Once a powerhouse, splintered Montco GOP expects to remain minority on county commission

     Republican candidate Joe Gale is running for Montgomery County commissioner, without the backing of his party. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    Republican candidate Joe Gale is running for Montgomery County commissioner, without the backing of his party. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

    In Montgomery County, a divided Republican Party seems to have given up hope of regaining majority control of the county’s top posts.

    In 2010, two of the three county commissioner seats went to Democrats for the first time in more than 140 years. This November, incumbents Val Arkoosh and Josh Shapiro are favored for re-election.


    NWLBmontcocommishArkooshShapirox1200Democratic incumbent Val Arkoosh signs an order to make naloxone, an opioid antagonist, available without a prescription in October as Josh Shapiro, incumbent commission chair, looks on. (Laura Benshoff/WHYY)

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    Arkoosh and Shapiro are running a joint campaign, based on their record of fiscal management and preserving open space. At the heart of this pitch is a dig at prior Republican leadership.

    “We inherited a mess when we took over four years ago,” said Shapiro, 42, a lawyer from Abington. “Five straight years of budget deficits.”

    The Democrats balanced the budget, he said,  using what turns out to be a refrain from all the candidates — “without raising taxes.” Some have criticized cuts made under Democratic leadership, including money taken from the libraries and the community college.

    Arkoosh, 55, an anesthesiologist by training, has only had the post since January. The Springfield resident filled a seat vacated by Leslie Richards, whom Gov. Tom Wolf tapped as his transportation secretary. Arkoosh previously ran for Alyson Schwartz’s congressional seat in 2013.

    Whether Shapiro, whose name has been floated as a possible candidate for Pennsylvania attorney general next year, will stick around for a full second term is a question that he doesn’t exactly answer.

    “I got elected in 2012, and ever since I’ve gotten here people have wondered what else I was going to run for,” said Shapiro. “I think I’ve showed each and every time just how committed I am to this job.”

    With the third-most voters of any county in the state, Montgomery County is also one of the wealthiest and most politically important in Pennsylvania. It has been slowly trending Democratic, thanks to changing demographics and efforts pull moderate Republicans across the aisle.

    “Montgomery County voters are fundamentally socially moderate and fiscally conservative,” said Marcel Groen, Democratic Party chair for the county and, more recently, all of Pennsylvania.

    “We used to call them Rockefeller Republicans. Now we call them Democrats,” he said.

    At the end of 2014, Montgomery County had 207,000 registered Republicans and 252,000 registered Democrats. By law, one commissioner seat must go to a member of the minority party, in this case the Republicans.

    The challengers

    After mounting a joint campaign for economics professor Steve Tolbert and business consultant Scott Zelov, the Republican Party splintered during the primary. Joe Gale, a 26-year-old with no political experience, upset Zelov by campaigning as an outsider, “beholden to no one,” with a strong anti-abortion stance.

    Gale attacked Zelov’s role as board member for the Southeastern Pennsylvania chapter of Planned Parenthood, pegging it as “one of the driving forces that led me to run … as a pro-life candidate.”

    County commissioners don’t take much action on abortion policy, but Lansdale resident Gale said his position shows the values he shares with voters.

    “Moral character is a huge role in any elected official,” he said. Gale’s anti-party establishment and anti-abortion message worked, netting him about a thousand more votes than Zelov and a place on the Nov. 3 ballot.

    Since the primary, Gale has continued to scuffle with the Republican leadership, accusing the party faithful of harassing his donors, who include conservative activist and former Rick Santorum-backer, Bob Guzzardi.

    According to Montgomery County GOP Committee Chairman and state Rep. Mike Vereb, Gale is decrying the party to drive home his anti-establishment message.

    “His claims are ludicrous,” said Vereb. Gale is listed on the Montgomery County Republican Committee website as a candidate, although he claims he is not on the official party ballot.

    In the primary, party-backed economics professor Steve Tolbert, 38, came in first among Republicans. Tolbert, like Gale and the Democrats, touts low taxes as a priority, calling himself both a “free market conservative and a social conservative,” as well as anti-abortion.

    A member of the Army Reserves who served in Iraq, Tolbert keeps a strict schedule, rising at 3:45 a.m. to fit in his responsibilities teaching at St. Joseph’s University and Bucks County Community College, as well as serving as on the board of commissioners for West Norriton Township.

    Tolbert said his time on the borough council has taught him to collaborate and, if elected, one of his priorities would be transportation infrastructure to reduce traffic.

    “Ironically, it takes me less time to get to Fort Dix [in New Jersey]” than to St. Joe’s, he said.

    With the two Republicans running separate campaigns, Vereb doesn’t dispute that taking back the majority in the commissioner’s race is unlikely.

    “I think if we had a ticket working together we could,” he said. “This stuff takes time. Frankly, it takes money. And being in the minority, it’s tough to start off with.”

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