Meet the Man Behind the Grassroots Tidal Wave to Reopen Pennsylvania – Lancaster County’s Matthew Bellis
Protecting the vulnerable and ensuring liberty are not mutually exclusive
Lancaster County’s Matthew Bellis is really a perfect fit as the face for what is arguably the fastest growing political movement in Pennsylvania.
Imposing in height and with the voice of a seasoned radio DJ, he brings a professional marketer’s ability to hone a message and a communication specialist’s ability to stay on point.
That’s how he – along with his friends Jeff Kaufman and Teo De Las Heras – were able to create a Facebook group – a private Facebook group, mind you – that grew to over 65,000 members in one week, has garnered the support of dozens of state legislators and now has more than 100,000 members of all political persuasions with one goal – to reopen Pennsylvania and end Gov. Tom Wolf’s draconian lockdown.
But it isn’t just Bellis’ marketing and public relations savvy that makes him the right man to lead this charge – it’s his absolute commitment to his libertarian and Christian values.
Because despite – along with Kaufman and De Las Heras – building up a truly grassroots political movement 100,000 strong, Bellis pledges that as soon as Pennsylvania is reopened, #ReOpen PA will shut down.
“I have no desire to be a professional protester, a lobbyist or politician. That’s not a world I want to live in,” Bellis says as we sit down at Lancaster-blog’s offices somewhere in Lancaster city. “That’s a central planner’s dream. That’s not what I’m about. I want to live and work on a voluntary basis.
“We have no desire to make this a job or political force or axe we can wield. The goal of ReOpen PA is to reopen Pennsylvania,” Bellis says.
This Cincinnatus-style approach permeates Bellis’ outlook and principles. And it’s perhaps that – pardon the pun – openness along with his charisma that has propelled the group to its heights while a number of other well-meaning start-ups opposed to Wolf’s closure have failed to launch.
Since starting the group they have held rallies at the capitol in Harrisburg and in small towns throughout Pennsylvania, attracting thousands of protesters and politicians including state Rep. Russ Diamond and state Sen. Doug Mastriano, who is already being touted as a favored Republican candidate for governor in 2022.
But let’s go back to the start. Bellis, 37, is happily married and a father of three. He’s lived in Lancaster since 2003. He works for a private healthcare company that will remain nameless, given how often the unhinged left will attack families and employers of political activists they see opposing their agenda.
Back on April 13, Kaufman and De Las Heras created the Facebook page and approached Bellis about joining the group. Being both concerned about Wolf’s seizure of emergency powers and an entrepreneur who likes building up organizations, he jumped at the chance.
The first thing, he said, was to fix the messaging. They had to get the goal of the group focused and sharpened, and that meant also ensuring that no side issues or agendas got tacked on.
They came up with: “Protect the vulnerable. Open the Economy. Champion Liberty.”
“Simple, focused. We started calling radio stations, state legislators, because we were concerned with how severe the closure was and we had no idea what reopening would even look like, and no one was talking about that,” Bellis says.
“Meanwhile, the Facebook group took off even though it was private. I think that actually helped because it ensured we had people committed specifically to reopening Pennsylvania, not to talking about the corona virus, or what other states were doing or about Trump or anything like that,” Bellis said. “It avoided distractions.”
Even as the group took off, there came accusations here and across the country that groups demanding their states reopen were astroturfed rather than grassroots.
“(State) Senator Vincent J. Hughes had an op-ed attacking the reopen movement, saying it was by out-of-state, paid operatives, a Republican sham – and I thought wait a minute, he’s talking about me?” Bellis says, laughing. “I’ve lived in Pennsylvania since I was 15, and if there’s a check for me from some organization I’m still waiting for it.
“But seriously, when I saw (Hughes’ article) it was a confirmation that there are a lot of politicians who have no idea what they are talking about, and that they live in a bubble instead of seeking truth,” he says. “They see these patterns of reopen groups popping up – people independently wanting answers and wanting their liberties – and they can convince themselves the pattern can only exist because of some secret cabal propping these groups up. The reality is correlation isn’t causation. People can come to the same ideas and conclusions independently.”
Right now the state is slowly, grudgingly seeing a loosening of Wolf’s choke collar, but those who think Wolf has gone way too far are pushing to speed the plow. The whole political back and forth over Wolf’s seizure of emergency powers could result in a constitutional crisis this week, when the state legislature resumes session.
This raises a natural question – what does victory look like for ReOpen PA?
“My issue with the legislation is that many people believe it to be a silver bullet that will fix the larger problem,” Bellis says, considering his words carefully. “While the legislative fix is an important element, and there are good measures in the works, with the constitution of both Pennsylvania and the United States, there is the principle that ultimately the people have the final say.
“Take speed limits. We have speed limits in the law, but in reality they aren’t necessarily laws because if everyone is going 55 in a 45, the people have spoken by their actions,” he says. “Legislation is just words on paper and bills like Senate Bill 323 and House Bill 826 are important, but they don’t ultimately mean a darn thing if the people of Pennsylvania don’t step up and act brave.
“These are executive orders (from Wolf) – not laws. It’s why the sheriff and DA in Lancaster County said they won’t enforce them,” Bellis says. “These are suggestions from the government and at some point we have to say ‘thanks but no thanks’ and act in the spirit of liberty. So yeah, the legislators have work to do but ultimately it has to be backed by the will of the people.
“Final victory? When the governor gives up his emergency declaration because the people have spoken,” Bellis says. “That’s what it looks like for me.”
His libertarian priors come through strongest in defending businesses that require protocols like masks or social distancing.
“I there’s a business that wants me to wear a mask, I have the option of going there or going to a competitor, it’s a voluntary interaction. We have to respect each other’s individual liberties and not coerce people.”
Bellis says his activism has come at a price, even as he is welcomed like a rock star at Reopen PA rallies. More than 200 turned out for a rally in Gettysburg on May 22, despite the rain, where Bellis, Mastriano and a number of other local civic and political leaders spoke to an enthusiastic crowd.
“On social media and otherwise I have been attacked, had people wish death on me, mischaracterize me and lie about me, but I don’t mind,” he says. “Pennsylvanians have a long history of respect for individual rights and liberties, of the Quaker practice of the non-aggression principle, and that’s why this movement has gained the traction it has.
“The best way to live your life is in liberty,” he says. “That’s what this is about. We have an invisible monster to fight. It’s not an either/or proposition. It’s a both/and attitude. We can protect people’s health and at the same time work to keep liberties intact. We can reopen the economy and practice safety. These are not mutually exclusive.”