Montgomery County GOP candidates square off in party primary

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The Montgomery County Republican Committee hosted a candidate's forum at the Upper Merion Township Building in King of Prussia, Pa. on Thursday, February 28, 2019. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

The Montgomery County Republican Committee hosted a candidate's forum at the Upper Merion Township Building in King of Prussia, Pa. on Thursday, February 28, 2019. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

A contentious primary election battle for county commissioner nominations is underway in suburban Montgomery County, where Republican voters have a clear choice over the party’s future as it seeks to make a comeback in a county now largely controlled by Democrats.

On one side in the GOP battle are Joe and Sean Gale, a pair of brash, conservative millennial brothers who regularly call party leaders and Republican elected officials RINOs (Republicans In Name Only).

In this file photo, Montgomery County Republican Joe Gale pictured here during his candidacy for commissioner (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

Joe Gale is the county party’s highest-ranking elected official, having run against party leaders four years ago at the age of 26 to capture the one seat reserved for the minority party on the three-member county commission.

Now 30, he’s recruited his brother Sean, 26, to run with him in hopes of winning the two slots on the party ballot for commissioner. Sean is an attorney and best known in political circles for running his brother’s campaign four years ago.

Sean Gale, candidate for county commissioner, stands for a portrait during a forum held at the Upper Merion Township Building in King of Prussia, Pa. on Thursday, February 28, 2019. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

A year ago, Sean explored running for Congress. Their campaign announcement says Sean works as “general counsel for a health care conglomerate that provides drug and alcohol addiction treatment along with psychiatric and therapeutic services for children and adults.” The Gales live together with their parents, a fact sometimes cited by critics as evidence of their inexperience.

Each party nominates two candidates for commissioner. Voters in the general election pick two, and the top three vote-getters win a seat on the commission. The system ensures at least one seat for the minority party.

Also running for the two GOP commissioner nominations are Fred Connor, Dean Eisenberg and France Krazalkovich, more traditional party loyalists who tout their experience in local government and a commitment to fiscal conservatism.

Joe Gale said in an interview he’s happy to chart a different course.

“Because I’m an independent conservative, I’m a threat to the establishment,” he said. “And the public appreciates that I’m not a puppet on a string for party bosses.”

At candidate forums, the non-Gale candidates have mostly stuck to talking about their own qualifications, but Eisenberg has taken issue with the Gales’ tone.

“We need to stop the name-calling, the finger-pointing, the RINOs,” Eisenberg said at a forum in Abington. “It does nothing but separate us. We need to stick together.”

Party preference?

The Gales say party leaders are determined to defeat them in the primary.

County GOP chair Liz Havey takes strong exception to that.

She said she’s supporting no one, and she is taking great care to be even-handed.

“We’ve had three forums open to the public, and we’ve invited every one of the candidates,” Havey said. “We’ll have our convention where every candidate will have an opportunity to speak. There’s no secret meetings of leaders. There’s been no executive committee meetings in many weeks, just to head that [suspicion] off.”

The party’s 700 committee people are invited to a nominating convention March 14 to consider endorsements for several offices. Havey said she doesn’t think there will be an endorsement for county commissioner, and she’s personally recommending that the party “continue with this open process.”

Gale backlash

Joe Gale takes pride in a confrontational approach, both within the party and at meetings of the county commission, where he says he regularly exposes the corruption of Democrats.

But his style has alienated some party stalwarts.

Michele Johnson is a veteran Republican activist in the county and a GOP state committee member who supported Joe Gale’s campaign four years ago.

She said she’s disappointed with his conduct.

“As the most senior elected person in our party, he hasn’t demonstrated the team-player values Ronald Reagan used to talk about,” Johnson said in an interview. “He hasn’t been a leader and team player for our party.”

She said she’s found Sean Gale to be “combative” in candidate forums.

Merry Woods, the county’s jury commissioner and its only elected Republican besides Joe Gale, described getting a call from Joe Gale when she was thinking of running for county commissioner.

He was, she said, “enraged. He said he would come at me hard if I chose to run against him,” adding that Gale said it would “get bloody.”

Woods decided she didn’t have the makings of a viable campaign, but in announcing her decision not to run at a candidate forum, she described her call from Gale and said she “will never be intimidated by a bully.”

