What Would Ronnie Say About Montco Republicans Now?

A generation ago, Ronald Reagan decreed Montgomery County one of the three best-run Republican strongholds in the entire country. Now, with the party decimated by a half-dozen years of feuding among GOP heavyweights, a very rich, mysterious newcomer has entered the void to take Montco politics to an even darker place

“Just childish stuff,” says one longtime county Republican. “Embarrassing,” moans another.

But more than just embarrassing, the feud was a huge distraction from an important development behind the scenes. A void was forming at the heart of the party. And a man was stepping in—a man with an agenda of his own. Someone is now taking Montgomery County’s Republican Party, once one of the nation’s most tightly organized and powerful, to a far more dysfunctional and darker place.

ON THE WEBSITE OF his for-profit company, Charter School Management Inc., Vahan H. Gureghian describes himself as “an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur.” Gureghian didn’t return my e-mails; one of his associates, John McNichol, of the powerhouse firm Greenlee Partners, told me, “He’s in the bunker. He doesn’t need a Philly Mag article. … He’s made it here without the Inquirer, without the Daily News, without the Business Journal. He made it here doing what he does, just working hard.”

As I reported this piece, the same scene played out again and again: I’d be sitting with a source, listening to some crazy story about the Matthews/Castor/Hoeffel commission. Then I’d mention Gureghian’s name. The subject’s mouth would tighten. The subject would start to speak very slowly, in clipped sentences, weighing every word:

“Very smart guy.” “Very shrewd politically.” “A very bright businessman.” “I think he’s quiet, maybe even a little shy.”

What else?

Well, he’s Armenian, my sources would tell me. He’s an attorney. Used to be a bond lawyer in the ’80s. Now he’s in the billboard business. And he runs a charter school in the city of Chester. Parents down there seem to like the school, and the guy seems to do pretty well for himself—hey, more power to him. And he writes big checks to politicos. How big? Well, that’s all public information. You can look it up yourself.

So I did. It turns out that Gureghian was the largest individual donor to the current governor, Tom Corbett, over the past three years, giving him more than $330,000. Gureghian has also given $65,000 to the Pennsylvania House Republican Campaign Committee, more than $60,000 to committees connected to powerful Republican State Senator Dominic Pileggi-, and $208,000 to the national- Republican Governors’ Association, led by Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry. Altogether, Gureghian and his wife, Danielle, have contributed about $1.5 million to Republican causes in the past five years alone.

When I tried to move beyond publicly- verifiable facts, though, I ran into brick walls. It was difficult to get even the most innocuous questions answered by people who were supposed to know Gureghian fairly- well—questions like, where was he born? Did he come from money or from a more humble upbringing? (I eventually heard he came from a working-class background.) Is he a Reagan Republican or more of a libertarian? (“I’d say he’s more of a … Reagan Republican,” said Nancy Becker, the Montco recorder of deeds, instantly qualifying her statement: “That’s just my take on him.”) And how do you correctly pronounce his name, anyway? Is it Gur-edge-ian or Gur-egg-ian? “I’ve heard it both ways,” shrugged one of Gureghian’s closest allies.

For such an unknowable person, he certainly announced his arrival in grand fashion. Gureghian moved to Montco from neighboring Delaware County and completed construction on a house in Gladwyne in 2007. But not just any house: one of the biggest mansions on the Main Line, nearly 31,000 square feet of soaring columns and French Provincial bling. It reportedly has 10 bedrooms and 11 bathrooms. Also a bowling alley. And a moat. Bruce Castor told the Inquirer at the time, “The closest thing I can compare it to is photographs I have seen of Versailles.” Gureghian began to hold political fund-raisers there. Politicians came to visit the short, intense man with the glasses and the pelt of graying hair.

