Historic Election Opportunity for Delaware County Democrats

Photo Credit: Philadelphia Inquirer

Delaware County will be holding elections on Tuesday, November 5th for three open seats on County Council.

Members of the County Council are elected for four-year terms at staggered two-year intervals. As a result, the two current Democratic members, Kevin Madden and Brian Zidek, are not up for reelection for another two years while the three remaining seats, previously held by Republicans whose terms have now expired, are open in the coming election. There are six candidates competing for the three seats: three Republicans and three Democrats.

The Republican candidates are Jim Raith, businessman and chairman of Thornbury Township Supervisors; Kelly Colvin, Associate Director of Temple University’s Center on Regional Politics and former staffer of several GOP elected officials and the U.S. Education Department; and Mike Morgan, chair of the Foundation of the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce.

The Democratic candidates for County Council are Christine Reuther, an attorney and former Nether Providence commissioner; Monica Taylor, a professor and program director of Kinesiology at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia and director of the Upper Darby School Board; and Elaine Paul Schaefer, former president of Radnor Township’s board of commissioners and a founder of the Radnor Conservancy.

For the first time since the end of the Civil War, the Republicans of Delaware County are in danger of losing their majority control of the five-member county council. The county has voted Republican for the past 150 years, in large part due to the operation of a political machine that, for decades, efficiently enforced party loyalty through jobs and services. In recent years, however, the balance has shifted in favor of the Democrats, due to both a decline in the power of the Republican political machine and changing age and racial demographics within the county. 

The Democrats won their first two competitive council seats in over a century in 2017, and are looking to flip the three remaining seats in the upcoming elections. As the fifth most populous county in Pennsylvania, potential Democratic control of the Delaware County Council could play an important role in ensuring a fair and accurate count in the 2020 census, a key step in both curbing partisan redistricting efforts, and ensuring the equitable provision of public services.

Viable Democratic challenges to any form of local political office are only a very recent occurrence for Delaware County (widely considered the last Republican machine stronghold in the country). From 1875 to 1965, the McClure family ran a highly effective political machine that ensured Republican control over all aspects of local elections.

While no longer as institutionalized as past years, Colleen Guiney, Chair of the Delaware County Democrats, was quick to state that the Republican machine “is not over yet, at all.” A Swarthmore resident and active participant in local politics, Guiney has spent the last two decades helping to elect Democrats up and down the ballot. She served as the Chair of the Swarthmore Democratic Committee, and was a member of the Pennsylvania State Democratic Committee, before being elected by acclamation as Chair of the Delaware County Democrats in June of 2018. Through her work, Guiney has heard multiple accounts of examples of voter suppression by the Republican political machine. 

“When newly elected Democratic officials took office in civil service positions, constituents entering for help with issues would first present their voter registration card [to prove they were registered Republicans], with the understanding that was simply what happened.” 

Guiney also spoke of employers and organizations that pressured citizens to donate or register as Republicans.

“I know people who worked in law firms, where the law partners basically expected every individual employee, as part of their normal operations, to make regular contributions to the Republican Party, and to go to Republican fundraisers … [and] I know someone who came to a Democratic meeting and said “I really want to help you guys because I really think you’re the right party and I vote all the time as a Democrat, but I can’t change my registration to Democrat … because I want to be a volunteer firefighter and I can’t be a firefighter unless I’m a registered Republican.” 

She added that the local government also leveraged their power to continue this political machine with no-bid contracts. Public bodies are required to advertise major projects and accept the lowest qualified bidder.

“The other thing that’s happened in this county is that there are a lot of no-bid contracts. The county council decides on spending, and County Council votes, typically, have always been done without any real openness …  and they largely went to people who are heavily involved in the Republican Party.”  

In gaining a County Council majority the Democrats hope to address these issues, along with challenging the county’s privatized prison, the only for-profit prison in the state of Pennsylvania, and creating a county health department, as Delaware is the only county of its size in Pennsylvania without one, among other priorities. The county council also controls the election board, and Democrats want to work to dismantle a system of voter suppression.

In the recent past, many voters of color have been told by election officials to fill out provisional ballots on election day, as provisional ballots may be individually challenged and thrown out for minor mistakes.

“If this person wrote their name as Thomas Smith, but it should have been Thomas J. Smith, it can be thrown out. If this person’s writing was a little bit off, and they don’t know if that address was correct, that might be thrown out. You can challenge them one at a time and hire expensive lawyers, and make the other side pay for lawyers to fight it out. It’s just voter suppression,” Guiney said.  

As the fifth most populous county in a key battleground state of the upcoming 2020 presidential race, voter suppression in Delaware County could have national repercussions.

In explaining the recent surge of Democratic support among voters, Guiney considers the Trump era to be largely responsible for the creation of a new generation of activists. Past fundraising events reached maybe 40 people, she said, while now local Democrat fundraisers now often see hundreds. 

Shifting demographics of Delaware County have also played a significant role in this change. The 2000 Census found that over 80% of the county identified as white, in 2010 that figure decreased to 71%. Additionally, the African American population grew from 14.5% in 2000 to 19.7% in 2010. 

Nearby in Chester, a predominantly Black community with high levels of poverty and a long history of racist policies, there continues to be lower voter turnout than the rest of the county.  

Sharyd, a Chester resident and sixteen-year U.S. Army veteran, is disillusioned with local and U.S. politics. 

 “I don’t really pay attention to any of that anymore. Nothing ever changes, Republicans, Democrats, it doesn’t make any difference, they’re all the same.”  When asked if he plans to vote in either the upcoming presidential or local Delaware County elections his reply was coy: “I think you knew the answer to that question before you asked it.”

Joan Lindsey, another Chester resident, votes herself, but described a similar situation. While she votes regularly, her adult children do not, nor do most eligible young people she knows. 

“Most of our teenagers are not voting, my adult children won’t go out and vote. One son says, what’s the sense, what’s the use, I vote, the wrong guy gets in there … My three children live in Chester, they didn’t even vote for Obama. I got no answer why, they just don’t vote … The most thing I hear, they’re all corrupt, all in cahoots with each other, why should I even bother.” 

Guiney recognized the struggles of many Chester residents.

“If you’re in a place where people are voting for the same people and your life is still not materially different, when you walk in the door at night, it’s hard to say that I’m going to vote for change and actually expect results.”

In addressing this issue the local Democratic Party, with some funding from the Democratic National Committee, has increased canvassing of the Chester area, listening to concerns, and trying to involve people in the political process of addressing some of the issues. However, Guiney said, long term structural change will require fairer allocation of block grants of taxpayer money, for funding of services such as education and health care. Block grant distribution is controlled by the county council, and Democrats have long accused Republican councils of placing friendly acquaintances above citizen needs in the distribution process.  

This election has huge importance for the local Delaware community. Alongside the three County Council seats, four judgeships on the Delaware Court of Common Pleas and the District Attorney position are on the ballot for the upcoming election, neither of which have ever seen an elected Democrat. 

There is also a contested race for the District Attorney, Judge of the Superior Court, and four open seats on the Court of Common Pleas. Additionally, five judges are up for retention elections. Swarthmore is also electing School Board and City Council members along with a new Mayor, however, those elections are unopposed. 
Swarthmore students who live on the main part of campus vote at the Swarthmore Rutledge School. Swarthmore students who live in Mary Lyon, PPR, or PPR apartments vote at CADES. With Civil War-era political machines, voter repression, and block funds as just a few of the issues on the ballot box in the upcoming Delaware County elections, regardless of political leanings hopefully Swarthmore students will be well represented at the ballot boxes come November 5.   

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