Delco races could accelerate changing political landscape in Philly suburbs

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The feet of a woman at in a voting booth

(Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Election Day is on Nov. 7, less than a month away. Yes, there is an election this year — though many people are focused on the congressional and governor’s races next year.

WHYY’s senior reporter Dave Davies has been following an intense battle in the Philadelphia suburbs. He spoke with “Morning Edition” host Jennifer Lynn about it.

Jennifer Lynn: Dave, you’ve been taking a look at the battle for two seats on the Delaware County council. That’s the five-member body that runs county government … Most of us don’t pay a whole lot of attention to county government. Why have these races piqued your interest?

Dave Davies: Because Delaware County is kind of an upside-down world politically, and this is, in some ways, an upside-down race that could begin a sea change in that part of the region. You know, if you look at the demographics of Delaware County, it’s the most blue-collar of the four suburban counties in southeastern Pennsylvania.

There are strong unions there, and you’d expect that Democrats would do well, but it’s been dominated for decades by the Republican Party in county government and the townships. Democrats have never won a seat on the council, but Democratic registration is growing, and the Democrats think they have a shot at capturing those seats and, in the next few years, rousting the Republicans from control of the county.

JL: I hear what you’re saying. Why have the Republicans been so dominant in Delaware County?

DD: They’ll tell you it’s because they provide good government. But the Republicans for years had a reputation for running a tough, disciplined political machine, the kind of thing people associate with South Philly ward leaders. The Republicans would use patronage jobs to build loyalty. They required government employees to make political contributions and allegedly used government services to keep people in line. A lot of this was decades ago — the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

I spoke to Millersville professor John McLarnon, who wrote a book about the Delaware County Republicans, and he told me that when the city of Chester became predominantly African-American, the Republican machine still ruled because they were tough. I also talked to the current county Republican Party Chairman Andy Reilly. He says that’s ancient history, nobody considers party affiliation now in jobs or services. The Democrats say it still goes on.

JL: Dave, why do the Democrats think the they have shot this time? What rays of hope do they have?

DD:  Well, the county is changing. I looked at party registration numbers and they’re really striking. You look back at 2000, there were 120,000 more Republicans than Democrats registered in that county — a 2-to-1 margin. Now, Democrats have a slight majority in the county. That’s partly because people are moving into the county from Philadelphia. They’re Democrats, but there’s a clear trend here.

JL: Tell us about the candidates going after these county council seats, what are they saying?

DD: Well, I said this is an upside-down place in some ways, politically. One is that, historically, local unions have backed the Republican Party. One of the Republican candidates is Dave White. I spoke to him Saturday — a guy who’s proud of his blue-collar roots.

The two Democratic candidates are both successful businessmen from the financial sector. Neither has run for office before. Kevin Madden, who is 38, says he was inspired to run, in part, by the election of Donald Trump. I will note this year, for the first time in memory, the county AFL-CIO Council endorsed Madden, the Democratic candidate in this race. The other Democrat, Brian Zidek, 47, is also a first time candidate.

JL: You’ve said this is a hard-fought campaign. What are the lines of debate or attack?

DD: Dave White — the Republican union guy — he’s an incumbent councilman. He actually owns his own mechanical contracting business that’s done millions of dollars’ worth of work for local governments. So the Democrats are talking about his contracts and campaign contributions, saying he’s one of these insiders who benefits from a pay-to-play relationships. The other Republican candidate, John Perfetti, is a retired magistrate and longtime office holder. So the Democrats are saying they’re part of a system that lacks transparency and is corrupt.

JL: Let me guess, the Republicans say the Democrats are wealthy guys with no track record.

DD: That’s exactly what they’re saying. It’s true they haven’t run for office — and the Republicans accuse the two Democrats of sleazy business practices that they say are anti-worker. The Democrats have answers for that. It’s pretty complicated. People can look at the websites and check that out — I would encourage you to look at that. In sum, the Democrats think this is a moment of transition. Montgomery County was ruled by the Republicans for 100 years before it flipped a few years ago. Democrats say that is inevitable in Delaware County and it starts with this election.

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