In the tiniest of boroughs, the race goes on

Kevin Cunningham, Rutledge's mayor, campaigns door-to-door. The tiny Delaware County borough has 626 registered voters.
Kevin Cunningham, Rutledge's mayor, campaigns door-to-door. The tiny Delaware County borough has 626 registered voters. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 01, 2013

In Delaware County's smallest municipality, crime is so rare that the mayor reminds residents to keep their doors locked, a new barbershop calls itself the borough's lone business, and it only takes a few hours to ring all 280 doorbells in town.

But there is still a campaign trail in Rutledge.

And this week, days before the community trickles into the voting booths in borough hall, Mayor Kevin Cunningham and challenger Jack Borsch were on it.

In an election year between higher-profile presidential and gubernatorial races, the men typify the street-level campaigning that citizens in any town engage in to win the votes of their neighbors.

The campaign season in Rutledge, a middle-class enclave near Swarthmore, lasts roughly 10 days, not months. About 150 votes will probably be enough to win.

Borsch, 72, has lived in Rutledge his entire life and has been a volunteer for the local fire company since he was 16. He retired from Peco 19 years ago. Cunningham, 59, manages an art supply store in Ardmore and has raised two children in his 20 years as a Rutledge resident.

Over a few days of walking to each house in the borough, the men knew who would be behind many of the doors before they knocked - the nonagenarian who dresses in her finest to vote each year, the mother who coaches the softball team, the crossing guard.

At one door Monday, Cunningham was greeted by a familiar toddler. "You still like fire engines?" he asked. "We'll get them down here again for something soon."

She eagerly grabbed a blue flier touting his accomplishments as mayor. Her father did not glance at it.

Spotting a teenager driving past, Cunningham called out, "Hey, Ian, can you vote this year?"

For all the folksy familiarity of a town that is only about 11 square blocks, where the main duty of the unpaid mayoral position is taking residents' calls about parking violations and bothersome dogs, politics can still stir passions.

Borsch's flier lists three objectives as mayor: communicating information to residents, greeting newcomers, and acting as a liaison to the police and fire departments that serve the borough. Cunningham's 10-point list includes planning a Memorial Day ceremony, winter and summer concerts, and an art exhibit, as well as cracking down on drivers who ignore stop signs.

In Hometowne Hair Shoppe, Rutledge's only registered business, a patron who declined to give his name talked about the borough election in the same breath that he grumbled about Congress.

Jennifer Fahy, the co-owner of the cozy new shop, who snipped his hair as he groused, said she was used to such chatter. She cuts the hair of Republican members of the Delaware County Council and the Democratic candidate for sheriff, which means she hears plenty of debate from the barber's chair.

A chain of tragedy and happenstance made Cunningham the mayor of Rutledge, the first Democrat in recent memory.

C. Scott Shields was elected four years ago, in the same cycle that Cunningham campaigned for borough council and lost by just one vote. He served less than two years before he died at age 45 in a skydiving accident.

Gregory Lebold, appointed as a replacement, soon moved out of town. With a year and a half until the 2013 election, Cunningham was installed by the council to finish out the term.

Now that Cunningham is up for election in his own right, Borsch says it's time to put a Republican back in charge.

Borough Republicans narrowly edge Democrats, 283-260, among the community's 626 registered voters. In the most recent mayoral election, 303 citizens cast their votes.

Borsch, a former borough council member, points out that all five members of the Delaware County Council are Republicans, and the council is guaranteed to have a Republican majority after this year's election, too. He says that the council will favor the tiny borough more if he is elected.

"I think it's good to stay as the county goes," he said. "We got some street money from the County Council. They look at you and see how you're doing in backing the Republican Party, you know. . . . We got $50,000 from them to pave Swarthmore Avenue - that's all a political thing."

County spokeswoman Tricia Cofiell said such grants are doled out based on need, not local leadership.

When Borsch hands out leaflets in the neighborhood, he introduces himself as "Jack Borsch, Republican for mayor" - the same slogan printed at the top of his flier.

Cunningham's paperwork makes no mention of his party affiliation. A Democrat who named Robert F. Kennedy as his hero when he moved from Boston to Delaware County in 1978, he said he was stunned when a friend told him, "You'd better register as a Republican or you won't be able to get a job."

He ignored the advice.

Borsch remembers when Rutledge had its own institutions that helped neighbors get to know each other - its own fire company, elementary school, a trolley.

"People don't get together like they used to way back when I was a kid," he said. "I'd just like to continue keeping the town as nice as it was when I grew up."

jzauzmer@phillynews.com610-313-8207 @JulieZauzmer

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