Gale acknowledged in an interview that he called Woods, but said he was not enraged, and didn’t threaten to come after her. He says the story is the “same kind of nonsense they throw at the president.”

As for Johnson’s criticism of his temperament, Gale said “the vast majority of the public appreciates me being vocal, the stances I take, and the way I do it.”

The alternatives

The other three Republican candidates in the race have experience in local government in the county.

  • Fred Connor, 55, is a management consultant and a supervisor in Whitpain Township. He described himself as a “pro-life family man,” a Second Amendment supporter and a former Marine. He supports Trump and said building the border wall is “a no-brainer.”
Fred Connor, candidate for county commissioner, stands for a portrait during a forum held at the Upper Merion Township Building in King of Prussia, Pa. on Thursday, February 28, 2019. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

He said he’s proud that Whitpain Township has the fifth-lowest tax burden among the 62 municipalities in the county, but he thinks school boards are taxing and spending too much. He said the county party must support and elect school board members with business and financial backgrounds.

He said at a candidates forum he wants to bring more public-private partnerships to county government “like our new $7 million Center Square Park, which the taxpayers of Whitpain paid just a few thousand dollars for, because we came up with a partnership with a contractor and a rec association to build that 100-acre park.”

Such partnerships and “fiscal realism,” he said, are what the county needs.

  • Dean Eisenberger, 54, is a former Plymouth Township Council member who had a 14-year career at the Plymouth Police Department before leaving at the rank of lieutenant to run his own business.
Dean Eisenberger, candidate for county commissioner, stands for a portrait during a forum held at the Upper Merion Township Building in King of Prussia, Pa. on Thursday, February 28, 2019. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

Eisenberger said at a candidates’ forum that the two Democratic county commissioners lack the knowledge and experience to manage the county’s finances responsibly.

“I bring fiscal responsibility and the experience to balance budgets and look at different programs,” Eisenberg, “to hold taxes down here in the county.”

He said he has experience working with Democrats and independents to get things done. “I build bridges, I don’t burn them,” he said.

  • France Krazalkovich, 47, is an Upper Pottsgrove Township commissioner, an Air Force veteran, vice president of an IT firm in Limerick, and a member of the state Republican committee.
France Krazalkovich, candidate for county commissioner, stands for a portrait during a forum held at the Upper Merion Township Building in King of Prussia, Pa. on Thursday, February 28, 2019. (Kriston Jae Bethel for WHYY)

Describing himself as “pro-life, and pro-Second Amendment,” he said he brings valuable experience to the race and the job.

“I’m a proven tax-cutter,” he said. “We lowered taxes in Upper Pottsgrove, and I’ve created jobs at our company.”

He said he’s also focused as a commissioner on economic development and found the county government less than helpful on a project along Route 100. If elected, he said he the county to become “a good partner with municipalities.”

Krazalkovich also served on the executive committee of the Pennsylvania State Association of Township Commissioners.

Moment in history

There’s a historical context to the race. The Republican Party dominated Montgomery County for more than a century, but demographic changes and migration from Philadelphia led to a Democratic takeover of the county commission in 2011.

Now there are 66,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans — and plenty of independents. Democrats hold 13 of 15 county elected offices.

As the party aspires to make a comeback, a question for GOP leaders is what kind of candidates will enable a revival.

The Gales say firm adherence to conservative principles will energize Republicans and lead to victory.

Despite party leaders’ professed neutrality in the primary, political consultant Jeff Jubelirer said he suspects they’re looking for candidates more moderate than the Gale brothers.

“Republican leaders in Montgomery County, in my opinion, would want candidates and elected officials who attract not only their Republican voters, but independents and even Democrats,” Jubelirer said.

If Joe Gale wins another term, he sees big things ahead for himself.

He noted in a November radio interview with WNPV radio host Darryl Berger that Montgomery County has more people than a congressional district.

“The only Republican that would outrank me as far as constituent size is a statewide Republican, and the only one we have is (U.S. Sen.) Pat Toomey,” Gale said. “So I would have a big role in statewide politics. I know the establishment’s well aware of that, and it bothers them.”

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