In Delaware County, Republicans Still Rule

Posted: November 08, 1987

Throughout Delaware County, the people who run the invincible Republican machine were in their glory Tuesday night.

The election results were in, and they were good. Very good.

In Collingdale, GOP leader Joseph W. Dorsey said, "It's a great, great victory. When you win everything, how else can you feel but great?"

In Upper Darby, GOP leader John F. McNichol reveled in the sweep of his township candidates against the outgunned Democrats. McNichol, who had decided his candidates should avoid campaign debates, gushed: "We won! Imagine, how we would have killed them if we had debated."

In Springfield, GOP leader Charles P. Sexton saw one of his candidates lose a commissioner's race to a Democrat but watched gleefully as Springfield's voting power in county GOP matters grew larger, thanks to a strong turnout in the township for countywide Republican candidates.

In Ridley, GOP leader Nicholas F. Catania, the only county council member not up for re-election, worked the polls for 13 1/2 hours before jubilantly showing his town's winning results to all who were interested.

And at a Springfield restaurant, county Republican chairman Thomas J. Judge Sr. told a cheering crowd of 500 party workers that the victories were "your win."

It was another election in the post-Bob Edgar era in Delaware County, and without the Democrats' biggest vote-getter - the former six-term Democratic congressman - the minority party must be satisfied with small victories. There were a few.

Although the Democrats lost every countywide race to the GOP, the Democrats picked up a win in Swarthmore, where Democrats will enjoy a 4-3 advantage on the Borough Council for the first time in memory.

McNichol said a light voter turnout in Swarthmore helped boost the Swarthmore College students' voting power in favor of the Democrats. "They can make a difference," he said.

But the Democrats lost control of the councils in East Lansdowne and Colwyn to the Republicans. And in Clifton Heights, a one-vote difference in one ward race helped cost the Democrats their 6-2 council majority - now shrunk to a 4-4 tie.

Democrats also picked up two council seats in Yeadon, one seat in Tinicum and one seat in Darby Borough.

But Republicans picked up three seats in Prospect Park and one seat in Media.

County Democratic party chairwoman Dianne Merlino said Wednesday, "I guess our party is the eternal optimist."

With 74,286 registered Democrats compared with 206,592 Republicans in the county, the results are usually predictable. But to many Republicans - for whom politics is more of a religion than a hobby - a successful election campaign means never having to say you're sorry to the GOP leaders. No stone must be left unturned.

Upper Darby's McNichol, a major power in both the county and the state GOP, said of the Democrats, "This kind of game has to be played 365 days a year. I don't think the Democrats had enough direct-contact campaigning."

In Upper Darby, McNichol said, "The organization just functioned beautifully." The Democrats, he said, "just have to do a better job of

finding candidates."

Upper Darby Democratic leader Sid Feldman said winning wasn't the only goal for the minority party, which has no Democratic representatives on the 11- member Township Council.

"We feel some of these campaigns are a forum to force the government to make some of the reforms by simply presenting our arguments in the only public forum we have," he said.

With weak opposition coupled with a distinct registration advantage, the Republican leaders said they must work extra hard on Election Day to make sure their workers don't become complacent.

Since the mid-1970s, when the county GOP was reorganized, the leaders have relied on their own incentive programs to motivate the troops.

There is personal pride involved. Each leader - be it a McNichol or a Catania or a Sexton - wants the town to produce the biggest GOP voter turnouts. On election night, Sexton was seen paying Catania a $5 bet on which leader would produce a bigger win.

Another incentive is the weighted-vote system, which allows the county GOP leaders to have greater voting advantages in party matters depending on the strength of their GOP tallies in countywide elections.

McNichol, who wore a starched white shirt with the word "Coach" embroidered on his pocket on election night, said, "It's like playing football or baseball in a league. If there is a tie at the end, the amount of runs helps. It keeps you scoring because it means something."

Money is also a factor. In Upper Darby, for example, the Republicans outspent the Democrats at least 20-1 on the local elections, including a runaway victory by Upper Darby Mayor James J. Ward for a new four-year term.

Much of the Upper Darby GOP war chest comes from contributions from township employees and persons doing business with the township - in addition to longtime GOP devotees. Local Democrats, who raise very little in funds, said they were often shocked when a contribution arrived.

But all is not lost, county Democratic leader Merlino said.

Any day now, she said, the state Senate is expected to approve the confirmation of Democrat Edward S. Lawhorne as a Delaware County Common Pleas Court judge. To get the nomination through the Republican-controlled Senate, Merlino said she had to agree to the appointment of Delaware County Sheriff Joseph Battle for another vacancy on the county court.

Lawhorne's expected appointment means there will be a Democrat in the Media courthouse - a rarity indeed. But Lawhorne would have to face re-election in 1989 for a 10-year term in his own right, Merlino said.

Lawhorne, of Nether Providence, was appointed a judge once before, but he lost his subsequent election bid to keep the seat to a Republican.

In other races, Chester Mayor Willie Mae Leake, a Republican, easily won a four-year term. Democratic District Justice Francis J. Murnaghan, who has served East Lansdowne and Yeadon for 12 years, lost to GOP newcomer Kenneth J.D. Boyden. And former county commissioner Bill Spingler, a Democrat, lost his comeback attempt in Radnor's Ward 3 commissioner's race to Republican George M. Aman 3d.

Looking ahead, Upper Darby Democratic leader Feldman said his party workers did not despair.

"Next year, the presidential election comes up," he said. "People suddenly do get interested and involved again. We'll be back."

And as usual, the Republicans appear to be wasting little time. At that Springfield restaurant Tuesday night, county GOP chairman Judge told 500 cheering party workers, "You can have a couple days off, and then we're going to work on the (George) Bush campaign."

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