Chester County Leadership: Lani Frank, Vice Chair of Chester County Democratic Committee


VISTA Today speaks with Lani Frank about growing up in Queens, her first job as a data entry clerk for her father, her regrets she didn’t study business in college and how the 2000 presidential election compelled her to get involved in local Montgomery County and then Chester County politics.

Frank talks about her favorite campaign experiences, why she is running for her party’s county chairperson position, what she hopes to accomplish should she win and how her values and steadfast determination guides her life.

Lani’s (far left on the back row) 6th Grade class at PS 69 in Jackson Heights, Queens.

Where you were born and where did you grow up, Lani?

I was born in Hawaii, the oldest of two children, which is why my parents named me Lani. My dad was in the service. He and my mom were originally from Brooklyn, New York, so when I was four months old, we moved back to the “states” to Jackson Heights, Queens.

After my dad left the service, he went into retail and worked in inventory control for A&S department store. He eventually went off on his own and owned a retail bookstore called “Pick-a-Pocket Books,” which sold paperback books and greeting cards. The store was about three blocks from my elementary school, so he was always nearby in the neighborhood, which was nice. My mom was a teacher.

What memories do you have of growing up in Queens?

Jackson Heights was considered the suburb of New York City (Manhattan). I lived directly across the street from a cement playground with swings, monkey bars, and a handball court. I remember playing in that playground and seeing people come out to watch games at the big baseball field.

It was a mixed community, and there lots of young families that lived nearby and came to the park, which helped us make friends easily. We went to school with the same kids, so I would say it was a very nice neighborhood community.

Were your parents involved in politics, Lani?

Lani with brother Bob (circa 1980)

No, they were never involved in politics. My parents always voted, but I don’t remember political conversations around the dinner table. I do remember my first awareness of anything political is when President Kennedy was killed.

That day, I remember I was in school, and the teachers were running up and down the hall to tell one another and crying as they did so. I remember seeing my father crying, and I didn’t have any understanding of the political consequences.

The next political milestone I remember was Watergate. I was older, in high school, and although I remember watching it play out on TV, I did not fully understand what was happening at the time.

We moved to Westchester County when I was in 10th grade. I remember my younger brother decided to run for State Representative. I remember handing out pamphlets for him at a train station, and at the time, I had no idea what a State Representative was! I knew nothing about it. My brother was young, but he was political.

Did you play any sports in high school?

I played volleyball and softball. I was a pretty good athlete. I was tall, but I never played basketball . I played third base in softball, which was a challenge because I had to throw the ball all the way over to first base and my arm was not that strong. And then because I was tall, I played volleyball, which I was pretty good at. I was also a twirler with the band, so I was very active.

Lani holding daughter Allison, her husband David and father holding the couple’s twin sons Jesse and Eric.

What was your first job?

After my dad gave up his bookstore, he went to work for a company that distributed cosmetics and sewing notions and other things. He was the controller of that company and had to keep up with the inventory, so he set up a computer system. During my summers and on breaks in college, I worked on data entry, entering the items that were going to be for sale, and pricing them. I also worked as a bookkeeper one summer and hated it.

What lessons did you take from that first job or those first jobs that stay with you today?

I appreciate the marketing aspect of how a business works. I didn’t work in marketing, but I could see the importance of packaging and how materials were presented to the public. I learned the business end of things – how everything had to balance– the budget, the balance sheets, everything being precise. I enjoyed working in a collegial environment with other people.

When I started my degree, I thought I would be a physical therapist. My grandfather had a stroke years earlier, and I watched him being cared for. I thought that was something I might like to do – to help people. After taking a few classes, I realized the science was not my strength, and I ended up going into education to be a teacher like my mother.

Where did you go to college?

I started at Ithaca College, in their physical therapy program. When I realized that physical therapy was not the field for me, Ithaca did not have an elementary education program, so I transferred to Cortland State University. My mother thought it was an excellent career for a young woman – good pay, great benefits, summers off, being with your kids after the school day was over.

My father never suggested that I go into business or marketing and that has always been a source of frustration for me. I always wished I had studied business like him.

Why business?

Ultimately, when I think about politics and when I think about candidates and winning elections, when you boil it down, it’s essentially marketing and sales. Politics is about contrasting one candidate from another. It’s about their unique selling point and presenting that to the voters, like selling a product to consumers. Candidates need to do to distinguish themselves from the other choices and present that to the public, so the public believes they’re the best and will vote for them.

I have good political instincts but by not studying business, I always feel that I missed the educational piece in the marketing field. I worked in advertising as my first career and learned a lot through on the job training.

What kind of music were you listening to in high school and college?

I was not a rocker. I was a fan of the Beach Boys, the Beatles, Dave Clark Five and the Monkeys. I sort of laugh about that taste now. I liked that music because I knew all the words and I could sing along with the songs.

