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

For instance, in 2008, a 47-year-old marketing professional named Lisa -Paolino decided to run for state senate. To raise awareness of her candidacy, she placed an advertisement in a flier distributed by a local car wash that her family had once owned. The ad ran beneath a page of ads for discounted services at the car wash. Her primary opponent, Lance Rogers, issued a press release calling for the state attorney general to investigate, and before long, Paolino did indeed get a call from state investigators: Was she promising voters a free car wash if they voted for her in the Republican primary? “Yeah,” remembers Bob Kerns, “she was buying votes!” Paolino was forced to travel to the D.A.’s regional office in Norristown to sit down for a grilling. (She was never charged with anything.)

Later, on Election Day, when Paolino distributed her own “sample ballot” at the polls—a time-honored form of last-minute political advertising—the Rogers campaign took her to court to block the ballots. The campaign, aided by Kerns, accused Paolino of deceiving the voters, since she wasn’t the officially endorsed candidate of the party—Rogers was. Paolino ended up losing the primary to Rogers, and she has since left politics altogether. “[Gureghian] was a major player in the Lance Rogers campaign,” Paolino believes. “He was behind the scenes, setting up all kinds of roadblocks for me.” Rogers- says this charge is false: “I never talked- to [Gureghian] about any of that stuff.” Rogers also points out that a judge agreed with his argument about Paolino’s sample ballots.

A mother of three named Jill Govberg  (of the local jewelry family) recently had a similar experience. Last year, Govberg started thinking about running for the county board of commissioners. She knew at least one Republican slot would be opening up this November, in an election that will choose a new board. (-Matthews and Hoeffel are stepping down; only -Castor is running for reelection.) And when Govberg scanned the field of potential candidates, she felt she had a pretty good shot.

Her credentials: eight-year member of the Lower Merion school board, including a tenure as president; past or present member of many nonprofit boards; longtime GOP activist on the Lower Merion committee; associate producer of the documentary film Art of the Steal. At the time, it was becoming clear that Gureghian was backing another candidate, a Lower Merion municipal tax attorney named Jenny Brown who had worked with Gureghian at a law firm, Clark Ladner, 20 years before. But Govberg decided to run anyway.

Then a strange thing happened: In the summer of 2010, Jill Govberg was sued. The plaintiff was the Lower Merion- and Narberth committee, now run by Gureghian ally … Lance Rogers. The committee accused Govberg of stealing a list containing the contact information of various donors. Why was this such a bizarre thing to sue over? Because the party had freely e-mailed the list to Govberg in the first place. What’s more, she had helped to create the list. The suit, which was later withdrawn, diverted Govberg for a month. Still, she campaigned hard, driving across the county to visit personally with 700 committeepeople. But in early 2011, she withdrew from the race. Today, Govberg says that “a single donor’s name is obvious” if you scan campaign finance reports. She also blames the party’s “weak leadership” for “alienating good, hard-working Republicans.”

Lance Rogers says that he filed the suit to protect his party’s ability to raise funds and recruit volunteers, and to prevent “sensitive information” from leaking.

“She’s a failed candidate,” says party leader Bob Kerns. “What more can I say?”

THE NEW STYLE OF
politics has been hard for many in Montco to swallow. For one thing, they just flat-out fear Gureghian and his allies. “They’re like the Mean Girls in middle school,” says one longtime political observer. Rumor has it more than one prominent figure in the county has received a letter from Gureghian threatening to sue for defamation, and whether or not the rumors are true, people believe they’re true; several told me that if I printed their names in my story, Gureghian would ruin them. Lending credence to this belief is the fact that in 2009, Gureghian sued the Inquirer for defamation in regard to a series of newspaper articles that criticized the fiscal management of Gureghian’s Chester Community Charter School. Brian Tierney, former publisher of the Inquirer and Daily News, is a longtime GOP loyalist; in Republican circles, suing Tierney is like suing apple pie.

In 2009, Gureghian even threatened to sue a teenager—an 18-year-old from North Jersey named Kenny Forder. Forder runs a popular Internet blog called Homes of the Rich, and after coming across some photos of Gureghian’s house on the website of an architect, he posted them on his site, along with freely available aerial shots and public information about the house’s square footage and number of rooms. Within a week, he received a letter from a law firm representing Gureghian: Forder’s “unauthorized publication of these photographs,” Gureghian’s attorney wrote, “as well as intimate details of the Gureghians’ private residence, is in clear violation of the privacy rights of the Gureghians.” If Forder didn’t delete the photos, “We will have no choice but to pursue legal action against you.” Forder, still in high school, simply deleted the post. “whatever! lol,” he wrote on his site. “who would of thought [sic], and I’m only 18!”

Aside from a fear of getting sued, though, there is another reason some Montco Republicans are wary of Gureghian. No one I spoke with could remember having a single conversation with him about Republican principles: about taxes, spending, the size of government, the Constitution, or anything ideological at all, really. Bruce Castor puts the positive spin on this. “He’s a businessman,” he says. “I don’t think he’s an ideologue. I think he’s a get-things-done kind of guy.”

Of course, many businesspeople give money to politicians for self-interested- reasons. But not many people give so much, so quickly. Gureghian “started- writing checks a lot sooner than he had relationships,” says Jim Matthews. According to several Republican sources, Gureghian has made it very clear what he wants. He wants, on the one hand, the traditional tokens of influence that men like Bob Asher have always enjoyed: appointments to powerful boards, a seat on the Republican National Committee—which would give him a voice in national GOP circles. And on the other hand, Gureghian wants to pave the way for the further growth of charter schools in the region; he’s currently attempting to expand his business into Pottstown and Camden. “He wants to make sure that funding for the charter schools isn’t undercut in Harrisburg,” says one party source.

But is what’s good for Gureghian good for the GOP? Is Gureghian a team player?

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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.