Karen Heller: A changing of the gaucherie for Montgomery County commissioners

Posted: February 02, 2011

No! They're breaking up the region's longest-running suburban theatrical extravaganza: the continuing circus and oratorical boxing match known as the Montgomery County commissioners.

Democrat Joe Hoeffel and Republican Chairman Jim Matthews, county mainstays who politically eloped in 2007 due to mutual antipathy toward the third commissioner, have both announced they will not stand for reelection. Hoeffel has run for office 16 times. "That ought to be enough for any sane person," he states.

But who says anything about the last three years has been sane?

Hoeffel and Matthews view their historic bipartisan bromance as successful, a position shared by virtually no one, including both party chairs, who made it clear late last year that they would offer not so much as a backslap of support. Hoeffel and Matthews are the commissioners left out in the cold.

This leaves Bruce Castor, the county's former swashbuckling Republican district attorney, as the only commissioner standing. During the last three years, Castor has been kept so out of the loop that, by his own admission, he "has not been able to do anything to help anyone."

Many times, the behavior exhibited by the three commissioners would shame any middle-school clique. Mean girls have nothing on angry politicians.

"We are, the three of us, the government of Montgomery County," Castor has said, "as scary as that is."

"You're a sick bastard," Matthews said of Castor in October. To which Castor responded, "You wouldn't know the truth if it jumped up and bit you in the bottom."

Castor once told me, "I hoped Jim wasn't the turd I thought he would be. I think he's clinically mentally ill." Matthews has said that Castor's ego is so big, "it could float the Titanic."

You will be shocked to learn that none of this behavior advanced their political careers. Hoeffel and Matthews are being investigated by District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman as to whether they discussed county business over breakfast at Jem Restaurant in East Norriton, possibly violating the state's Sunshine Act.

"The livelihoods of 3,000 county employees, the future of Pennsylvania's wealthiest county and its 800,000 residents," Castor noted in December, are "being decided over coffee and eggs by a secret cabal."

Both parties host county nominating conventions this month, and change is apparent there as well. Curiously, the county GOP has been behaving more like the fractious national Democratic Party of old, while the county Democratic organization is as organized, and its candidates as well-funded, as the GOP has historically been.

Of the three commissioners, one seat is held by the minority. The GOP leadership seems inclined to support Castor and Lower Merion Commissioner Jenny Brown, both in their 40s. The Democrats are pledged to rising-star state Rep. Josh Shapiro, 37, and Whitemarsh Township Commissioner Leslie Richards, 43. Shapiro was Hoeffel's former congressional chief of staff and made it clear he would not run against or with his former boss.

Shapiro now serves in a Republican-entrenched General Assembly, which may diminish his reform efforts. How will he feel if he wins the commissioner spot only to be the minority again, this time in Norristown with Castor in charge?

"I believe that we will win the two seats, and I will be the chairman," Shapiro says. "We have over $1 million cash on hand and an advantage in registration" of almost 33,000, a tectonic shift from a decade ago, when the GOP boasted a 100,000-voter edge.

A win by Shapiro and Richards would be epic. It would mark the first time Democrats controlled county leadership. Ever. And without a Republican as commission chairman in 13 decades.

The battling commissioners' antics have "been such a distraction away from what county government needs to do," Richards says. "I think anyone who is not frustrated is not paying attention."

Shapiro's candidacy is "a good strategic move on the part of the Democrats," Castor says, "though I thought a person who has done so much for the Montgomery County Democrats should have been treated better than Joe was treated." But, he admits of county politics, "it is impossible to defend the disastrous administration of the last three-plus years."

In office for 25 of the last 35 years, Hoeffel says, "I feel like a free agent. I feel liberated." Matthews, involved with the county Republican Party for most of 37 years, says, "I've had a great run."

Perhaps the circus has already left Norristown.

Matthews tells me, "Did you know that we've had three meetings so far this year, and there hasn't been one uncivil gesture or word?"

Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-5733 or kheller@phillynews.com.

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