How did you find your way into local politics?

I got involved in politics after what I called the 2000 stolen election of Bush v. Gore. That was 18 years ago. I had voted twice every year before that, but was not involved before. I never knew that getting involved was something that I could do or should do.

Years ago, I had an issue with my health insurance. I remember complaining to my brother that I had this problem and he said to me, “Call your state representative.” At the time, I was like, why would I do that? He then told me that they have a staff that is there to help serve the community and they can help deal with this problem. I didn’t have any understanding of it at the time.

After that 2000 election, I was frantic and depressed over the outcome. I realized that there was something that I could have done. It was at that point that I decided that I would do whatever I could to try to prevent that scenario from occurring again.

What did you do?

I called the Chester County Democrats, and I called four times and left four messages, but nobody ever picked up the phone or called me back. Just by chance, someone in the Montgomery County Democrats then emailed me saying that they were doing a letter stuffing event at their headquarters and needed volunteers. It was an event that the Montgomery County Democrats were hosting with Harris Wofford as the keynote speaker. They needed people to stuff the envelopes to send out their announcement flyer. I said to myself, if Chester County doesn’t want me, I’ll help Montgomery County.

That afternoon, I met a couple of other women there. We got chatting, and somebody started to talk about a group called the Five County Democratic Women’s Coalition. I was hoping there would be somebody from Chester County in the group that I could connect with. And that’s when I met a lot of my early mentors. At the time, they were working on Ed Rendell’s campaign and having fundraisers and meet and greets.

I went to a meeting in Lower Merion Township, and people were walking around with this little badge on their shirt with their name, the word committee person, and their precinct number. At the time I had never heard of a committee person. I asked what that meant and what do they do.  So that’s how I started to learn the political process – by attending events and talking to people about what they were doing in the political process.

When I moved to Berwyn, there was a woman who was running for school board named Marian Schneider.  Marian was a Democrat but she switched to Republican because she understood that she could not win the school board seat as a Democrat. At the time, Marian asked for the Democrats support for her campaign, despite her party change, but the zone leader said they could not support her because of her party registration.

I didn’t understand all these nuances at the time. I could not help her as a party person, but I did help her individually. Following that race, I became a committee person and then a zone leader for Easttown and sort of worked my way up from there. I learned along the way from numerous people who served as mentors to me.

Who were your mentors and what was the most positive experience of your time in politics thus far?

Marian was an early mentor as was Ann Crowley. Ginger Whittington embraced me wholeheartedly when I joined. She was very well connected and had been involved with the National Women’s Political Caucus for years. I became the vice chair of the Pennsylvania chapter, with Ginger as the chair.

I met a couple of other people who were working on the Rendell for Governor campaign – Larry D’Antonio, who is no longer with us. Deb Hodies. Linda Leighbody. We did a lot of fundraising and phone banking for that race. At the same time, Dan Wofford was running for Congress against Jim Gerlach in the 6th Congressional. I did whatever was needed – I stuffed envelopes, knocked on doors, made phone calls. Whatever it took. Unfortunately he was not successful, but Rendell won his race.

What is your best memory of these last 18 years of being involved in local politics?

Winning! I had just come off of an experience in 2004 with Ann Crowley, where  Ann and I ran the Chester County effort of the 2004 presidential and senatorial election in support of John Kerry for President and Joe Hoeffel for Senate and all the down-ballot races running through Chester County.

Ann was behind the scenes as the treasurer and I was the face of the operation working out of the Democratic Party headquarters organizing volunteers. We did fundraising. We built a website. We created an “adopt-a-precinct program,” to build our party infrastructure.

After the election, we formed an ad hoc group we called the 2CDC, focusing on issue-based organizing. We had meetings, published brochures, and coordinated protests against Republican candidates.

Lani Frank (r) with Howard Dean 2004 Presidential Candidate & Former Chair of DNC (with former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter in background)

In 2006, a State Senator in the West Chester area passed away. At the time, Andy Dinniman and Carol Aichele were both County Commissioners. Andy a Democrat and Carol a Republican, and they ran against each other for this newly vacant State Senate seat. That was a special election in the Primary. I worked on Andy’s campaign and he won.

After that, in 2006, Barb MacIlvaine Smith asked me to be her campaign manager. As a campaign manager, I didn’t know everything but worked with a lot of good people. We raised $125,000 for the race and did TV commercials, literature, and direct mail.

When the votes were finally tabulated on Election Night, we knew Barb was losing by 19 votes, but we also knew some ballots hadn’t been counted. We spent the next month fighting for a recount and to get the provisional and absentee ballots counted. Eventually, the court ruled in our favor. Barb won by 28 votes.

What was so unique about that moment, was that Barb’s race was the determining race for control of the State House. It was 101 to 101. Barb’s victory gave the Democrats 102 and control of the State House.

