Joseph M. Hoeffel III, the longtime standard bearer for Montgomery County's Democrats, announced this morning he will not seek another term as county commissioner.

The Abington resident thanked his supporters at a news conference this morning, while flanked by a new generation of party leaders including Whitemarsh Township Supervisor Leslie Richards and State Rep. Joshua Shapiro, who officially kicked off their joint campaign for a spot on the three-man commissioner's board.

"We know we have big shoes to fill," Shapiro said. "But we wear our own shoes and we're going to use them to walk in new directions and blaze new trails."

Hoeffel's announcement ended weeks of will-he-or-won't-he speculation that arose after Montgomery County Democratic Committee Chairman Marcel Groen said publicly that he would not support the commissioner in a reelection bid. His statement initially prompted a vow from Hoeffel that he would run with or without his party's backing.

Although he declined to discuss the specific reasoning for bowing out of the race, Hoeffel said he had several conversations with party members over the past few weeks and concluded that a unified 2011 ticket would put the Democrats in the best position to take control of the Montgomery County board in November.

"I certainly could have won one of the nominations had I gone forward," he said. "But it seemed the party was not united. This is what's best for all three of us."

Shapiro, elected to a fourth term in the State House in November, pledged he was committed to serving out his term on the Montgomery County board should he be elected.

Although he had not previously discussed a potential run for the commissioner's seat, Groen had singled him out as his choice to lead the Democratic ticket. Party insiders said that while Shapiro, who served as Hoeffel's chief of staff during his stint in Congress, had refused to run with, or against, his former boss.

"Our deep friendship goes back many years," he said. "I'm honored to be standing here with my friend."

Richards, who works for a civil engineering firm in addition to her role on the Whitemarsh council, had only glowing reviews for the men who stood by her side. After calling Hoeffel a "role model," she turned toward Shapiro describing him as "one of the smartest, hardest working politicians in Pennsylvania."

"I'm really looking forward to a future with you, Josh," she said.

The two will face a Republican ticket likely to be led by incumbent Commissioner Bruce L. Castor – who, despite netting the most votes in 2007 election, was effectively sidelined during his first term on Montgomery County's board by a power sharing deal Hoeffel struck with Republican colleague James R. Matthews. Matthews announced earlier this month that he will not seek reelection this year.

The Montgomery County Republican Committee is set to officially pick its candidates at a nominating convention Feb. 9. Last week, the group's executive committee recommended Castor and Lower Merion Supervisor Jenny Brown for the nomination amid a crowd of six candidates.

The Democrats – who will host their own nominating convention later next month – are likely to support a Shapiro and Richards ticket.

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