The surprise move by Republican Jim Matthews and Democrat Joe Hoeffel to share power as Montgomery County commissioners reflects a stunning reversal of fortune for the GOP.

For decades, the county Republican Party enjoyed a reputation as an efficient and powerful political machine, demonstrated by its control of the courthouse for more than a century.

But yesterday's bipartisan news conference showed that was no more - especially after Democrats won five of nine county row offices in November.

Matthews will be chairman and Hoeffel vice chairman, sidelining Matthews' fellow Republican, Bruce L. Castor Jr., the well-known district attorney who ran for county commissioner specifically to preserve GOP control.

Though Castor was the top vote-getter in November, Matthews and Hoeffel have formed their own two-person majority on the three-member board. "We see a government of shared authority, responsibility and, moreover, accountability," Matthews said yesterday as he stood next to Hoeffel in the courthouse in Norristown.

"We're going to have a government of inclusion," he said.

Castor took the announcement in stride, calling his own news conference later in the day to place the blame on Hoeffel. He said there was still time for a reconciliation with Matthews - who was elected in 1999 - in the three weeks before they take office. Castor leaves the Prosecutor's Office in January.

"It's totally unbelievable to me that Jim would go and make an agreement to hand over to the Democrats what they could not win at the polls," Castor said, adding that he remained optimistic that Matthews would not proceed with the alliance. But Matthews and Hoeffel appeared united.

Hoeffel as vice chairman represents the first time in recent memory that a Democrat has held such a leadership position in Montgomery County.

His role reflects the shifting demographics of the county.

Voters have supported U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) and Gov. Rendell as GOP registration has steadily dropped. The state's third-largest county, Montgomery has voted for Democratic presidential candidates by ever-increasing margins since the 1990s.

Hoeffel will focus on county economic-development efforts. Also, Democrats will be hired for three positions in the Solicitor's Office and on the commissioners' staff.

Matthews and Hoeffel said their alliance was forged by voters who made a split decision in November by electing Democrats to five offices - controller, clerk of courts, prothonotary, register of wills and coroner. "The voters clearly indicated their desire for a mixed government," Hoeffel said.

Especially with a Democratic controller, the time had come for a "government of inclusion," Matthews said.

Matthews said the controller, along with the three commissioners, votes on hiring and firing decisions.

Without cooperation, Matthews said, there would be gridlock. "In the absence of bipartisanship, you would have no movement in government," he said.

Hoeffel called it a "great day for Montgomery County government" and said the courthouse was "in desperate need" of an infusion of bipartisanship.

Former county GOP chairman Robert B. Asher, who led the party in the halcyon days, said Republicans still have clout.

He declined to discuss the Matthews-Hoeffel alliance but said the GOP "can still win in Montgomery County if we have good candidates, good campaigns, and . . . don't spend our time fighting with each other."

Politics, he lamented, has changed. "It used to be that people could agree to disagree and then unite for the fall election," Asher said. "Unfortunately, today, everything has become personal."

Matthews and Castor have long had a contentious relationship.

Republican State Committee Chairman Rob Gleason said that he had hoped that Matthews and Castor would work out their differences and that he would still gladly mediate.

"They're both good guys. They worked hard in the past for the Republican Party," Gleason said. "I expect to work with them in the future."

At their news conference yesterday, Matthews and Hoeffel made clear that, at least for now, Castor would be the odd man out.

Matthews said that was largely because Castor had wanted to be chairman of the Board of Commissioners. Matthews said that he deserved that position because he has more government and business experience than Castor, and that he wanted Hoeffel and Castor to support him for the chairmanship.

"I have been unable to secure a unanimous vote from my running mate, Bruce Castor. I regret that inability," Matthews said.

Castor said he remained "willing to negotiate" with Matthews on the chairmanship and would even support Matthews for the role "so long as Jim and I agree we will not empower Joe Hoeffel."

Castor said he would still find his way if the alliance holds.

"This is shenanigans by Joe, designed to make us look bad," Castor said. "I'm not going to let it happen."

Castor said he would not be cast aside. "I think it is impossible to minimize me," he said.

Contact staff writer Emilie Lounsberry at 215-854-4828 or elounsberry@phillynews.com.