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Delaware County Democrats have high hopes

It's a year that has the GOP licking its chops. A year when angry voters are predicted to dump as many as 50 Democrats from the House and favor Republicans at every level of government.

It's a year that has the GOP licking its chops. A year when angry voters are predicted to dump as many as 50 Democrats from the House and favor Republicans at every level of government.

But in Delaware County, where one of the most effective and long-standing Republican machines holds every county office and a majority of municipal and statewide seats, the Democratic Party is feeling downright bullish.

Its two strongest, best-funded candidates, U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak and State Rep. Bryan Lentz, top the ballot in hotly contested races for U.S Senate and U.S. House, respectively. Nearly 200 new committee people have joined in the last four years, swelling the ranks of the party's foot soldiers, who play a crucial role in voter turnout and party organization. And next month, Democrats will elect new leadership for the first time in 16 years.

"The combination of Joe and Bryan is bringing out Democrats in big numbers," said David Landau, who leads the Nether Providence Democrats and is one of two people running for county chairman. "We're fielding the strongest slate of state House candidates we've had in a long time. . . . We're ready and we're organized."

The party has come a long way in Delaware County since 1994, when current county leader Cliff Wilson took over. Then, fewer than 30 percent of registered voters were Democrats, compared with the GOP's nearly 60 percent. Democrats had no functioning committee members in a third of the county's 49 municipalities.

"The party was dead. It was nonexistent," said county party vice chairman Tony Campisi, who also is running for county chairman.

Now, 43 percent of registered voters - 169,175 - are Democrats, compared with 46 percent - 181,288 - who are registered Republicans. Democrats have won and held the congressional seat centered in the county, and President Obama won the county with 60 percent of the vote. Enthusiasm for Sestak, Lentz, and Obama brought out volunteers in droves in Delaware County.

Despite narrowing margins in county elections, Democratic candidates have still been shut out. They have lost crucial open-seat elections for state posts and failed to win election in areas with Democratic-majority registration, such as Upper Darby, the largest township in the state.

The county party also raises only a fraction of the money its GOP counterpart gets. In 2009, the county Democratic Party raised about $46,000, according to committee finance reports. The GOP in Upper Darby alone raised nearly $235,000 during the same period.

"The leadership at the county level has been utterly ineffective in doing the things that a party needs, and that lack of leadership includes failure to raise money, failure to recruit local leaders at the municipal level, failure to recruit committee people, and failure to build relationships within the party," said Ed Bradley, vice chairman of the Upper Darby Democrats.

Arguments over how to run the party have led to rifts. Without a strong county organization, candidates such as Sestak and Lentz struck out largely on their own to raise money and organize volunteers.

The party is not united behind its current leadership. In 2006, Wilson won reelection to the chairmanship by two votes. This month, Wilson, who is not seeking reelection, failed to win one of five spots on the state committee, a defeat that surprised even his opponents within the party.

Wilson, 64, said he was proud of his work for the party, specifically in overseeing increases in voter registration and committee members.

Democratic committee members will choose a new leader by secret ballot June 13, and Campisi and Landau are busy making their pitches. Both think the party will continue to gain in strength.

"Some would have you think that the party is broken and it is not functioning," Campisi said. "I think the party in this county is vibrant."

Even if 2010 proves a tough year for Democrats, the party has much to gain.

"This election presents us with the opportunity to take the strong candidates and the new people that have been brought into this party by the candidates and the president and transform that into a strong, Democratic organization within the county," Landau said.