In historic win, Democrats take Delaware County Council in a ‘clean sweep’

Democrats (from left) Elaine Paul Schaefer, Monica Taylor, and Christine Reuther celebrate their sweep of the three open seats on the Delaware County Council. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

Democrats (from left) Elaine Paul Schaefer, Monica Taylor, and Christine Reuther celebrate their sweep of the three open seats on the Delaware County Council. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

In a historic election, voters chose three Democrats to join Delaware County Council, shutting out Republicans and decisively switching the composition of a county government that the GOP controlled since the Civil War.

“This is a clean sweep,” said Colleen Guiney, chair of the Delaware County Democratic Party.

The Democrats campaigned on a platform of transparency and change, vowing to bring an end to 150 years of one-party rule in the county, which they said led to mismanagement, sweetheart deals, higher taxes and fewer services than their suburban counterparts.

“We are going to change this county, and we are going to make it work for every working family in this county,” said Elaine Schaefer, one of three Democrats elected to the council.

She, along with her slate mates Monica Taylor and Christine Reuther, thanked the Delaware County Democrats who had campaigned in the past.

“I lived with this machine growing up,” said Reuther, who ran for county council in 2015 and lost. “We owe so much to the people who did politics for the Democrats in Delaware County for so many years when it wasn’t fun.”

The change of leadership came just two years after the county elected incumbent Democrats Kevin Madden and Brian Zidek, the first members of their party to sit on the council since its inception. Both have two years left on their terms. 

While who’s in office changed swiftly, voter registration numbers show a steady shift in favor of Democrats.

Edith Blackwell (right center) celebrates others’ wins alongside her own win for Controller of Chester Township at the Delaware County Democratic election night party in Swarthmore. (Emily Cohen for WHYY)

In November 2002, there were 104,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. By 2009, that lead had narrowed to only 13,500. Democrats took the lead for the first time in 2013, and outnumbered Republicans in Delaware County by 33,000 at the end of October, according to the Pennsylvania Department of State.

The result is the latest wave in a sea change among suburban Philadelphia voters, as all four collar counties pull toward Democrats.

“I guess our message didn’t sink through to the taxpayer…The taxpayers got screwed,” said Tom McGarrigle, former Republican state senator and chair of the Delaware County GOP.

Tom McGarrigle (right), chairman of the Delaware County GOP, announces the loss of Republican candidates running for seats on the County Council on Tuesday, November 5, 2019. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

Republicans also lost the race for District Attorney, as Democrat Jack Stollsteimer bumped out incumbent Katayoun Copeland, who replaced former DA Jack Whelan after he stepped down before completing his term. Stollmeier’s campaign received a last-minute boost when billionaire George Soros, who supports progressive candidates, put $100,000 behind his effort.

In September, the Delaware County Fraternal Order of Police endorsed the Democratic slate of candidates, the first time the county’s police union had endorsed non-GOP candidates for the county council.

Even when Republicans outflanked Democrats in Delaware County, the county tended to go blue in every presidential race since Bill Clinton was elected in 1992.

But at the local level, Republicans have remained competitive, controlling local politics since the nineteenth century and dominating the five-member council since its creation via a Home Rule Charter referendum in 1975.

The three open seats had been held by Republicans — Chairman John McBlain and Vice-Chairman Colleen Morrone. They both could not seek reelection due to term limits. Michael Culp decided not to seek reelection. 

Democrats hammered on the fact that Delaware County pays higher taxes than neighboring suburban counties — 26% higher than Chester, 35% higher than Bucks, and 81% higher than Montgomery County — but receives fewer services. 

The Democrats have also called for the creation of a county health department, emphasizing that Delaware County is the largest county in Pennsylvania without one. 

They’ve pushed for prison reform. The county’s George W. Hill Correctional Facility is the only privately-run prison in the state and has been the source of controversy regarding staff shortages and inmate deaths. The candidates have objected not only to its for-profit model, but also to the makeup of the prison board, whose members are not elected.

Last December, the county council unanimously approved a five-year, $264 million contract with GEO Group, Inc. The board has the option of extending that to a nine-year, $495.9 million contract.

Democrats also promised to end sweetheart deals and no-bid contracts, pointing to the planned sale of DELCORA, the county’s sewer authority, to privately-owned Aqua Pennsylvania, a deal they say was done in secret without public discussion and debate.

In the run for the Republican seats, Mike Morgan, Kelly Colvin, and James Raith campaigned on a promise not to raise taxes for the next four years if elected and bring fresh ideas to council. All three tried to distance themselves from Republicans who have dominated local politics for years.

Kelly Colvin, Republican candidate for Delaware County Commissioner, checks her phone on election night at Springfield Country Club. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

Incumbent Democrat Zidek called the result a new day for Delaware County politics.

“For 150 years, we all knew what the deal was: if you want to get something done, you better register as a Republican,” he said. “Well, that shit stops today.”

Delaware County wasn’t alone in flipping away from Republicans. The race for Chester County Council also went to Democrats.  And the race in Bucks County was extremely close, with a few hundred votes deciding which party gets the majority.

WHYY’s Laura Benshoff contributed reporting.

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