Normally, it takes more than a big checkbook to accrue power. It takes relationships. But Gureghian had arrived in Montco at a moment of unusual flux. It wasn’t just that Republicans were feuding. The demographics of the county were changing to favor Democrats; every year, more and more voters were leaving the city and taking their Democratic registrations with them. And the Republican Party, made complacent by its 140 years of dominance, had failed to keep pace. It was having trouble raising money. Its campaign finance reports, in fact, showed unusually high debt. The party owed money to a catering hall, its printer and its PR consultant. It was even behind on payments to its executive director. “On its best day, MCRC is useless,” says party activist Bob Guzzardi. “And that’s being kind about it.” The local GOP had fallen a long way in little more than two decades.

Gureghian began to write five–figure checks to various arms of the party. Over several years, he gave $280,000 to the MCRC, which is run by an attorney named Bob Kerns. “[Gureghian] is very generous, there is no question about that,” says Kerns. “But we’ve had many generous donors before.” (The juxtaposition of Gureghian’s large donations and the -party’s high debt is baffling to many Republicans; says one longtime observer, “It’s just a bizarre situation.”) Gureghian also gave $120,000 to the Republican Committee of Lower Merion and Narberth, run by an attorney named Lance Rogers. In addition, Gureghian held a fund-raiser at his mansion for Rogers, then running for state senate. (Rogers says that his Lower Merion committee has other large donors; the idea that Gureghian’s donations would give him any influence is “patently false.” Says Rogers, “All Vahan has ever said to me is, ‘I want to live in a Republican township. How can I help?’”)

Essentially, Gureghian was pushing into political strongholds long occupied by allies of Bob Asher. Asher wouldn’t comment for this story, but his friends say he doesn’t get along with Gureghian, is sick of feuding with Castor, and -generally doesn’t want the hassle anymore. “Bob, in my view, has pretty much washed his hands of Montgomery County local politics,” says Joe Meo, a Montco committeeman. “He’s got bigger fish to fry at the state and national levels.”

As Bob Asher retreated, he left a power vacuum behind him. And as -Gureghian filled the vacuum, and his influence in the party grew, the tone of county politics became even nastier. “Vahan is very temperamental,” says one person who knows him. “He’s hot-blooded, and likes to get his way. He screams.” If you ran for office against someone Gureghian was supporting, there was a chance you’d soon find yourself staring down the barrel of a lawsuit.

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  • Laura

    On my most generous day, I would never ever describe Jim Matthews as “barrel chested”. Clearly this was written sympathetic to poor Jim, because you know he really is the victim here. Cough, cough, cough…

  • Barry

    Maybe Mr Vahan should write a personal check to the debtors and bail Bobby the K out of his debt issues.

  • Brian

    Jim Matthews and Joe Hoeffel held a press conference on 12/18/07 where Matthews claimed Castor demanded to be chairman. Castor then released an email showing he supported Matthews for Chairman. Matthews responded by admitting to the Times Herald on 12/24/07 that Castor DID support him for chair, forget what I said, I made the deal because he wouldn’t support my choice for solicitor (Matthews best friend).

    In a letter to the 800 members of the Republican committee he sent on January 25, 2008 he laid out a third scenario where Castor demanded “control” of a third of the government and THAT was why Jim had to make the deal. Now Phillymag lays out a FOURTH timeline, wherein James R. Matthews was so incensed that Castor spoke first he decided on Election Night to make a deal.

    The thing about liars is they have trouble remembering their lies. Matthews deal has done far more harm to the Montco GOP then any internal disputes or Vahan Gureghian has.

  • Bob

    As far as I know, this is an accurate picture of MontCo Republican “organization”. It is, essentially, leaderless. Jason Fagone’s PhillyMag article on Germantown Settlement is worth reading, and is

  • Whitemarsh

    In Montgomery County, MCRC ran a campaign that won six of seven judgeships in 2009 and helped the campaigns that won back two U.S. House and two State House seats in 2010 (in addition to holding our incumbant officials). This was while battling a voter registration disadvantage that has been accumulating over years of Philadelphia voters moving to the suburbs.

    I know that mysterious figures and political infighting is more exciting to read about, but completely ignoring the fact that a political organization wins elections is just bad journalism.