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Democrats make history by winning control of Delaware County

Republicans have ruled the suburban county since before the Civil War.

Delaware County Council candidate Monica Taylor high-fives a supporter during the Delaware County Democratic Committee's election watch party at the Inn at Swarthmore in Swarthmore Pa., on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.
Delaware County Council candidate Monica Taylor high-fives a supporter during the Delaware County Democratic Committee's election watch party at the Inn at Swarthmore in Swarthmore Pa., on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019.Read moreTIM TAI / Staff Photographer

In a victory certain to reverberate across Pennsylvania’s political landscape, Democrats on Tuesday gained control of the Delaware County Council, the controlling body of the historically red Philadelphia suburb.

Tuesday’s race was the first time in generations that Democrats presented a real challenge to the Republican machine that has ruled the county since before the Civil War. Buoyed by a general anti-Trump sentiment and encouraged by the historic win of two seats on the council in 2017, Democrats anticipated an easy victory.

As results were being finalized Tuesday night, Democrats were poised to clinch three additional seats on the council, thanks largely to straight-ticket voting by their base, which outnumbers registered Republicans in the county by about 30,000.

Elaine Schaefer and Christine Reuther, both attorneys; and Monica Taylor, a professor at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, will join fellow Democrats Brian Zidek and Kevin Madden midway through their first terms on the council.

Unlike the other counties that surround it, Delaware County’s charter does not require minority representation on the county council, members of which are elected to four-year terms.

“For those who toiled for generations while we were in the minority, we’re grateful to stand on your shoulders tonight,” said Colleen Guiney, chair of the county Democratic Party.

“This is a clean sweep,” she added, to booming applause inside the party’s election night headquarters at the Inn at Swarthmore.

» READ MORE: Election Day in Pa. and NJ: Delco flips, Kenney wins, Working Families Party makes history

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a surprise visitor to the victory celebration, said: “They said it couldn’t be done, Delco, but you proved them wrong.”

The fight for control of Delaware County Council had been seen as the most interesting in southeastern Pennsylvania, an off-year election that could hold clues for how suburban regions in Philadelphia and elsewhere will swing in 2020.

Its members decide how the county’s budget — $350 million in 2019 — is spent and exert influence over George W. Hill Correctional Facility, the only privately run county jail in Pennsylvania. They also control a sizable number of patronage jobs, which Republicans used for decades to help consolidate the party’s influence.

The Democrats ran on a platform of change, expressing an eagerness to disrupt the one-party rule that they said throttled progress in Delaware County and bred corruption and favoritism.

» READ MORE: Democrats won across the Philly region as Republicans are fading even on friendly turf

Their opponents — James Raith, Kelly Colvin, and Michael Morgan — cast their efforts as an attempt to make the county more like nearby Philadelphia, warning voters that a Democrat-led Delaware County would see higher taxes, among other issues.

At the polls Tuesday, voters seemed to cling to their party allegiances.

Joan Shaabers, who has lived in Chester for all of her 77 years, said she would like to see Democrats get the chance to lead.

“The Republicans could do a better job. It’s like they forget about us out here,” she said. “I think it would be better if we had both parties, to be honest. They could pull together and improve things for all of us.”

Sixteen miles away in Radnor Township, Marita Finley said GOP leadership has done well for the county, with policies that align closer to her own beliefs.

“I want candidates that focus on personal responsibility, less government involvement, and lower taxes,” she said. “But I’ll support whoever is elected; I’m just happy to be able to vote in a free election.”

For some who cast ballots for Democrats Tuesday, President Donald Trump was a significant factor.

“Today’s climate points to one decision: The death of the Republican Party,” Steven Zavodnick said outside his polling place in Radnor Township. “There are some fine people here locally, but national politics have poisoned the discourse, and I have to send a message however I can.”

Stephen Davis disagreed. The Upper Darby resident has been voting Republican for years, and the news out of Washington only caused him to double down on Tuesday.

“I don’t want to see bickering; I want to see people lead,” Davis said. “Every politician has their fingers in the cookie jar, so to speak, but Republicans are absolutely the lesser of two evils.”

This year’s race, if nothing else, depicted a county unsure of its future. Nowhere was this more clear than in the split endorsement by one of the county’s most prominent unions.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 27 caught Republicans off-guard in September when it broke tradition and backed the three Democratic candidates. Yet a month later, the union declared its support for incumbent GOP District Attorney Katayoun Copeland.

Meanwhile, significant resources were spent on the race on both sides, in unusually high amounts for the county.

The Committee for Delaware County’s Future, a GOP-aligned political action committee, raised nearly $1 million for countywide races since January, according to campaign finance reports.

One of the committee’s recent expenditures was an ad campaign on KYW Newsradio that featured a Bernie Sanders impersonator calling the candidates for county council “my kind of Democrats” because they would enact “socialist policies” he loves.

Funds for those ads largely came from small-dollar donations from Delaware County citizens, but there were some sizable contributions, including $20,000 from Meehan for Congress, a PAC run by disgraced former U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan.

Meehan, once the county district attorney, resigned his seat in 2018 amid a sexual harassment scandal.