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Races to Watch: Montgomery County Commissioner

By Keegan Gibson, Managing Editor

When we asked PA’s politicos what were the races to watch in 2011, we heard about a dozen campaigns going on this year. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to highlight the races that our readers are watching.

It seems no race has the attention of PA’s politicos this year more than the Montgomery County Commissioner race.

It makes sense: Montgomery is the third largest county in PA and with a population over 800,000, it’s larger than a Congressional district.

It’s also been drifting more and more into play. Democrats have never held a majority on the Board of Commissioners, but elections there have gotten closer and closer over the past decade as more Dems moved out of the city and into the suburbs.

PoliticsPA interviewed all of the Commissioner candidates about their campaigns. Click here to read our interview with the Democratic ticket: State Rep. Josh Shapiro of Abington, and Whitemarsh Township Supervisor Leslie Richards.

Our interview with Republican incumbent Commissioner Bruce Castor and running mate Jenny Brown, Lower Merion Township Commissioner, will be up shortly.

Recent Trends

Republicans enjoyed a voter registration advantage in Montco until 2008, when the surge of presidential primary voters put Democrats over the edge. As of recent registration numbers, Dems edge Republicans by about 244,000 to 209,000, or 46 percent to 39 percent. Last year, Montco was one of just four counties that went for Joe Sestak and Dan Onorato.

However, then-Republican Sen. Arlen Specter defeated challenger (and Montco native) Joe Hoeffel here by a margin of 52 to 45 percent in 2004, though the county went for John Kerry in the Presidential race. And in 2009’s off-year elections, Republicans went six for seven the countywide judicial races. Only Democrat Lois Murphy, who ran for Congress against Rep. Jim Gerlach in 2004 and 2006, was able buck the trend.

Maybe the most interesting election of all was the last commissioner race in 2007.

Castor was the top vote getter in Montgomery County that year, at 26.96 percent of votes cast. Democrat Joe Hoeffel was a close second: 25.05 percent. Republican Jim Matthews earned 24.95 percent, clearing opponent Ruth Damsker by 1.92 percent to take the third spot on the board. Accounting for the fact that a candidate’s maximum performance is 50 percent, Castor defeated Damsker by an adjusted 7.86 percent.

Diving a little deeper into Montco’s 2007 election results, one can’t help but be struck by the tight margins for county row offices. Of 12 countywide seats (including the three Commissioners), only a single candidate managed to clear his or her opponent by more than 4 percent (Republican District Attorney Risa Ferman). The parties split the remaining eight offices four to four, with the following results listed office, margin of victory, winning party.

Clerk of Courts, 2.13 percent, Democrat
Controller, 3.27 percent, Democrat
Coroner, 0.39 percent, Democrat
Prothonotary, 0.31 percent, Democrat
Recorder of Deeds, 2.68 percent, Republican
Register of Wills, 1.97 percent, Democrat
Sheriff, 2.98 percent, Republican
Treasurer, 3.65 percent, Republican

That’s right, voters decided the county Coroner and Prothonotary by about a third of a percent. It’s incredible, and you’d be hard pressed to find any county in the state as competitive as Montco in 2007.

And then, as if to put the icing on the cake, Republican Jim Matthews entered into a leadership deal with Joe Hoeffel – effectively cutting Castor out of the conversation and creating a pseudo-Democratic majority.

The resulting inter- and intra-party fighting has dominated headlines in the county and the region for years. The real question is whether the race is a local phenomenon, or significant statewide.

“The County Commissioner race in Montco certainly has statewide implications,” said Franklin and Marshall pollster Terry Madonna. “The county leans D but is still a bellweather, maybe not quite like Bucks and Delaware but it’s size makes it a plum.”

“Castor has already run statewide, and Shapiro will be a statewide or congressional candidate in the future.  What record they achieve in office does matter, so how they govern is also important. The squabbling going on might matter given the contentiousness of the issues, so some attention should be paid to the governance record.”

Correction: an earlier version of this story incorrectly indicated that a Republican won the office of Prothonotary in 2007. The winner was Mark Levy, a Democrat.

Clarification: regarding the commissioners race, the 4 percent figure compares the first place Republican with the first place Democrat, and the 2nd place Republican with 2nd place Democrat.

12 Responses

  1. why do you not ask them (all (Dem or Rep)) about human trafficking … “right under their noses?”

  2. Jenny just sent this:

    CLOSED MEETINGS: This month, the state legislature passed amendments to the Sunshine Law sponsored by State Rep. Mike Vereb, imposing higher fines for violation of the law. As you may recall, last summer, I participated in a Sunshine Forum hosted by Rep. Vereb. A number of good ideas came from that forum and I am very appreciative of Rep. Vereb’s dedication to this issue. Hopefully, those elected officials whose casual attitudes toward violating the Sunshine Law have frustrated many of us will take their sunshine obligations more seriously given these increased penalties.

