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Montgomery County Commissioners, Row Officers Take Oath of Office

(From a press release)

On January 3, Montgomery County hosted a public swearing-in ceremony for Commissioners Jamila H. Winder, Neil Makhija, and Thomas DiBello, as well as nine row officers, in the Montgomery County Community College’s Health Science Center Main Gym.

“Montgomery County has a population that is diverse in experiences and backgrounds,” said Winder, chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners. “Our community deserves to have leadership that reflects those lived experiences. This new Board of Commissioners, with our dedication to service and diverse perspectives, ensures that everyone who lives, works, visits, or invests in Montgomery County has a voice that speaks for them.”

“It’s an honor to serve alongside Commissioners Winder and DiBello to support the people of Montgomery County. And that is what we are here to do—to serve,” said Makhija. “I am looking forward to the critical work of protecting our elections in 2024, addressing housing affordability and homelessness, leading on the climate crisis, and many more issues we face as a county.”

DiBello said, “I believe we’re going to do a lot of good for the residents of Montgomery County. Together with my fellow Commissioners, we are committed to making advancements for this great county. I look forward to meeting more of the people who live and work here, as well as speaking with and learning from the 2,800-plus county employees who diligently serve our community every day.”

Over 1,000 people registered to attend this significant moment in Montgomery County’s history. Residents, community partners, representatives of federal and state elected officials, and other partners joined together to celebrate the new leaders of the county, with several historic firsts.

With the support of her fellow Commissioners, Jamila H. Winder became the first African American woman to hold the position of Chair of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners.

“This honor of being the first is not lost on me. I am filled with gratitude that other little Black girls and boys can now see themselves in a position of power and can aspire for greatness in their own way,” said Winder. “While this moment is historic, I maintain the same commitment that I have had since I joined the Board of Commissioners last year: creating sustainable solutions that benefit all residents and look out for the most vulnerable.”

Makhija, who made history as the first person of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) descent elected to a Board of Commissioners in Pennsylvania, also was named the Chair of the Montgomery County Board of Elections.

“As Chair of the Board of Elections for the next four years, I assure you that in Montgomery County, no matter who you support, no matter what outside pressures come upon us, we will protect every single vote,” said Makhija. “County government is the bedrock of democracy; it’s where we safeguard our fundamental right to vote which protects all other rights; where every citizen has a chance to shape our shared future.”

The ceremony also honored nine elected officials who head various departments within the County. Those include Clerk of Courts Lori Schrieber, Controller Karen Sanchez, Coroner Dr. Janine Darby, District Attorney Kevin Steele, Prothonotary Noah Marlier, Recorder of Deeds Jeanne Sorg, Register of Wills Tina Lawson, Esq., Sheriff Sean Kilkenny, and Treasurer Jason Salus.

Dr. Janine Darby and Tina Lawson made history as the first Black women to hold the offices of Coroner and Register of Wills in Montgomery County, respectively. Schrieber, Sanchez, Steele, Marlier, Sorg, Kikenny, and Salus continue their service to Montgomery County in their respective offices.

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Montco GOP Candidates Seek to Prevail Over History, Voter Registration

Joe Biden carried Montgomery County by 25 points over Donald Trump in 2020.

Liz Ferry and Tom DiBello believe they can turn it from blue back to red. Their plan? Winning the support of its 64,423 unaffiliated voters.

“We are planning on retaking the county for Republicans and believe our commonsense positions will resonate with all voters,” said Ferry. She and DiBello are running as the Republican candidates for Montgomery County commissioner.

Their optimism may sound like a fantasy. Even running against relatively unknown Democrats Jamila Winder and Neil Makhija won’t be easy. The Republican Party’s reversal in the county in recent years has been dramatic.

In 1999, Montgomery County Republican voter registrations outnumbered Democrats 266,161 to 159,731. Just over a decade later, when Democrats took control of county government, Democratic registrations had surged past the GOP 245,562 to 209,519.

As of two weeks ago, there were now 301,523 registered Democrats and just 202,983 Republicans in the county, according to state records.

Republican Tom Ellis, a lawyer who was a county commissioner from 2004 to 2008, told DVJournal that Republicans are fighting an image problem because of former President Donald Trump and the abortion issue. Many Delaware Valley mainstream Republicans have rejected Trump after years of scandal and abrasiveness from the former president.

“Montgomery County was the first of the collar counties to go Democrat,” said Ellis. “Some of it was external pressures, but some was internal.”

“The suburban Republicans, the collar counties, were always fiscally conservative but socially moderate. And as long as you could deliver, keep the taxes down, that’s all people wanted,” said Ellis.

“The social stuff came in with Roe v. Wade, and that really hurt the party. And when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it in June, it hurt candidates in the November election, like Todd Stephens.”

