Democratic feud in Chester County sparks talk of splitting committee

Brian McGinnis won a four-year term as county chairman.
Brian McGinnis won a four-year term as county chairman.
Posted: July 09, 2014

In the rural reaches of Chester County, a group of Democrats discontented with the direction of the county party has proposed a bold move: secession.

It's a startling turn for a group that for decades has made inroads in solidly Republican territory. Their counterparts in Montgomery, Delaware and Bucks Counties have leveraged those gains and now boast the majority of registered voters. Chester County is growing at a faster clip than any of them, and the latest registration figures put the party within striking distance of the GOP.

But a festering feud last month led to a shake-up among party's top leaders and sowed discontent at a time when some say the party needs to unite behind Tom Wolf's campaign for governor.

The tensions boiled over two weeks ago at a Chester County Democratic Committee reorganization meeting, where longtime Chairwoman Michelle Vaughn faced off against Brian McGinnis. Committee members came out in unprecedented numbers, and the final vote - 157-143 - earned McGinnis a four-year term.

The inability to tip Chester County registration in the Democrats' favor was one complaint lodged against Vaughn, 49, a Johnson & Johnson employee, as she sought reelection after eight years as chairwoman and six years as vice chairwoman. Supporters of McGinnis, 33, a Vanguard Group employee with about a decade of political experience, also said Vaughn's team underperformed in fund-raising and securing wins in down-ballot races.

More damaging, some said, was Vaughn's decision to stray from her party's endorsement of Downingtown Mayor Josh Maxwell in May's primary for the 75th District state House seat. Vaughn publicly backed his competitor; Maxwell won.

"Boy, that really got people mad," said Bill Scott, a committee member who serves on West Chester's borough council and voted for McGinnis. "And it should. She's got no business doing that."

Vaughn's supporters know the decision hurt her. But they say her ouster was planned by party leaders, including State Sen. Andy Dinniman.

"Andy Dinniman was the one who orchestrated this whole thing," said Judy Porta, a 30-year-veteran of the committee from London Britain Township.

On Wednesday, Dinniman said he was entitled to take sides but didn't conspire to unseat Vaughn. Looking to the future, he declined to address the widespread belief in the party that he and Vaughn have had bad blood between them for years, in part because Vaughn supported a short-lived challenger to Dinniman's 2012 reelection campaign.

"No one twisted anyone's arm," Dinniman said of last month's election. "I made my case."

Since she was unseated, Vaughn has wished the new leaders well, and said she would stay involved with candidates who have asked for her help. Her supporters, though, are still rehashing details of her defeat and defending their candidate.

Those in the southern parts of the county around Kennett Square, Oxford, and West Grove say the loss has renewed talk of splitting into a separate committee.

That idea was floated about six or seven years ago, when Democrats there felt isolated from and ignored by the county party, according to OxGrove Democratic Committee member Cindy Lasco. Vaughn calmed those concerns by giving unprecedented attention to the southern communities, said Sara Leff, vice chairwoman of the Kennett Area Democrats.

Leff said she was shocked and disenchanted by the antagonistic nature of the party officials election. While she and others are willing to help the new leadership succeed, they're not afraid to leave if the tenor doesn't improve, she said.

"We will work our butts off to make [the Chester County Democratic Committee] as productive as is possible," Leff said. "If it becomes more work than it's worth, you bet we'll pull off."

Some have already made that move.

"They could do well. I don't know," Porta said of the new leaders. "But if they do well, they're going to do it without my help."

That talk should concern Wolf, according to Randall Miller, a political analyst and St. Joseph's University professor. Miller said the governor's race could be decided in Philadelphia and its suburbs.

In Chester County - where Democrats were once outnumbered 2-1 by Republicans but now total about 126,000, just 22,000 behind the GOP - Wolf has a strong chance, Miller said. But that's only if Democrats - who can be discouraged from participating by divisiveness - show up at the polls, he said.

Wolf's team needs to help heal the rift, Miller said.

"They need, without taking sides, to come in and do as much patchwork as possible," he said. "Give some of the ousted people a sense of importance. Let them know they still matter."

Former Democratic state party Chairman T.J. Rooney said fights of this kind play out often across the state, and the anger will likely "pass with time." How soon, he said, is the important question.

"Everybody is rooting for time to pass quickly so everybody can have their oar in the water, rowing in the direction to elect Tom Wolf instead of settling old scores," he said.

Dinniman, McGinnis, and newly-elected committee Vice Chairwoman Robin Greene-Toler said last week that they are committed to building unity.

"I know that I won with a close vote," McGinnis said. "So I know I have to work even harder to gain the trust and support of those that did not vote for me."  


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