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SEPTA board shifts to Democratic majority for first time ever

The blue wave that crashed upon Philadelphia suburbs last November has rippled through SEPTA’s governing body.

People gather during SEPTA's February board meeting.
People gather during SEPTA's February board meeting.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

The blue wave that crashed on the Philadelphia suburbs last November has rippled through SEPTA’s governing body, which now has a Democratic majority for the first time.

SEPTA’s newest board member, John Cordisco, a lawyer and chairman of the Bucks County Democratic Committee, gives the 15-member board an 8-7 tilt toward the Democrats. On Thursday, Cordisco replaced Charles Martin, a former Bucks County commissioner, who was appointed to the board in 2001.

The board is made up of two representatives from each of the region’s five counties, who serve five-year terms, as well as four appointees from the Assembly without term limits and a pick from the governor, whose term coincides with the appointee’s.

Philadelphia’s collar counties were for decades reliably Republican. Before last year, Democrats had never held the majority on the Delaware County Council. The last time they held Bucks County’s board of commissioners was 1983, and four years later they lost it.

Because SEPTA, established in 1963, was always controlled by the GOP, that stability allowed the influential Bucks County Republican Pasquale “Pat” Deon Sr. to dominate the board, becoming chair in 1999. But a political shift has been a long time coming. In 2011, Democrats took over Montgomery County’s board of commissioners, while the demographics in Philadelphia’s other surrounding counties have been trending blue.

In a show of bipartisanship, Bucks County Commissioner Gene DiGirolamo, the board’s only Republican, nominated Cordisco during the commissioners' meeting this month.

“I can’t say that I haven’t taken a little bit of heat for doing that,” DiGirolamo said. “But I’m not going to apologize to anybody for doing what I think is in the best interest of Bucks County.”

DiGirolamo said he and Deon “have been friends for a long time,” and he touted the enormous influence Deon holds in Harrisburg when it comes to transportation legislation, funding, and budgetary issues.

“If Pat chooses to want to be chairman again, it would be my hope that they would realize and make sure that Pat got back in there again as chairman,” DiGirolamo said.

Deon has floated the idea of retiring from SEPTA when his term ends in 2024. By then, Democrats are expected to have a sizable majority on the board, as Chester and Delaware Counties’ new Democratic commissioners make their own appointments.

Having a Republican at the head of a transit agency that serves an overwhelmingly Democratic city can be an asset, though.

SEPTA faces the possibility of a significant budget shortfall in 2022, when the expiration of a state funding bill is expected to cost public transit in Pennsylvania $400 million. That threat has only been exacerbated by the devastating effects of the pandemic on public transportation revenue. The region’s Republicans and Democrats expect Deon to be a key player in securing critical funding from the state’s Republican-controlled legislature.

» READ MORE: SEPTA poised to shift to Democrats’ control for first time in its history

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Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania, an environmental activism group, put $250,000 toward Democratic candidates in Chester County’s 2019 commissioner race, in part with the aim of influencing SEPTA’s green initiatives by shifting the board’s political makeup. The funding crisis, though, means the first priority is ensuring SEPTA can survive the pandemic, said Josh McNeil, the group’s executive director.

“At this moment, making sure it remains a viable, thriving transit agency is the most important,” he said.

Cordisco listed accessibility, safety, and efficiency as the transportation issues most important to him. He acknowledges there will be a “learning curve” as he begins his new role, and as an infrequent SEPTA user, he said he will take “every opportunity” to travel aboard the system in the future,

“There obviously is homework for me to do,” he said. “And I’m prepared to do it.”

Cordisco described an amicable working relationship with Deon.

“We don’t always obviously agree on everything,” he said. “But for the most part, we have looked toward what we do agree upon and try to work together towards a common end, which is to benefit the people of Bucks County.”

In a statement, Deon said he and Cordisco have “known each other for years,” noting Cordisco will bring “a wealth of experience with him to this position.”

“John and I both know the value of public transportation in our region, and its importance to the commonwealth as a whole,” Deon said in the statement. “This is a difficult time, and this board is committed to working with SEPTA staff, our stakeholders and customers to make sure this authority is prepared to meet the challenges before us now and as we move forward.”