Stephens, a long-serving state representative for the Horsham area, narrowly lost his seat. “There were a number of people, especially women, who said they were not voting for any Republican,” said Ellis.

“There were a lot of intra-party struggles, which caused our downfall,” he added. He cited fights between donors and incumbent candidates, as well as intra-party fighting between candidates and established politicians.

“It would have come eventually,” Ellis said, pointing to increased Democratic migration to the county.

The GOP’s nadir in Montgomery County may have been in 2011 when Robert Kerns was the local party chairman, and county commissioners’ seats flipped to Democrats. Kerns managed to face down a rebellion from GOP members but later resigned after he was charged with rape. He pled no contest to indecent assault in 2014, eventually losing his law license and registering as a sex offender.

Former Montgomery County GOP chair Liz Preate Havey, now state party secretary, agreed that Trump “lost the support of suburban voters, especially women.”

“If you talked to people who worked at the polls, the pushback on Trump was like we’ve never seen before,” she told DVJournal.

“And I saw pushback on Bush. The pushback on Trump in the suburbs is tremendous, in Montgomery County was tremendous, and it continues to be. And it’s not just Democrats.”

“I think a lot of it was his personality,” added Havey. “There were a lot of popular policies that he implemented.”

Young voters also had an outsized effect in 2022, Havey said. “Ninety percent of Bryn Mawr students voted Democrat, and they came out in droves in the last election,” she said. “That impacts the Republicans’ ability to win.”

Like Ellis, Havey thinks abortion hurt more than helped Republicans in recent politics. “[T]he Dobbs decision gave Democrats a rallying cry,” she said. “I think pro-life leaders need to rethink their strategies. That could bring back some of our Republican voters.”

Havey is more optimistic about the GOP’s future in the county today.

“We had two commissioners who didn’t get along,” Havey said. “And certainly Joe Gale attacking his fellow Republicans didn’t help. Eight years of (Gale) being the face of the party certainly hurt us.”

But now, “There are two strong candidates who are going to talk about the issues and who are going to debate the Democrats and not sound foolish.”

Montgomery County GOP Chair Christian Nascimento was also hopeful about the near-term future of the GOP in the area.

“The reason that Tom and Liz can win is that we have a unified ticket running for both seats for the first time in over a decade,” he said.

Democrats, meanwhile, “are fighting over a pay-to-play culture that is well documented and turning off registered Democrats and Independents. “

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Gym, Gale Both Go Down to Surprising Defeats in Tuesday Primary

They are polar opposites politically, but they shared the same fate Tuesday night.

Progressive Philadelphia city councilor Helen Gym and Montco MAGA Republican Joe Gale were both defeated in Tuesday’s primaries, and both outcomes were viewed as surprising by political insiders.

In Philly’s Democratic primary for mayor, Gym had a narrow lead in the latest polls and the support of celebrity pols Sen. Bernie Sanders and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. But she finished in third place with about 20 percent of the vote, well behind the victorious Cherelle Parker at 33 percent.

Parker, a former state representative and councilwoman, ran as a centrist Democrat. A Philadelphia native who campaigned on improving schools and public safety, Parker supports hiring more police and bringing back “stop and frisk” in the fight against crime.

“Under a Parker administration, every legal tool available, every constitutional tool available to our Police Department will be employed to ensure that we end this sense of lawlessness,” Parker said during the campaign.

In Montgomery County, incumbent GOP county commissioner and political firebrand Joe Gale was soundly defeated in his party’s primary, losing to both Liz Ferry and Tom DiBello. Both were endorsed by the Montco GOP, while Gale chose not to seek the party’s endorsement.

Gale, who was seeking his third term, did not respond to requests for comment.

“Last night was a great night for Montgomery County and the GOP,” said Republican Party Chairman Christian Nascimento. “Liz Ferry and Tom DiBello ran a hard, positive race that resonated with voters, and were able to overcome all the ridiculous negativity that was thrown at them.

“For the first time in over 10 years we will have a unified Republican ticket running for both seats on the County commission board. The hard work begins now, but I am so proud of how the party unified and came together to help get them across the line. This is a new day for the Montco GOP, and the first step towards returning Montgomery County to the example of responsible government that it once was.”

On the Democratic side, incumbent Jamila Winder (who was appointed in February to replace Val Arkoosh) and lawyer Neil Makhija beat out three others and will appear on the November ballots.

Likewise in Bucks County, endorsed GOP candidates Gene DiGirolamo, the incumbent, and Pamela Van Blunk beat unendorsed candidate Andrew Warren.  DiGirolamo and Van Blunk will appear on the November ballot running against Democrat incumbent commissioners Bob Harvie and Diane Ellis-Marseglia in the general election.

“We won big,” said Bucks GOP Chair Pat Poprik. “We had excellent candidates. We really did. And now for the fall, we have very strong candidates.”

