In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats in Delaware County wrested control of several local statehouse and congressional seats from Republicans. Then, in 2019, they won a majority on the County Council (a five-member body with broad governing powers) for the first time since the 1800s. In just under a week, on Tuesday, Nov. 2, voters will again elect county, local, and statewide officeholders. But with Trump out of the White House, Democratic activists are having to work harder to drive turnout in a lower profile election.
This time, two seats on the County Council are up for grabs, as well as judicial and school board positions. The two Democratic candidates are Kevin Madden and Richard Womack. Madden, a business executive from Haverford, won his seat in 2017 along with running mate Brian Zideck, who has chosen not to run for re-election. This time, Madden is running alongside Richard Womack, a Black police commissioner and former municipal official in Darby.
Running against the Democrats are Republicans Joe Lombardo, a business owner from Springfield, and Frank Agovino, the Mayor of Clifton Heights. On their campaign website, they emphasize bringing integrity and accountability to the Council and pledge to “work to reverse and/or mitigate residential tax increases” and “restore balance to County Council and eliminate one-party rule” among other goals.
Colleen Guiney, the Chair of the Delaware County Democratic Party, referred back to a legacy of consolidated, family controlled rule in the County that she described as “almost mafia-like.” When Democrats picked up two seats on the County Council, which laid the foundation for their takeover of the body in 2019, their main priority was advocating for anti-corruption reforms, according to Guiney.
“The county government that [Democrats] inherited had no health department, the only private prison in the state, many patronage jobs … it was a very secretive organization that had all their meetings not taped and in the morning on a Wednesday so that nobody who worked for a living could ever come,” she said.
One of the key achievements that Guiney points to is the Council’s decision to deprivatize a county prison, the George W. Hill Correctional Facility, by ending a $259 million deal with GEO Group, a real estate investment contractor that is often involved in private prisons.
The establishment and management of a new county health department and responding to the regional opioid epidemic are central priorities for Madden and Womack. When COVID-19 hit, Chester County had to step in to support Delaware County, a process that was facilitated in part by the County Council.
Although the election is mainly to determine local leadership, Guiney believes the races could have national implications. The partisan makeup of the Delaware County Board of Elections, which is tasked with certifying election results, will be determined by the highest vote totals in the County Council race.
“Right now, most Democrats aren’t paying attention and most college students are focusing on things like global climate change and justice issues … these races affect college students because if we don’t win on November 2, Republicans will control our election board and last year the one Republican on the board voted not to the certify the [2020 Presidential Election],” said Guiney.
Guiney and her party are focused on driving voter turnout in the final days of the campaign. She believes that youth participation was key to her party’s gains in Delaware County in 2017 and 2019 and is urging students to turn out to the polls next Tuesday.
Swarthmore campus groups are also mobilizing to encourage student participation, but convincing students of the importance of the races may be proving more difficult than in previous cycles.
“We’re currently working on an informational campaign because we know that state and local elections are seen as less important, because their consequences aren’t as widely advertised,” said Emmy Stavis ’24, a leader in Swarthmore Democrats, in an interview with The Phoenix.
The college Democrats are planning “dorm storming” efforts to educate students about the races and encourage them to turn out on Tuesday. Asked about why Swarthmore students should participate, Stavis pointed to the partisan judicial elections on the ballot.
“There are a bunch of judgeships statewide that can make decisions about gerrymandering, abortion decisions, and also election integrity, such as overturning the electoral college vote in 2024,” she said.
SwatVotes, a nonpartisan campus group focused on activating and educating student voters, is also organizing to increase student turnout, including through amplifying information on social media.
“We’re organizing poll-walking on election day, which will entail volunteers being available throughout the day to walk with Swarthmore students to and from the two polling locations,” said Sam Winnokoff, one of the organization’s leaders. “Volunteers will hopefully be stationed at Parrish Circle, by the rose garden, and also at the PPR shuttle stop. We are collaborating with Sunrise, SwatDems, Swarthmore Athletes for Diversity and Inclusion, and the college’s GOTV committee on our collective efforts to turn out Swarthmore students, and each of these organizations have also spearheaded different activities.”
Even with Trump out of office, Guiney feels that the Republican candidates have failed to distance themselves from him and is driving home that message during voter outreach efforts.
“Each voter has to make up their mind about whether they stand with the party of Trump or against it. One of the candidates on the Republican side helped organize a bus to attend the [Jan. 6 insurrection],” she said.
At least publicly, both parties’ candidates seem eager to avoid potentially divisive issues that often animate national elections like abortion and gun control, instead focusing on the technocratic details of budget management and residential taxes.
Guiney is cautiously optimistic about whether her party will be able to repeat the successes they saw in 2017 and 2019, but she sees student turnout as critical to determining the outcome on election night.
“What happened in 2017 and 2019 has only happened once in 150 years and it wouldn’t have happened without the students at Swarthmore that helped us.”