blue and featuring the Keystone symbol.
Tara Stark's Keystone Flag design. (Courtesy of Tara Stark)

“It’s budget season and, you know, I am focused on those bigger issues right now. So, I have not been whipping votes or cosponsors on this idea yet.”

It’s unclear what the appetite will be when he finally does. As we noted in a March piece about fellow Montgomery County Democratic state Rep. Joe Ciresi’s ongoing quest to replace Pennsylvania’s state song, tradition is a hell of a drug.

Webster is confident his flag resolution won’t pass this summer. In fact, it might not pass at all. (Not only would legislators need to approve the creation of the commission Webster wants to lead the process, they’d also have to sign off on the new flag once it’s chosen, and past attempts to update the state song indicate there will be lots of differing opinions.) 

Webster said he knows there are more pressing issues facing Pennsylvania and its large and divided legislature today. He acknowledged no constituent approached him about the flag before his redesign resolution went public, though they definitely have since. (His name has already been added to the state flag’s dedicated Wikipedia page, so no backing out now.) 

But Webster seemed to genuinely believe that changing the flag could be transformative, and not just in the obvious way. Allow him to explain:

“It’s representative of how difficult it is to do anything [in Harrisburg]. … But we have to change our perception of ourselves, and maybe doing it will provide a little inspiration so that we can take on the next problem.” 


He continued: “Every [bill] puts a little pressure on the [GOP-led] state Senate to get with it. And I think there is a lot of water built up behind that dam, and eventually it’ll either go over the top or through a crack somewhere.” 

So, if this resolution gets past the dam, what then? 

Nothing is written in stone at this point, but Webster said a commission would be formed — possibly helmed by legislators or a state agency — and an open call for proposals or suggestions would likely follow. That’s when he expects the floodgates to open. 

Twitter already has lots of comical ideas. Just see the 110 quote tweets on Spotlight PA reporter Stephen Caruso’s share of Webster’s co-sponsorship memo.

There are already serious options that Webster likes, namely the Keystone Flag designed by Harrisburg-based vexillologist Tara Stark, who freed the current flag of the busy coat of arms cluttering up its aesthetic impact and — as you’ll see a third of the way down this page — making it largely indistinguishable from a host of other states’. 

“It should be simple enough that a child can draw it from memory,” Stark told PA Local in March. 

Flags and flag design are certainly more accessible than areas of policy like corporate tax rates, so it is to be expected that the response will be more voluminous than normal, both good and bad. 

Kaye put it this way: “For many people, a flag is the embodiment of the place it represents, so criticizing the flag can be perceived as criticizing the place itself, thus any change may be resisted. Furthermore, any change confronts the 'mere exposure effect,' where people prefer something just because it is familiar. And perhaps some people resist ANY change as a challenge to the status quo with which they are comfortable (and some use the language of ‘cancel culture’ in their emotional response).” 

Utah knows what he’s talking about. And Webster might someday too. 

Asked if he’s ready for it, Webster sounded less certain.

“I think I am. I think I have to be ready for that. And the examples are right in front of my face. So many people responded to this and not my riparian buffer bill,” he said with a laugh. 

"But while we’re focused on the biggest issues before us [minimum wage and nurse-to-patient ratios, for example], let’s start to build some momentum and let’s raise the flag and let everyone know we’re here.”

Colin Deppen, Spotlight PA

Correction: This article has been updated to correct details about Utah's new state flag.

Our favorite quote about Pennsylvania — or from a Pennsylvanian — this week.

"On the day she heard God tell her to buy a mountain, Tami Barthen already sensed that her life was on a spiritual upswing."

—The opening line of Stephanie McCrummen's paywalled piece in The Atlantic on the purchase of a Pennsylvania mountain by members of the country’s fastest-growing Christian movement, the same that helped fuel Trump’s rise 

Our favorite reader-submitted photo of the week.

A mountain laurel — Pennsylvania's state flower — in bloom along the Armstrong bike trail, via Kimberly D. Send us your photos by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.

A closeup of pink and white flowers on a bush.
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

The answer is "B."

Taylor Swift earned bragging rights with her June 17 show in Pittsburgh, setting an attendance record of 73,117 people — more than any other artist (even Garth Brooks) or sporting event ever had there. 

"... if I was a man, I'd be the man."

Ten-year-old Katie Guarlotti of Jeanette was at the June 16 show (night one of two), which narrowly failed to beat Brooks' 72,887-person record set in 2019, but she received Swift's hat as a gift, telling KDKA-TV: "I thought I was gonna pass out."

Thanks for reading PA Local. We'll see you back here next week. But first ... send us your feedback. What did you like? What didn't you like? 

Support vital journalism for Pennsylvania. The future of local news is in your hands. Donate now.
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