On a cloudy Thursday morning in Norristown, about two dozen people converged near the Montgomery County Courthouse to do what almost no one is doing these days: defend Joe Gale.
The Republican county commissioner, 31, has faced a furious public outcry ever since he labeled the Black Lives Matter movement a “hate group” earlier this month. Since his election five years ago, Gale has often stood alone in Montgomery County politics — a conservative representing increasingly liberal suburbs, able to stay in office because one of three seats on the county’s governing body is set aside for the minority party.
But he has found fewer allies than usual in his latest fight, which started June 1 when he said the objective of Black Lives Matter is to “unleash chaos and mayhem without consequence by falsely claiming they, in fact, are the victims.” Within days, hundreds were protesting outside both the courthouse and the house where he lives with his parents; his colleagues voted to censure him for “hateful, divisive and false” statements; and almost 87,000 people signed a petition calling for his resignation, among them 76ers star Tobias Harris.
On Thursday, Gale got some rare backup when a small rally organized by the Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania brought out people who said they support Gale’s right to free speech and his commitment to “the rights of the unborn,” though Gale’s recent comments did not mention abortion.
“We applaud Commissioner Gale for his courage in speaking the truth about Black Lives Matter,” said Mike McMonagle, president of the coalition. “We need more elected officials like Joe Gale, not fewer.”
A group of more than twice the size was gathered around the corner, calling for Gale’s resignation. Charles Quann, a pastor at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Lower Gwynedd Township, said frustration over Gale’s statement was not rooted in partisan bickering.
”This is not a political rally. It doesn’t matter to me if you’re Democrat or Republican,” Quann said. “Never again will we allow an elected official anywhere to get away with these godless remarks.”
Gale’s statement was made as looting and vandalism erupted in Philadelphia and across the nation alongside peaceful protests over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Gale’s Democratic co-commissioners said censuring him was the strongest option available, since only the legislature could remove him from office. State Rep. Joe Webster (D., Montgomery) last week pledged to introduce a House resolution to impeach Gale, citing his use of county letterhead to publish his remarks.
“Commissioner Gale’s use of public office to disparage a large number of our community members — his constituents — and his contempt for those marching for racial justice make him unsuitable to represent a diverse county and its interests,” Webster said in a statement. “Citizens who exercise the rights guaranteed them by the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions should not be met with such disdain from their own government officials.”
The Montgomery County Republican Committee also has denounced his comments, with party Chair Liz Preate Havey noting that the committee has never endorsed Gale. “He does not speak for the Montgomery County Republican Committee,” she said.
Gale declined to be interviewed this week, but doubled down on his comments in a statement. Using rhetoric that seemed borrowed from President Donald Trump, Gale said he wasn’t surprised the “swamp-infested Montgomery County Republican Committee” joined Democrats in condemning him for “exposing the truth” about protesters.
“My support is, and has always been, from the voters, not party bosses,” he said. “I will not be bullied and pushed around for speaking the truth.
“To suggest, that as a Montgomery County commissioner, I am somehow disqualified, unqualified, or ineligible to discuss the rioting, looting, arson, and violence in Philadelphia... is to suggest that citizens or elected leaders cannot speak out against crimes or injustices in any city, community, or jurisdiction outside of where they reside or govern,” Gale added.
It’s familiar territory for Gale, who has styled himself as a political outsider since he first ran for office at age 25, and who has seemed comfortable positioning himself against both his Democratic and Republican colleagues.
Gale’s unexpected ascent came as the Republican Party was fractured in Montgomery County, its onetime dominance a distant memory even before Democrats seized an edge in voter registration totals. Democrats captured the Board of Commissioners in 2011.
In 2015, Gale wasn’t even on Republicans’ radars. The county GOP intended to run two veteran township commissioners for the board, hoping to wrest a majority back from the Democrats. But Gale launched a grassroots campaign to appeal to voters who felt the party had become too moderate.
One longtime county Republican recalled that Gale threw his hat into the ring the day after the party endorsed other candidates. He focused on one candidate’s former role with Planned Parenthood, mounting an aggressive campaign appealing almost exclusively to anti-abortion voters.
“We all know county commissioners don’t make decisions on the [abortion] debate, but he was a politician speaking out about it,” said the Republican, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid retaliation by Gale. “We tried everything, but he appealed to the far right.”
Gale won the primary by 1,000 votes. But the intra-party strife didn’t end there.
Days before the general election, Gale accused the county GOP of trying to sabotage his campaign, prompting local committeeman Joseph Meo to tell Gale at a county dinner, “I’d like to slice your throat and rip your esophagus out.”
Gale targeted local Republicans again four years later during his reelection campaign, claiming party insiders were conspiring with Democrats to spread misinformation and defeat him. “Don’t let Philly Democrats choose your Republican Montgomery County Commissioner!!!” he wrote in a post on Facebook. He was reelected last November, beating out a moderate Republican for the one set-aside seat.
After county officials began holding daily briefings on the coronavirus pandemic in March, Gale was largely quiet for weeks. But in May, as Pennsylvania lawmakers began pressuring Gov. Tom Wolf to reopen the state’s economy, Gale lashed out, saying that the lockdown was “totalitarian” and that Wolf had “failed” as a leader.
That got a warm reception from some, and viewers of the streamed news conferences made comments cheering him on.
Within days of Gale’s comments, County Commissioner Kenneth E. Lawrence Jr. tested positive for COVID-19. Later that month, Gale clashed with Val Arkoosh, chair of the county commissioners, after taking part in a Memorial Day ceremony with local veterans. Arkoosh, a physician who has a background in public health, urged the public not to follow Gale, who attended the event without a face mask and interacted with seniors, who are particularly vulnerable to the virus.
Gale said Arkoosh was “mask bullying” and “mask shaming” him.
On Thursday, Bridgeport Mayor Mark Barbee led protesters on a march over the Schuylkill to join the group protesting against Gale in Norristown.
”We recognize the importance of not sweeping racism under the rug and addressing the racism going on in this county,” he said. “We need to talk about it.”
Barbee, the first black and openly gay mayor of Bridgeport, has been outspoken about prejudice he’s experienced in his short time in office, during which council members and the chief of police have quit, and he received death threats on social media.
”We are out here today regardless of what anyone has to say, because we know what is right,” Barbee said. “And it’s important for us to live in a county where racism is kept in check, and that’s why Gale must go.”