Montco lawmaker expected to become GOP chairman

Robert J. Kerns, former chairman of the Montgomery County GOP, was arrested Nov. 26 and charged with a range of sexual crimes, including rape, sexual assault, and recklessly endangering another person.
Robert J. Kerns, former chairman of the Montgomery County GOP, was arrested Nov. 26 and charged with a range of sexual crimes, including rape, sexual assault, and recklessly endangering another person. (ED HILLE / File Photograph)
Posted: December 02, 2013

When Montgomery County Republicans met in October to celebrate the merger of two feuding factions, chairman Robert J. Kerns declared: "We can finally, and unequivocally, say tonight that the Republican Party of Montgomery County is united like it hasn't been in decades."

Little did they know a few weeks later, Kerns' downfall would unite the party even more.

On Wednesday, a week after Kerns' arrest on charges of drugging and raping a female employee, the committee will elect a new chairman.

Members have lined up behind the only announced candidate - State Rep. Mike Vereb of West Norriton - in a rare showing of consensus for a party wracked by decades of infighting.

Vereb confirmed his candidacy soon after Kerns' resignation, saying "several area leaders and party leaders" had asked him to run.

"This is not about Mike Vereb. It's about, 'We had enough of the fighting,' " he said then.

Committee members, including several who considered running for the position before Vereb entered the race, described him as an energetic and uniting figure.

"I think Mike is a very able guy, and I'd certainly be very happy if he's the pick," said State Rep. Kate Harper (R., Montgomery).

County Commissioner Bruce L. Castor called Vereb "one worthy of leading us in our time of need."

Vereb played a key role in that Oct. 25 unity dinner, bringing together state power broker Bob Asher and Gladwyne charter school magnate Vahan Gureghian to jointly lead the county committee's fund-raising.

He's serving his fourth term in the House and his second term as Republican caucus secretary, and he recently scored points across the political spectrum by opposing the early release of confessed wife-killer Rafael Robb.

Party leaders hope Vereb's popularity will detract some of the attention from Kerns.

G. Terry Madonna, a pollster and professor of public affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, said personal scandals were not likely to affect voters, especially when the allegation is not against a public official.

"People don't exactly look at who the county chairman is," he said.

Even before his arrest, Kerns was unpopular in some GOP corners. He ran for the party chairmanship four times before winning in 2008.

Since then, he has slid in and out of favor with leaders including Asher and Castor, and he led the party into debt before big donors such as Gureghian helped bail it out.

The committee has yet to reverse a decade-long decline in registrations and put up a mediocre showing in the November municipal election.

The party's hardest-fought races, for two seats on Common Pleas Court, went to Democrats.

"Those were two very, very qualified individuals. Much more qualified than their Democratic opponents, and yet we lost," said Jim Matthews, a former county commissioner and friend of Kerns'. "So that tells you we're doing something wrong."

Kerns' term was set to expire in the spring, and challengers were warming up even before news of his arrest began to filter out. But he was expected to put up a tough fight, and until recently he still had the support of many of the committee's most prominent members.

Through his attorney, Kerns has "vehemently denied" the allegations that he put the sleep drug Ambien in a bottle of wine and sexually assaulted his employee after she drank it and passed out.

A 23-page grand jury report portrayed Kerns as "manipulative and predatory," and quoted the alleged victim's concerns that he would use his influence to discredit her.

The alleged assault occurred the day after the party's unity dinner, and rumors of the investigation began swirling as detectives impounded Kerns' car and spent hours at his Lansdale law firm.

By the time Kerns resigned on Nov. 14, Vereb had been all but anointed his successor.

Acting executive director John Keleman said the question now was not who would win the chairmanship, but whether there would be a quorum to hold the vote.

Under the committee's bylaws, a majority of the committee's nearly 800 members must vote in person or by proxy.

Committee treasurer Robert Griffith said that "is always hard to do this time of year," and even more so with less than three weeks' notice.


jparks@philly.com

610-313-8117 @JS_Parks

www.inquirer.com/MontcoMemo

 

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