Montco GOP focusing on healing party rift

Montgomery County Republican Finance Committee cochairs, and former foes, Vahan Gureghian (left) and Robert Asher with Gov. Corbett. The hatchet-burying partnership was unveiled Thursday.
Montgomery County Republican Finance Committee cochairs, and former foes, Vahan Gureghian (left) and Robert Asher with Gov. Corbett. The hatchet-burying partnership was unveiled Thursday. (STEVEN M. FALK / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 26, 2013

JEFFERSONVILLE The Montgomery County Republican Committee announced a new partnership Thursday night that members said would heal a long and bitter divide in the party.

Bob Asher, a top state fund-raiser, Gov. Corbett ally, and national committeeman, will serve as cochair of the county Finance Committee alongside former foe Vahan Gureghian, the Gladwyne billionaire who in recent years became one of the state's most prolific Republican donors.

Corbett, who headlined the county dinner in Jeffersonville, said the partnership was "one of the best presents you could have given a Republican who is running statewide."

Montgomery County has the state's second-highest number of Republicans (behind Allegheny) and has long been a bastion for GOP fund-raising. But registration has slipped in recent years, and Democrats have taken over some former Republican strongholds.

In a county where Republicans once outnumbered Democrats 2-1, the GOP has lost its edge in registration. Statistics from the county Voter Services Office this month show Democrats with a 7.8-percentage-point lead.

In 2012, Democrats took over the county Board of Commissioners for the first time in 130 years, replacing an administration tainted by acrimony, allegations of corruption, and the arrest of Republican Chairman James R. Matthews.

Matthews' rival - fellow Republican Bruce L. Castor Jr. - was reelected to the board in 2011, but has remained on Asher's bad side and grown increasingly isolated from his party. Castor did not attend Thursday's dinner.

Amid declining Republican registration and controversy among the commissioners, fund-raising also suffered, leaving the county GOP $90,000 in debt in January 2011. Gureghian - in part from his own pocket - helped bring the committee out of that hole.

In the first half of 2013, the county GOP raised $141,097 - 8.7 percent less than the Democratic committee's total, according to campaign finance filings.

Over the same period, Asher's political action committee, the Pennsylvania Future Fund, raised more than both county parties combined.

Marcel Groen, chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee, said he welcomed the competition. "We need a party to run against," Groen said, adding that changes at the county or state level "can't undo the image of what the national party has done. It is, at this point, not a party whose values coincide with the values of the people of Montgomery County."

State Rep. Mike Vereb, who had a role in bringing the Asher and Gureghian factions together, said the shake-up was long overdue.

"Bob Asher, obviously, is the face of the GOP, and there's no reason he should not be involved, helping redraw a party that had gotten off the beaten path there for a few years," Vereb said.

When he's not raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for candidates, Asher, 76, works in his family's candy factory, Asher's Chocolates in Souderton.

Gureghian, who turns 59 today, runs the Chester Community Charter School, the largest charter in Pennsylvania.

GOP strategists had lamented the divide for years, with some speculating the discord could be a turnoff for national organizations.

Vereb said the parties were finally able to bury the hatchet "when they came to realize how far of a decline intraparty squabbles cause."

"Having multiple faces of the party, heading in multiple directions - it led to our demise, to an extent," said Vereb.

County GOP Chairman Bob Kerns, who has also been unpopular with many in his party, including Asher, will retain his position.

"At the end of the day, everybody came together and did the right thing," Gureghian said.

"We have to focus on [2014], drive the bus that way, and we can't have any more rearview mirrors on the bus," said Asher.

Gureghian said the committee would meet in the next week to map out a strategy. Corbett's reelection is the top priority, followed by retaking the county administration.

"I wish them the best of luck," Groen said. "But not too much."


jparks@philly.com

610-313-8117 @JS_Parks

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