In Delaware County, a historic race looms as Democrats seek their first council majority

For generations, there was no surer political bet in Southeastern Pennsylvania than Delaware County. Party bosses and watchdogs could rest assured that come every November, it would maintain its reputation as an ironclad Republican stronghold.

But in less than a month, all bets will be off.

For the first time in history, there is a real possibility that a Democratic majority could take control of the Delaware County Council, lifted by the foothold carved out by two council members who won their seats in 2017.

Shifting voter-registration numbers and an unprecedented three-seat vacancy on the county’s ruling board have set the stage for a Nov. 5 election that could have larger implications on the politics of a swing state that was pivotal to Donald Trump’s election as president.

The six candidates are set for three debates, the first of which is scheduled for Thursday.

“What I believe to be the old guard of the Republican ‘War Board’ is no longer able to convince people that Democrats are bad guys,” said Colleen Guiney, chair of the county Democratic Party. “They run on the politics of fear. They have told people in the past that ‘if Democrats come in, you’ll be fired.’ It didn’t happen.”

The three Democrats running say sustained one-party rule has bred corruption, favoritism, and waste, and position themselves as able to open the door to reforms. Their Republican counterparts push back, dismissing those accusations as fabricated and insulting.

And in the face of the challenge from the Democrats, they are saying they don’t want the county to be influenced by “ideologies coming from elsewhere,” as Kelly Colvin, one of the candidates, put it.

“Let’s be real: We’re seeing safe-injection sites being promoted in Philadelphia by major Democratic leaders, and we don’t want that here in Delaware County,” Colvin said. “We want to be humanitarian with how we deal with the issue, but we also believe in the idea of law and order and a strong district attorney to make sure our communities stay safe.”

Colvin, former director of a policy research center at Temple University, and her running mates — Thornbury Township Supervisor Jim Raith and retired business and tech consultant Mike Morgan — say their priorities are keeping taxes low and increasing transparency in how the county government is run.

“People don’t want this to become Washington, D.C., with the dysfunction and incivility between the parties,” Morgan said. “We’re people first, not party first. We’re not tied to the past, and a big part of what we’re for is public service.”

The Democratic candidates say too much of the county’s history has focused on politics. They have some experience with that history: Christine Reuther was a commissioner in Nether Providence Township; Elaine Schaefer previously served on Radnor Township’s board; and Monica Taylor currently sits on Upper Darby’s school board.

“The government here has been run by a single political party that’s been unchallenged since the Civil War,” Schaefer said. “As a result, the county is run primarily for the benefit of the friends and family of that political party, to the great detriment of the residents and businesses who are not connected.”

Schaefer and her running mates voiced as a priority expanding or developing services, including the formation of a health department, a standard in neighboring counties. They also lob criticism at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility, the only privately run county prison in the state, which they say has been a GOP patronage mill.

“I think the goal is to change the government from the inside out,” Taylor said. “I think it would be a bad idea to get in and then think we can just fix little tiny areas here. I think more of a holistic change needs to happen, looking at the entire system itself.”

The fact that there’s a bipartisan debate is owed in part to Kevin Madden and Brian Zidek, who, two years ago did the improbable by winning seats on the council. (Members of the council, which sets legislative policy and controls the county’s budget, are elected to four-year terms.)

At the time, most chalked up their success to the backlash from Trump’s election 12 months earlier. The numbers certainly favor the Democrats: They out-register Republicans by about 30,000 voters, giving them 54% of the electorate. Twenty years ago, the GOP had a nearly 70-30 advantage.

But the foundation for their victory was subtly built for years, with municipalities on the edge of the city, including Upper Darby, flipping blue.

County Republican Party Chair Tom McGarrigle blames that switch on a flood of people desperate to leave the city.

“They moved to Delaware County to get a better place for their family. You can’t live in most places in Philly, can’t use the schools,” he said. “Yet when they move out here, they continue to vote for the party responsible for that, which is puzzling to me. It’s something we, as Republicans, need to be more aware of.”

McGarrigle — who lost his state senate seat last year to Democrat Tim Kearney, the former mayor of Swarthmore — believes the tide of post-Trump frustration has ebbed. And he’s confident that the Republicans will have a fighting chance.

“What happened on the national level absolutely played a role, but I definitely see a different mood than in ’17 and ’18, when I lost,” McGarrigle said. “The people I talk to are more interested in local municipal elections. Quite frankly, they’re worried about this Philly influence they’ve seen reaching into Delaware County.”

That interest comes at a crucial time for the council. Council Chairman John McBlain, a prominent Republican who previously served as county solicitor, and Councilwoman Colleen Morrone are bumping up against term limits. The third Republican on the council, Michael Culp, announced months ago that he has no interest in fighting to keep his seat.

The three party newcomers on next month’s ballot believe that they can easily fit into these vacancies.

“Not enough is getting done, there’s too much bickering,” Raith said. “I’m not about bickering. I’m about getting the work done for the people, because that’s what council is elected to do.”

But the Democrats are equally hopeful that residents are ready for a change.

“There’s a web of people that are all part of this Republican machine that has controlled Delaware County for generations,” Reuther said. “We’ve got to alter that mentality inside the courthouse so that people realize officials work for the county, regardless of who helped vote you in.”