Delaware County Democrats are growing up — and dealing with growing pains.

For years, their goal was simple but elusive: Beat the Republicans. They often struggled to even recruit candidates in a county controlled by the GOP since the Civil War. But demographic changes, suburban political realignment, and Donald Trump’s presidency eventually overwhelmed Republicans. Democrats went from holding zero seats on the county council to all five in just a few years. Joe Biden won 63% of the vote last year.

Now Democrats are trying to forge an identity as the party in power in the state’s fifth most populous county. And they’re confronting internal divisions in the process, according to interviews with a dozen people involved in local Democratic politics.

After the presidential election, some Democrats say this year’s lower-profile races actually pose a bigger test for the party: Does it want to be a progressive, reform-oriented organization? Is there room for transactional politics that rewards loyalty to the party? Or would that lead to the rise of Philadelphia-style politics and make the Delco Democrats a different version of the GOP machine they toppled?

Democrats are “in a transition phase where we can no longer be about what we are against. We really have to define what we’re for,” said County Councilmember Christine Reuther. “I genuinely believe that transparency, and good government focused on providing service, is something that we’re for.”

The next sign of the party’s direction comes Thursday, when the roughly 1,000 activists who make up the Delaware County Democratic Committee will endorse candidates for local office. The most closely watched campaign is also the most obscure: the race for Common Pleas Court. Three candidates are seen as having a shot to win the May primary for two vacancies on the bench.

The Democrat who appears to have the broadest support is Tinu Moss, an attorney and former Yeadon borough manager. Her supporters include a coalition of building trades unions, progressives, and others. Supporters say Moss, who is Black, is well-qualified and would bring needed diversity to the mostly white and male bench.

The two other leading contenders are Deborah Krull, a former Media borough councilmember and current district court judge for seven years, and Raymond Santarelli, a longtime Springfield Democratic chair. Santarelli is general counsel at the Delaware River Port Authority, which operates bridges and the PATCO train. Attorney Jacquie Jones is also running.

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Krull’s backers say that, as a sitting judge, she’s the most qualified. But some of them worry that won’t be enough to stop Santarelli, who has support from influential building trades unions, including Philadelphia’s powerful electricians’ union. Santarelli has ties to the union’s leader, John J. Dougherty, who is set to stand trial this year on federal embezzlement and bribery charges. Dougherty has pleaded not guilty.

Santarelli’s supporters praise his legal skills and reject suggestions that he’s associated with a political machine.

“Ray is eminently qualified to be a judge,” said Ryan Boyer, head of the Laborers District Council. “I see Ray as a party loyalist who put his work in with the party and deserves strong consideration.”

Boyer, who is Black, added, “And I don’t think he should be punished for — what I’m hearing and I don’t like is, ‘Oh, he’s a white male.’ ”

The political jockeying comes as Democrats continue to push a governing agenda that, like in state and local governments across the country, was disrupted last year by the pandemic.

Council last month opened a wellness center in Yeadon, which will serve as a mass vaccination site. Officials say it’s an early step toward fulfilling their campaign pledge of establishing a county health department. Democrats are also moving toward deprivatizing the George W. Hill Correctional Facility.

Delaware County was for decades a Republican stronghold like other Philadelphia suburbs. Santarelli was one of longtime local Democratic chair Cliff Wilson’s top allies.

Now Santarelli’s supporters say he deserves credit for building the party.

“Ray Santarelli and I have had a lot of breakfasts over the years, talking about the party,” said State Sen. John Kane, who was the longtime head of Plumbers Local 690, a major party benefactor and the rare building trades union that supported Democrats while they were out of power.

He said his decision to support Santarelli is a “no brainer.”

“It’s all about relationships to me,” Kane said. “You help me, I help you.”

But some don’t have fond memories of the party’s old guard, which they saw as more interested in serving as “loyal opposition” to Republicans than winning elections. Wilson stepped down in 2010, when the party elected David Landau, an attorney at Duane Morris, as chairman. Four years later, Santarelli unsuccessfully challenged Landau for the chairmanship.

By then, demographic changes made Delaware County friendlier terrain for Democrats. As in other Philadelphia suburbs, the county has become more racially diverse, better-educated, and younger.

Registered Democrats surpassed Republicans in 2015, the same year Democrat Leanne Krueger won a special election to the state House. In 2017, Democrats won two Council seats. As the party tasted success, rivalries surfaced, especially in the 2018 congressional primary.

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The state Supreme Court had thrown out the old congressional map. Under the new map, all of Delaware County fits in the 5th District, which also includes South Philadelphia. Delaware County Democrats were excited to send one of their own to Congress. But Local 98 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, led by Dougherty, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars backing Rich Lazer, a South Philadelphian and aide to Mayor Jim Kenney.

Landau clashed with Local 98, and the infighting spilled into public view.

In the end, Swarthmore lawyer Mary Gay Scanlon won the primary and the seat. But Landau’s handling of the episode prompted Kane, the plumbers’ union leader, to challenge him for the party chairmanship.

Democrats settled on a compromise leader: longtime activist Colleen Guiney. But scars from the 2018 fight remain.

Local 98, now engulfed in legal troubles, has endorsed Santarelli. He’s also getting support from the Laborers District Council, the union led by Boyer, who until this month was chairman of the Delaware River Port Authority, where Santarelli works.

Some Democrats worry that nominating a candidate with those personal connections could damage the party’s reformist brand. Santarelli’s campaign said that’s unfair.

“This last-minute and desperate attempt to shift focus away from Ray’s contributions to the community, the Democratic Party, and the legal profession is far from the promotion of reform and progressive ideals,” the campaign said. It pointed to endorsements from dozens of Democratic activists and groups like the Delaware County Black Caucus PAC.

Santarelli “has a long-standing reputation for integrity and high-quality legal work over twenty-five years, representing both private clients and government entities,” the campaign said.

Dougherty and Local 98 declined to comment. Other Democrats, such as State Rep. Jennifer O’Mara, have touted support from the union.

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Reuther, the county councilmember, said Krull is the most qualified candidate.

“There’s a lot of long-standing personal ties and loyalties that understandably lead to a lot of the support other candidates like Ray Santarelli have,” Reuther said. “I’m going to cast my first vote for [Krull] without apology.”

Some Democrats said the bigger concern is the precedent this election could set for future races.

“It is in some ways not really fair to Ray,” said one longtime party activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity to candidly discuss internal party politics. “He does have qualifications. There’s a concern about that model, about what comes next.”

Krueger, whose 2015 special election is seen as foundational to the party’s current success, said competitive primaries are healthy for the party.

“A couple years ago I had to work really, really hard to recruit one Democrat to run for one of these seats. Now I think primaries are here to stay,” she said. “The reason they’re here to stay is because the Democratic energy is so strong. And because we don’t have someone in a backroom deciding who the candidates will be — whose turn it is to move forward.”