    2012 BUDGET DISCUSSIONS: I was pleased that a number of my recent motions relating to fiscals matters passed. These included putting the Township’s checkbook register online; recommendations for putting more teeth in the Township’s debt management policy, requesting a comprehensive list of township services to help in a cost-benefit analysis, and requesting an official board policy for the equipment fund so that decisions to fund or not fund will be made according to a long range plan and not ad hoc.

    After 5 years of consistent and staunch opposition to attempts to restrain spending and freeze tax rates; and after years of near hysteria in reaction to our requests to remove funding for certain vacant staff positions, suddenly the Township manager and the Board president, Liz Rogan, claim that indeed they don’t need those vacant staff positions and the Township does not have to raise taxes for 2012. This is good news but, you know what they say about some things being too good to be true. Their sudden, and somewhat inexplicable, 180 degree turn has some of us asking why they think a 0% tax increase is possible this year, but wasn’t in the last 5 years when the Township actually ended up having some surpluses! You can be assured that I and my colleagues who have been asking for such a budget will review this carefully to determine whether it is a legitimate proposal (does it actually restrain spending or simply rely on deficit spending by drawing down reserves) and not just an election year gimmick. Ms. Rogan and her colleagues who have most vocally opposed spending restraint (C. Brian Maguire, George Manos, Paul McElhaney) are up for re-election this year. We will see if they are serious about reducing expenditures.

  3. The best way to frame this race is to note it boils down to a choice between Brown/Richards, as to who is excluded.

    In that regard, it is vital to compare their township-level records, rather than just uncritically disseminating their campaign rhetoric.

    In my view, Jenny’s achievements in Lower Merion are stellar, noting both her $$$-efficiencies and mandated-transparencies; she has also provided legal/professional services to other townships that are consistent with this public-service philosophy.

    In her interview, putting aside euphemisms, Leslie noted her profession [civil engineer], yielding “It’s my private sector experience: helping communities improve their quality of life, making sure that large infrastructure projects get done on time and on budget, and my reputation for always keeping an eye on the bottom line.”

    Jenny has specific achievements; what are Leslie’s?

  4. “Jimmy & Alice – Thanks for your comments, from identical IP addresses.”

    Lol. Busted!

  5. Jimmy & Alice – Thanks for your comments, from identical IP addresses. I was comparing the top GOP with the top Dem, 2nd GOP with 2nd Dem.

    Brett & Bob – Thanks for the catch.

  6. Yes, Jimmy, I was wondering about that too. Typical Democrat slant. On a hundred point scale the Republican owns by 8 percentage points and somehow that is less than 4. Liberal new math. Note to PoliticsPA: when the best you can do is 50% and a vote for two, and you have four candidates, you have to double everyone’s vote percentages to be ale to compare it to a hundred point race where two candidates are in a race. So relatively speaking to all candidates running for any office, Castor did far and away better. Makes you wonder if the Gibson character is on the same planet as the rest of us.

  7. Castor beat Damsker by 3.96 points out of a possible 50. All the row officer races are out of a 100. So to compare apples and oranges, Castor won by nearly 8 points. The race is against the last place finisher since the top three make it. So what kind of math are you using, Mr. Keegan?

  8. Actually, Onorato carried four counties—Delaware, Lackawanna, Montgomery, and Philadelphia. Sestak carried these and Allegheny, Erie, and Luzerne.

  9. It is the non partisans and independents that will determine the outcome of this race as well as the rows – a point that the story missed. This voting block is made up primarily of moderate R’s who feel abandoned by the right wing leaning national party. If the GOP ticket can appeal to this group with a pocketbook message they have a shot.

  10. What I find fascinating is the fact that the new lean to Democrats is rightly attributed to “Dems moved out of the city into the suburbs”, yet those new Montco voters can’t see what is right in front of them – they moved out of the city because of failed Democrat policies, and they found the suburbs attractive because of successful Republican policies – and yet still identify with and vote for democrats.

  11. A correction: In the 2007 race the Democrats were also sucessful in winning the county row office of Prothonotary.

  • Understanding that basic education funding should/will be first, what should be the next highest priority for the General Assembly?

    • Raising The Minimum Wage (25%)
    • Legalizing Adult-Use Marijuana (24%)
    • None of the above. Something Else. (20%)
    • Economic Development (14%)
    • Higher Education (8%)
    • Public Transportation (8%)
    • Workforce Opportunities and Innovation (2%)

    Total Voters: 51

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