Why are you running for the Chair of the Chester County Democratic Party?

I never planned to do this, but every step along the way was one more set of skills that I learned and one more piece of understanding of the process. I’ve been successful,  having helped elect Carolyn Comitta for Mayor in 2009 and then Carolyn Comitta for State Representative in 2016. We won by 19 votes for Mayor and 25 votes for State Representative. Some friends have nicknamed me “Landslide Lani.”

Having worked in 2004 building that coordinated campaign, I understand how to work with volunteers. That’s a critical element of this process because we are all volunteers. To run an operation, you need the support and the willingness of these volunteers to work long and hard for no pay and under immense pressure. The ability to do that is an essential skill set that I’ve gained.

To me, the political process is like the Super Bowl. It’s exciting, stressful, fraught with disappointment. Despite that pressure, the upside always outweighs the downside. The outcome of these races matter. This is about governing. This is about leadership. This is about decisions that people are making as elected representatives on our behalf. And so who gets elected is critically important to our world, our environment, and our social safety net.

What unique skills do you bring to the party leadership job?

I bring the ability to elect good candidates and to mobilize and inspire others to participate in the process toward a winning outcome. It’s essential to know how things work, to understand tactics, and to be able to preempt bad tactics. I prefer to run positive campaigns, but not everybody does. It’s important to understand how your candidate might be attacked and the negativity that can come against them. It’s also important to understand how to fight back appropriately.

I’m a fighter for every vote. Never give up, never surrender.

So, what are the challenges and opportunities the Democratic Party faces here in Chester County?

2016 was a watershed election and that flushed people out similarly to the way people were flushed out after the 2000 election. People understood that something had gone terribly wrong. For whatever reasons, maybe they didn’t vote or perhaps they voted for a third party because they didn’t like either candidate. They didn’t understand the binary choice that they had or they were trying to send a message that they didn’t like what either party offered leading up to that election. And so we have the outcome we have.

One of the challenges is to move to a Democratic voter registration advantage and not just register people to vote but get people out to vote. Chester County voted for Hillary over Trump by 25,000 votes in a county that when I first started was 2 to 1 registered Republican to Democrat. We have worked hard over these last 18 years. It’s now about a 15,000-voter registration differential.

(From l to r) Melissa Schusterman (SH157), Pam Hacker (candidate SH26), Patricia Maisano (County Treasurer), Yolanda Van de Krol (Clerk of Courts), Lani Frank, (Vice Chair CCDC) Lisa Longo (CCDC Treasurer), Christina Van de Pol (County Coroner), Margaret Reif (County Controller), Katie Muth (Candidate State Senate 44)

We were very effective in 2017. It was the first time any Democratic candidate was elected to a county row office position. The fact is, we had never won a single row office race in the county and last year we won all four. That is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever experienced.

Initially, we thought we had one excellent candidate, but then we recruited these other three candidates who turned out to be amazing as well. They canvassed, they raised money, they inspired others to do the same. We used new technology – texting and digital. Overall, we ran a solid campaign. We, the Party, got out the vote and the candidates made their case for being competent, qualified officials. The key to winning elections is getting the people in our communities to vote and recruiting the best quality candidates. We, the Democrats, can do that now and we were not winning at that game before.

As for challenges, we have contested primaries, so the challenges we have right now are in large part because we have this growing and successful organization, this wealth of riches. We have more candidates than we need. More people want to serve the Party. It’s a good thing. We are doing a really good job with the organization and building that infrastructure, having just come off of a very successful election to add committee people.

I’ve been an integral part of building the Party. In 2014, we made a switch in our party leadership when we elected Brian McGinnis. There had been another woman who had been elected Vice Chair, but she had to step down about six months into her term, so Brian asked me to step in as vice chair. I’ve been Vice Chair for three years serving on the Executive Board.

(l to r) Son Jesse, husband David, daughter Allison, Lani, son Eric.

In my tenure, I’ve instituted weekly meetings so that we stay on track, to plan ahead, to discuss issues before we present them to our Executive Committee. I’ve been heavily involved at the highest level of the organization and feel that serving as Chair would be the next logical step. Brian developed relationships with labor unions and raised a significant amount of money for the Party, which is critical. I hope to build on his efforts

Finally, Lani, what is the best piece of advice you ever received?

Never give up, never surrender. That’s something that I’ve carried with me from an early childhood – to stand up for the things I believe in and to hold my values strong. That’s how I’ve lived my life. That’s how I raised my kids. That’s how I behave politically.

I think being honest and trustworthy is how people should behave. And with me, you get what you get. I don’t mince words. Maybe some people are put off by that. I prefer to deal with people who are honest, and knowing where I stand with them. I choose to be that kind of person.


Editor’s note: Laura Wagoner contributed to this profile.

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