Democrats challenge longstanding GOP control in Delco race

In Delaware County, Democrats hope to topple the Republican machine that's ruled the county for decades.

Delaware County council candidate Kevin Madden (left) was one of two Democrats to win seats on the five-member board, while the bid of Republican candidate Dave White (right) fell short. (Dave Davies/WHYY)

Delaware County council candidate Kevin Madden (left) was one of two Democrats to win seats on the five-member board, while the bid of Republican candidate Dave White (right) fell short. (Dave Davies/WHYY)

Election Day is coming soon, and there’s a hard-fought, high-stakes battle in the Philly suburbs, where Democrats are taking on a Republican organization that’s dominated Delaware County for a hundred years.

“I think, in the long run, this is going to be a Democratic county,” said Democratic Party county chairman David Landau in an interview.

Republicans see it differently.

Delaware County is something of an upside-down world in politics.

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Of the four suburban counties in Southeast Pennsylvania, it has the highest poverty rate, the lowest median household income, and a waterfront industrial corridor with strong blue-collar unions – the kind of place where Democrats should do well.

But the county has been completely dominated for decades by Republicans, who’ve had plenty of support from organized labor.

And in the upside-down race this year for two county council seats, an incumbent Republican is a lifelong union steamfitter with a blue-collar style, while the two Democratic candidates are both successful businessmen from the financial sector.

Politics for keeps

The Delaware County Republican Party for years had a reputation for success — and for running a tough, disciplined political machine.

The Republicans would use patronage jobs to build loyalty and allegedly used government services — trash collection, property assessment, etc. — as a form of political retribution.

Critics say it practiced Tammany Hall machine politics better than any collection of Philadelphia ward leaders.

Millersville University history professor John McLarnon wrote a book about the Delaware County Republican organization, called “Ruling Suburbia.”

He told me the machine was successful mostly because it gave voters what they wanted — low taxes, and decent schools and services.

But he said politicians were serious about politics and holding onto power, even in a city like Chester after it became predominantly African-American.

“They did it through a combination of intimidation and patronage,” McLarnon told me in an interview.

In the past, he said, it was understood that you wouldn’t get public employment without Republican voter registration, and county services also could depend on your political allegiance.

“If you had some elderly parents, say, who needed to go into the county nursing home,” McLarnon said. “You didn’t get into the county nursing home without sponsorship from your precinct captain, your ward leader.”

McLarnon’s book is mostly about the Delaware County of decades ago and its legendary leader, John McClure, who died in 1965.

County Democrats say the Republicans still play hardball, using services as political weapons, and making sure only registered Republicans get public jobs.

Current county Republican chairman Andy Reilly told me I’ve been hearing partisan tall tales.

“It’s just a myth,” Reilly said. “I mean, that may have been, way back in the old days of John McClure, but I was a county commissioner. And I can tell that if you look at the county employment registration, they mirror the county [party] registrations. That’s just ludicrous.”

Winds of change

Still, Republicans have reason to worry. In 2000, there were 120,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in Delaware County, more than a 2-1 margin. Now there are 16,000 more Democrats, due partly to Philadelphians moving into the county that went heavily for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.

Democratic chairman David Landau says the Republican organization’s days are numbered, in part because it can’t separate itself from the national GOP.

“This party can’t bring Donald Trump to Delaware County twice in the last election and now Paul Ryan to Delaware County touting that kind of far-right extreme conservatism, and [expect] there won’t be any consequence for it,” Landau said. “Now there’s going to be a consequence for that.”

To get control, the Democrats have to win elections, and there are two seats up on the five-member county council, where Democrats have never won a seat in the 41 years of its existence.

Reilly said Republicans win elections in Delaware County because voters are independent minded, and like what they get from the Republican candidates who are rooted in their communities.

Meet the candidates

When I followed the candidates to the Haverford Township Day parade recently, I spoke to more than a dozen voters. Most had no idea there’s a county council election in November.

In a low-interest election, the party with the organization and allies to get its people to the polls has an edge — and one of the striking things about the Republican organization in Delaware County is its support among labor unions.

Republican council candidate Dave White
Republican council candidate Dave White (Dave Davies/WHYY)

At the parade, I spoke with Dave White, one of the two Republican council candidates. He’s proud of his blue-collar roots.

“I’m a [Local] 420 steamfitter, third generation. My son’s here, he’s fourth-generation steamfitter,” White said. “I’m a Republican. Steamfitters, union members, AFL-CIO members believe in good fiscal management. They have to pay taxes like everyone else.”

The other Republican candidate is John Perfetti, a retired magistrate judge.

It’s worth noting that for the first time anyone can remember, the county AFL-CIO has endorsed one of the Democrats, Kevin Madden.

Neither of the Democratic candidates has run for office before.

Madden, 38, was vice president of a private equity firm and is founder and CEO of NightOwl Technologies, which his website describes as a mobile technology company.

Madden told me was inspired to run, in part, by the election of Donald Trump

“For me this was a rock-bottom moment for our country,” he said. “At a time when we most need great leadership, we have the worst. I wouldn’t be running if it weren’t for what spurred this generational call to action.”

The other Democratic candidate is Brian Zidek, 47, president of Excess Reinsurance.

Attacks and counterattacks

The campaign has been nasty.

The Democrats focus a lot on White, the incumbent councilman, who isn’t just a union steamfitter.

He owns a mechanical contracting business that has done millions of dollars’ worth of work for local governments.

So Democrats focus on his contracts and campaign contributions, saying he’s an insider benefiting from pay-to-play relationships. They say White and Perfitti are longtime players in a system that lacks transparency and allows the politically connected to help themselves to taxpayer largesse.

Republicans say the Democrats are clueless elitists, wealthy guys with no track record of service to the community. And they accuse Madden and Zidek of sleazy, anti-worker business practices.

I can’t recite and evaluate all the charges and responses here. Like most political attacks, there are exaggerations and cherry-picked facts. The Delaware County Daily Times has done some good reporting on this, and the campaign websites have plenty of material to go over.

The stakes

Montgomery County was ruled by Republicans for 100 years until it flipped just a few years ago.

Democrats say that’s inevitable in Delaware County, and when the change comes, it won’t just be in county government.

They say once the networks of patronage and fundraising are broken, you’ll see more Democrats on township boards, in state legislative seats (they’ve won some of those already) and eventually in Congress.

Republicans say they’ll keep winning because their candidates come from the communities they serve and give voters what they want.

In any case, this will be an interesting November in Delaware County.

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