In Republican Party circles, James R. Matthews feels about as welcome as a stick-up man.

"I'm 'Black Bart' right now," he says, invoking an infamous highway robber from the Wild West of the 1880s.

Matthews, new chairman of the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, is being shunned by much of the party establishment.

The reason is the recent deal he made to share power over county government with Democrat Joseph M. Hoeffel while freezing out a fellow Republican, Bruce L. Castor Jr.

Republicans worry that the fallout from the dispute on the already-divided party in Pennsylvania's largest suburban county could be felt for elections to come.

Castor has accused Matthews - the GOP's 2006 nominee for Pennsylvania lieutenant governor - of undoing the results of this past November's election, in which county voters picked a 2-1 GOP majority for the three-member commissioner board.

Most organization Republicans seem to agree.

The white-haired Matthews, talking over a

grande

half-and-half at a Starbucks in King of Prussia, said that he has sought to explain his move to Republican groups but that most don't seem to want to listen.

"I've not been invited," said Matthews, 58, a mortgage broker in private life. "I'm waiting for invitations."

Brian P. Miles, the GOP chairman in Whitpain Township, said in a telephone interview that Matthews may have to continue waiting.

"I think he has suffered a good deal of isolation from the rank-and-file," Miles said.

But the shunning probably won't make much difference.

Republican leaders appear to have little leverage to force Matthews, who won a four-year term of office, to do anything.

"Shunning is the only option available to us," Miles said. "You hope Jim comes to his senses and realizes the devastating impact this will have on the Republican Party in Montgomery County."

Leading up to last fall's election, the county party was divided between a pro-Matthews faction and a pro-Castor faction.

Castor, then district attorney, had said he was the only candidate popular enough to hold back Democratic efforts to take control in Norristown for the first time since before the Civil War.

But Castor preferred another running mate. He contended that Matthews, as an incumbent commissioner since 2001, was tainted by ethical lapses in county government. He said it looked "very improper" for the county to have given a $7,500-a-month lobbying contract to a firm run by the county Republican chairman, Kenneth E. Davis.

Matthews said Castor had an ego so big it could "float the Titanic."

The two managed to run together, but they - and their party - remained split.

Marie Cavanaugh, GOP leader in the North Penn area, said she was furious at Matthews for empowering Hoeffel at Castor's expense.

Matthews and Hoeffel, as chairman and vice chairman, have agreed to cooperate in all major decisions. As long as they vote together, they can hold sway.

Cavanaugh, who chaired the Republican campaign, said: "We all worked very hard for Jim, whether or not we supported him in the original endorsement. So it was very, very upsetting to us that he did what he did."

She said North Wales Republicans hold their annual get-together this weekend. In the past, Matthews was invited. This year, Cavanaugh said, he wasn't.

Cavanaugh attended a meeting of the county GOP executive committee on Jan. 10 at the Plymouth Township building.

She said that someone in the group of 40 to 50 people impulsively called for a vote to remove Matthews - who did not attend - from the board.

"It was a voice vote," she said. "I didn't hear any nays."

County Republican chairman Kenneth E. Davis didn't consider that a valid vote. He had appointed the board members, and it was up to him who served.

He declined to talk much about the incident, but told a reporter: "There was a very strong consensus among the people in attendance that Jim Matthews should no longer be a member of the executive committee. And I said I would take care of that, and I did. . . . He is no longer a member of the executive committee."

Matthews said many Republicans might come to agree with his moves if only they would really hear him out.

He points out that voters elected an even number of Republicans and Democrats for the 12 countywide offices. He also said that if he hadn't shared power the county wouldn't have been able to hire and set salaries for more than half of its 3,200 employees.

All hires are governed by a salary board, which consists of the three commissioners and the county controller. The controller, for first time in decades, is a Democrat: Diane Morgan. The board is split, 2-2, along party lines.

With some county jobs, a tie could be broken by an agency or department head. But for 1,839 jobs, there is no tie-breaker, Matthews said. The county wouldn't have been able to function, he said.

"People call you a traitor," he said, "but they don't understand the compelling circumstances that brought this about."

Republican critics call that thin reasoning.

Matthews argues his move also makes for good government and that, in the end, good government is good politics. He said voters may look with favor on a party that has proved it can compromise.

But even party leaders who have been allied with Matthews say they can't understand this move.

Tracey Specter, area leader of Lower Merion and Narberth and daughter-in-law of U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.), extended the one speaking invitation that Matthews has received in recent weeks. But she, too, condemned his pact with Hoeffel.

"I did not agree with Jim that he should ask Hoeffel to be his vice chairman," she said. "But I feel he is our elected commissioner, and we need to move forward. We need to concentrate on our races for 2008."

Matthews' foes have their own theory on why he shut out Castor.

Said Miles: "I think he hates Bruce Castor and is willing to inflict damage on the Republican Party in order to indulge that hatred."

Matthews denies that, but doesn't hide his enmity toward Castor.

James Matthews' older brother is Chris Matthews, host of the MSNBC program

Hardball

and a former aide to the late U.S. Rep. Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill Jr. (D., Mass.), once speaker of the House.

Asked if he had consulted his brother for advice, James Matthews said he had.

"[My brother] said, 'The bigger they are, the harder they fall' . . . Talk about hardball."

Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or tinfield@phillynews.com.