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

Before the Montgomery County officials started calling each other sick bastards and dicks and laughingstocks, before they whipped out words and phrases like complicit and secret cabal and farcical and absolute power corrupting absolutely, and before a mysterious newcomer took advantage of the chaos to spread his influence across the county and state, there were just two Republicans at a country club, chatting.

It was late on election night, November 2007, and Jim Matthews was tired. He had spent all day campaigning—eight hours on his feet, hoofing it from town to town in Montco. Matthews was running for his third straight term on the three-member board of commissioners, the highest elected body in the county, serving nearly 800,000 citizens. Now he was at the Cedarbrook Country Club, where the party leaders had set up a war room to watch the returns stream in.

Around 10:30 p.m., Matthews got the good news: He had won his reelection bid. He needed to make a victory speech. Walking into the ballroom, Matthews fell in step with his running mate on the Republican commissioner ticket, Bruce Castor Jr. Castor was the county’s popular district attorney, and he had actually gotten more votes than Matthews. This would be Castor’s first term on the commission. “Bruce, man, I am beat,” Matthews said. “What a day. I went up to the northwest section, and out west. Where’d you go?”

“I played golf,” Castor told Matthews.

“You’re kidding,” Matthews said.

“No, I knew I was gonna win. Plus, I always play golf on Election Day.”

Matthews is the barrel-chested younger brother of Chris Matthews, host of MSNBC’s political talk show Hardball; the Philly native exudes a tactile love for the art and sport of politics—the stickball texture of it, the dugout camaraderie, the gossip and lore. But Castor, lanky and ruggedly good-looking, comes from the top-down world of the law. He views politics with suspicion, as a rancid reality to be overcome.

Still, golf?

Matthews’s mind raced.

I knew I was gonna win.

Okay, but there were more offices up for grabs that night than just the commissioners’ slots. There were also nine row-office races, for clerk of courts, recorder of deeds and the like. And all the polling going into election night had shown the row-office races to be close. Now was not the time to slack off. …

At the podium, Castor grabbed the microphone as though he was the incumbent, not Matthews. As he spoke, Matthews fumed. When Castor finally passed the mike, Matthews only managed to eke out a few words of thanks before slumping back to the war room in disgust.

What he saw there shocked him: The Democrats were winning the row offices. Democrats hadn’t won a row office in Montco since the Civil War. Now they were picking up five in one fell swoop.

“It just sat in my craw,” Matthews recalls. “Like: You dog. You dog. All of these people worked really hard, and they lost. And you played golf.”

Today, Castor says that Matthews should have been thanking him: Matthews only won “because I was on every television set in the entire jurisdiction saying that voters should vote for him.” Also, “I campaigned the whole day, but instead of eating lunch, I played nine holes of golf with my son.” According to Castor, he was just having a little fun at Matthews’s expense: “I knew that Jim was wound up so tight, and he was in danger of losing, so I thought it would be great to pull his chain and say I spent the day playing golf.”

Well, the chain-yanking worked. A few minutes after Matthews learned of the row-office slaughter, he happened to run into a Republican he had always respected. Matthews grumbled to the man about Castor’s round of golf and how little he seemed to care about his fellow Republicans. The acquaintance “looked me straight in the eye,” Matthews recalls, “and said, ‘Make your deal.’”

SIT DOWN WITH MONTCO REPUBLICANS and ask them how it all went wrong, and they usually start by rewinding the tape. To appreciate how bad the situation is now, they say, you have to understand that at one time, Montgomery County was one of the three strongest and winningest GOP counties in the entire United States. Who said that? In fact, Ronald Reagan said that, in 1979, at a speech at the Sunnybrook Ballroom in Pottstown. You want to argue with the Gipper?

And here’s the thing: Reagan wasn’t blowing smoke. Back then, the Montgomery County Republican Committee, or MCRC, truly was a gorgeous machine. If you moved to Montco from somewhere else (like Philadelphia), within two weeks a Republican committeeperson would knock on your door, welcoming you to the county. Nice place, eh? Good schools, looooow taxes. The committeeperson would ask you to consider voting for the local Republicans, to keep those taxes low. Shoe leather, discipline—this is how political juggernauts are built, one voter at a time. This was a big reason the party hadn’t lost control of the board in 140 years.

But in 2004, it all began to fall apart. When Bruce Castor ran for state attorney general that year, the party’s longtime power broker, Bob Asher, who runs Asher’s Chocolates in Souderton, backed Castor’s opponent. It was an ugly campaign. It’s never good for a party when your most successful strategist/fund-raiser (Asher) and your most popular officeholder (Castor) can’t stand each other. Three years later, in 2007, Castor and Asher were still feuding. Castor distrusted Asher and his allies, even if one of those allies happened to be his running mate for commissioner, Jim Matthews. And then came election night, November 2007.

Golf. The row offices. Make your deal.

Fast-forward one month, to December 2007. Surrounded by reporters, Jim Matthews stood in the pressroom of the courthouse, next to a straight-backed guy with glasses and a shiny bald pate. This was Joe Hoeffel, the man who had come in second in the commissioners’ race. (Matthews came in third.) Hoeffel was a Democrat.

Matthews now made a stunning announcement. He had made a deal with Hoeffel. The two of them would run the commission together, as a Republican and a Democrat, in a cross-party power-sharing arrangement. And Bruce Castor—the guy who had won more votes than the other two—would be left out in the cold. Because, according to Matthews, “people got to realize what a dick he was.” (Castor says of Matthews’s deal, “I didn’t think it was possible anybody could be that big a turd.”)

“I’m not going to let it happen,” Castor vowed.

At the very first meeting of the new commission, Castor accused Jim Matthews of hiring a friend and supporter as the county solicitor. Matthews shot back that Castor was still in campaign mode, “grandstanding” for the press. It only got worse from there. You may remember reading about some of the lowlights. Castor hung his certificate of public office in his bathroom stall, next to his toilet. Matthews and Hoeffel redoubled their efforts to avoid Castor. The two men started having breakfast together at a diner in Norristown without inviting the increasingly prickly lawman. When a reporter for the Times Herald caught Matthews and Hoeffel discussing county business at one of their breakfasts, in a potential violation of state sunshine laws, Bruce Castor released a scathing statement: “The livelihoods of 3,000 county employees, the future of Pennsylvania’s wealthiest county and its 800,000 residents is being decided over coffee and eggs by a secret cabal.”