In the statewide judicial races, Mongomery County President Judge Carolyn Carluccio will be the Republican nominee for Supreme Court justice, squaring off against Philadelphian Dan McCaffery, the Democratic nominee this fall.

Democrats comprise a 4-2 majority on the state’s high court, with the death of Chief Justice Max Baer last fall leaving the vacant seat.

And Megan Martin, a Delaware County native, who became the state Senate’s first secretary-parliamentarian, and Philadelphia Democrat Matt Wolf won their primaries and will contest for a seat on the Commonwealth Court.

Democrats Jill Beck, of Allegheny County and Philadelphian Tamika Lane will be on the ballot for two open seats in Superior Court, running against Republicans Maria Battista of Clarion County and Westmoreland County Common Pleas Judge Harry Smail Jr.

“Our entire endorsed slate of judicial candidates have won the Republican nominations for their respective races in November, and I couldn’t be happier about this team’s upcoming victories in the general,” said Republican Party of Pennsylvania Chairman Lawrence Tabas. “From the beginning, we knew that these candidates would deliver wins in November and we are extremely happy the Republican electorate agreed with us.

“These four candidates will rule on the law as written and always uphold the Constitutions of Pennsylvania and the United States.”

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Eight Contenders Run for Montgomery County Commissioner in May

Three Republicans and five Democrats will be on the primary election ballot on May 16, seeking two slots for each party for the November race to fill the three-seat Montgomery County Commissioners Board.

With Democrat Jamila Winder as the only endorsed incumbent in the race, the contest for commissioner is more competitive than it has been for years.

Commissioner Kenneth Lawrence, Jr. is not seeking another term. Republicans Liz Ferry and Tom DiBello gained their party’s endorsement. Republican incumbent Commissioner Joe Gale, who portrays himself as an outsider, did not seek it.

Locally the GOP is operating at a significant voter deficit, with 202,880 registered Republicans to 301,156 Democrats. Voter rolls show 95,653 registered independents or those belonging to other parties.

It is those independent voters that Ferry believes Republicans can sway. She argued Democrats have drifted too far to the left to appeal to most residents.

Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Gale

“We care about things the normal, working residents of Montgomery County care about,” Ferry told DVJournal.

Ferry is an Upper Dublin Township commissioner, the only Republican on a seven-member board there.

“I’ve been able to get things done,” said Ferry. “That’s my objection to Joe Gale. After seven years, besides voting no, he has no accomplishments. And I’ve been able to get no tax increases budgets passed, reduce expenditures and find innovative ways of doing things. And I think that’s what we need.”

Montgomery County taxes have increased 8 percent this year, 8 percent the previous year, and 5 percent the year before that.

“And again, nobody’s doing the homework to say what’s going on, why costs are increasing, and what can we do not to raise taxes on residents who already are feeling the effects of all the things that happened in the last couple of years, with the pandemic and now inflation,” Ferry said.

DiBello holds a master’s degree in information systems, has worked for large companies, and has owned a small business. He served as Limerick Township auditor from 2006 to 2014 and on the Limerick Board of Supervisors from 2002 to 2004, as well as on the Spring-Ford School Board from 2009 through 2021, where he was president five times.

He described himself as “very involved in the community.”

“Crime is rising throughout the county, carjackings, murders,” DiBello said. “I felt with my background and experience; it was time for me to run for county commissioner and focus on getting the county on the right track again.”

DiBello noted he would be a full-time commissioner and not have another job. He said he would address issues of election integrity, such as ballot-box stuffing, that have arisen in the past few elections. He plans to support military veterans and service members and work to address homelessness in the county.

Echoing DiBello’s remarks about crime, Ferry argued current commissioners had approved a “matrix” to reduce bail so that criminals charged with a crime are released rather than waiting in jail until their trials.

“It’s a more sophisticated version of what Larry Krasner is doing in Philadelphia,” said Ferry. “Bad apples are committing crimes on our communities and then immediately getting out and doing it again.”

Incumbent Joe Gale, meanwhile, said he has consistently voted against tax increases. He also voted against the recent 12 percent increase for commissioners’ salaries and pledged to refuse that pay increase.

First elected in 2015, Gale said he had been a watchdog for the county taxpayers during his tenure as a minority member. He claimed Ferry and DiBello had voted to increase taxes during their time in public office.

Commissioner Jamila Winder

In addition to Winder, Democrats running are Tanya Bamford, Kimberly Koch, Neil Makhija, and Noah Marlier.

Bamford is a Montgomery Township supervisor. Koch is a Whitpain Township supervisor. Makhija is an attorney and executive director for Impact, an Indian American civic organization. And Marlier is the county prothonotary.

Ferry argued that whoever is elected should be singularly focused on the commissioner’s job.

“We need a person who does not plan to run for other offices” and will be devoted to running the county well, she said.

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