Many people believe what turned Montgomery County from a reliably Republican county to a largely Democratic county was a population shift as people moved from Philadelphia and kept their party affiliation.

But lawyer Bruce L. Castor Jr., who was a county commissioner when the shift happened, says the key moment in Montco’s move from red to blue can be traced back to a single scandal: The 2011 arrest of Board of Commissioners Chairman James R. Matthews on charges of perjury and false swearing to a grand jury.

When Castor, the former DA, first ran for county commissioner in 2007, he wanted former state Rep. Melissa Weber as his running mate. She withdrew from contention after the Montgomery County GOP endorsed Matthews.

“The party stuck me with Matthews,” he said. They both won the general election, with Castor getting the most votes, followed by Democrat Joe Hoeffel, a former congressman, and then Matthews. Castor should have been BOC chairman as the top vote-getter, but Matthews joined Hoeffel to become chair in a power-sharing agreement. In return, Matthews “had to give Hoeffel everything he wanted,” said Castor.

“So, Hoeffel runs the government with huge expenditures, floating big bonds and a lot of expensive spending, spending us into bankruptcy,” said Castor, who voted against that spending.

But Hoeffel blamed the excessive county borrowing on a previous commissioner, Tom Ellis, at a public meeting.

However, in the next election in 2011, the fiscal cliff that Castor had warned about regarding county government spending proved true. And the voters blamed the excessive spending on the Republicans, he said. While Castor was re-elected, his running mate lost. Democrats Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards won, giving Democrats control of the county for the first time in more than 100 years.

In 2010, a friend told Castor that he spotted Matthews’ and Hoeffel’s cars in the parking lot of a diner in East Norriton every Tuesday at breakfast time. Castor asked Stan Huskey, then the editor of The Times Herald, to check it out, and Huskey sent a young reporter, Jenny DeHuff, to investigate. DeHuff, dressed like a college kid with a backpack, sat near Matthews and Hoeffel and took notes as they discussed county business privately, without Castor or members of the public as is required under the Sunshine Act.

“She looked like a 20-year-old Villanova student,” said Castor.

The Times Herald published an article and “that blew the whole thing open.” Then DA Risa Vetri Ferman, now a judge, empaneled a grand jury to investigate, leading to Matthews’ arrest.

Reached by phone to comment, Matthews said he was on the golf course ready to hit a ball and asked DVJournal to call him back.   When DVJournal called him back, Matthews did not answer or return the call.

A judge dismissed the more serious perjury charge. Matthews did not plead guilty to misdemeanor false swearing but was allowed to enter a program for first-time offenders and paid $12,000, serving a year’s probation. Eventually, a judge expunged his criminal record.

Montgomery County has been controlled by the Democrats ever since.

“Eventually, it would have turned (blue) anyway, but it would have been delayed,” said Castor. “If I were running the county with another commissioner that was an ally, we never would have borrowed all that money and put ourselves in that debt.”

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