Karen Heller: Montgomery County is in for some changes

Montgomery County Democrats Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards made history when they won in November.
Montgomery County Democrats Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards made history when they won in November. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 20, 2011

Montgomery County's commissioners have enjoyed a Republican majority since anyone can remember, and they remember it wrong anyway, thinking the GOP came into power in 1875. But the first two three-official administrations were controlled by Democrats, I learned from the county historical society's Jeff McGranahan. In 1881, Republicans James Burnett and Hiram Burdan took charge, and there was no turning back.

Until now. Montgomery County, long a bedrock of the state GOP, is going blue. In January, Democrats Leslie Richards and State Rep. Josh Shapiro will assume the majority, the latter becoming chairman. Eminently quotable Republican Bruce Castor, the former swaggering county D.A., will be the lone holdover from the current three-ring circus, which has provided continuous entertainment for four years but less effective governance.

Castor has been left out in the cold since GOP chair Jim Matthews and Democrat Joe Hoeffel politically eloped - eventually landing in ethical trouble and failing to secure their party nominations - largely bonded by their antipathy for Castor.

"You're a sick bastard," Matthews said to Castor, who 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 said Castor's ego was so big "it could float the Titanic."

Exchanges between the three were a county embarrassment though a gift to reporters, helping fill the void of puerile, nasty infighting that long distinguished Philadelphia City Council.

"We're going to close the book on bickering," Shapiro says. He told Castor: "Bruce, you want to be a constructive part of the government, we'll welcome you. If you continue the bickering, we absolutely will have no patience. We won't engage."

"Sometimes, I have to say, they were embarrassing," Richards says. "The language was not appropriate." I wonder, "Sometimes?"

"I feel optimistic," Castor says of the new triumvirate. "We may agree on more things than you think," noting "the last four years have been so bad, so scandal-ridden and scandal-plagued, and besides, the other two commissioners did a bad job."

Montgomery County, the state's third-most-populous, is one of the wealthiest in the country but has built up enormous debt, more than $400 million, equal to its annual operating budget.

The Democrats plan to do "aggressive audits of the spending and holdings in the county," Shapiro says. "Our focus will be education, open-space initiatives, and looking at aging infrastructure." A new senior staff will be named, and many of the department heads of the 3,200-employee government will be replaced.

Richards, a regional planner, speaks of using the community college for retraining the unemployed and returning veterans, and of revitalizing Norristown. "We have to start our budget process right away and see where we can cut. We have a talented staff on the planning commission that has been completely underutilized," she says. "And we need to be better advocates for business."

With the retirement of Matthews and Hoeffel, both in their 60s, the commission will also become notably younger. Castor is the elder statesman at 50. Shapiro is 38 and Richards is 44.

As to the new chair's style, Shapiro says: "I'm a consensus-builder. I'm an aggressive leader who likes to push the envelope. I think outside the box. I don't take no for an answer. I push hard, and knock down walls" - which is possibly a speed record for cliches.

"I don't think Josh and Leslie can be anywhere near as bad as the commissioners we have now," says Castor, who will remain in the minority, this time officially. Then, because it has become custom, he takes another swipe, though certainly not the last, at fellow Republican Jim Matthews. "I've been used to the minority role, which was not my choice, but the result of traitorous conduct made by a despicable man."


Contact columnist Karen Heller at 215-854-2586, kheller@phillynews.com,

or @kheller on Twitter.

Read her past columns at www.philly.com/KarenHeller.

 

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