Delaware County found itself at a crossroads in 2018. Two-party rule came to county government for the first time since its adoption of a home rule charter in the late 1970s. To an unfamiliar observer, at year’s end there is no immediate evidence that for 150 years the county was home to arguably the most successful Republican organization in the nation’s history, as Democrats captured the majority of state legislative seats and the now-sole U.S. House seat, and two scandals unfolded among the Republican ranks.
The retail landscape continued to change as decades-old businesses closed their doors and new ones opened. The county joined the celebration as the Philadelphia Eagles ended a 57-year championship drought, the county's sole city found itself in calmer waters, land development continued to be a hot topic, and a number of high profile deaths occurred throughout the year. The Times now looks back at the biggest stories and trends of 2018.
Dems come to power
Delaware County found itself in a new Congressional District entering the May primary. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard arguments in January regarding gerrymandered congressional district lines, with the Democratic-controlled court ordering that the lines be redrawn within three weeks. A contingent of Republican lawmakers countered by asking the U.S. Supreme Court to squash that order, saying that redistricting is under the purview of “legislative action,” not the courts.
After Gov. Wolf rejected a redrawn map submitted by Republican legislators, the court announced a new map in February, turned to Stanford University law professor Nathaniel Persily, who had assisted judges drawing districts in other states.
The resulting map placed the whole of Delaware County in the 5th Congressional District, with the new district also including the southwest corner of Philadelphia and a sliver of southwest Montgomery County.
The redistricting played out as candidates from both parties lined up for the 7th Congressional District as incumbent Pat Meehan faced an ethics scandal, and Democratic candidates lined up in the 1st District as incumbent Democrat Bob Brady announced his retirement after two decades in office.
Delaware County Republican leadership announced in March its endorsement of Radnor resident Pearl Kim, a former senior deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania and a past assistant district attorney for Delaware County.
Mary Gay Scanlon of Swarthmore, attorney and former Wallingford-Swarthmore School Board member, emerged from a crowded field of 10 candidates in the Democratic primary to face Kim in the general election. Both would be chosen by respective party leadership to face off in the 7th District special election following Meehan’s April resignation.
Blue Wave rocks Delco
Come election time in November, the much discussed “blue wave” – that nationally amounted to a standard mid-term pick up for Democrats – came to fruition in Delaware County. Steve Barrar, R-160, and Chris Quinn, R-168, picked up the only Republican state house victories in the county.
Incumbent Republican state Sen. Tom McGarrigle of Springfield lost the 26th District to Democratic challenger Tim Kearney, mayor of Swarthmore. The Springfield GOP took a further hit with incumbent state Rep. Alex Charlton ousted by Democratic challenger Jenn O’Mara in the 165th.
Republican incumbent Jamie Santora of Upper Darby lost the 163rd to Mike Zabel.
Former county Sheriff Mary Hopper failed to keep the 162nd in Republican hands after the exit of Nick Miccarelli, falling to Democratic labor leader Dave Delloso.
Changes at the top
Amongst the flurry of political activity, the county Democratic Party announced in early June that longtime Swarthmore committeewoman Colleen Guiney would succeed David Landau as party leader.
Party leadership changes continued in November as county GOP Chairman Andy Reilly was voted in as chairman of the Southeast Republican Caucus by its representatives the Pennsylvania Republican State Committee. Reilly has stated he does not intend to continue as county chairman but has not yet formally resigned his post.
The year also saw Reilly’s predecessor retire from public service in September. Tom Judge Sr. retired as county Recorder of Deeds at age 90, a position he held since 1992. His tenure as county Republican Party Chairman spanned 1975-2009. Among his well-wishers were former President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush, who wrote Judge for the occasion. Judge was pivotal in George H.W. Bush’s success in Pennsylvania during his 1988 presidential campaign.
The redistricting controversy and its implications for the county were further complicated when scandal hit Delco legislators at the state and federal level, playing out in the midst of the national #MeToo movement against sexual harassment and assault.
Meehan steps down
U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-7, found himself in an ethics scandal in January, leading to an April resignation. U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan removed Meehan from the House Ethics Committee on Jan. 20 and launched an investigation following a New York Times report that alleged Meehan used taxpayer money to settle a sexual harassment complaint from a former staffer. Meehan denied the harassment claim in a statement issued the same day.
The story broke as one of Meehan’s potential Democratic challengers, state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-17, was stepping back from active campaigning after accusations of inappropriate humor, bawdy language and inappropriate touching in his office.
Within days protesters gathered outside of Meehan’s district office in Springfield calling for his resignation, including Democratic primary candidates.
Meehan broke his silence on Jan. 23. He described the longtime staffer decades his junior as a “soul mate” to whom he had admitted having “an affection” for and later writing her a letter wishing her well with a boyfriend. “I never in any way made any kind of pass towards her, I never discussed anything about wanting any kind of a further relationship, she’s never alleged anything like that,” said Meehan. He characterized the settlement as a “severance.”
Meehan informed House Speaker Ryan on Jan. 25 that he would drop his bid for re-election. He resigned from Congress on Friday, April 27, stating he would repay the $39,000 in taxpayer funds to the U.S. Treasury within 30 days that were used to settle the complaint.
The 162nd Legislative District was rocked by controversy after a story broke March 1 that a complaint had been filed with the Pennsylvania House of Representatives alleging then-Rep. Nick Miccarelli had threatened to kill one woman and forced another to have sex after they broke up. The complaint stated one woman was a current state official and the other a political consultant.
Months later, just a week ago on Dec. 21, the Dauphin County district attorney announced he was closing the investigation and no charges would be filed. Miccarelli, a popular five-term Republican and Iraq War veteran, at first vowed to run for re-election but later announced he would not seek another term. The seat went to a Democrat in November for the first time in 40 years.
Miccarelli vehemently denied the allegations, though House Republican leadership immediately joined a chorus calling for his resignation, citing safety concerns.
About 10 days after news of the complaint broke, Rep. Tarah Toohil, R-116 of Luzerne County, went public in obtaining a restraining order against him. Toohil accused Miccarelli of abusive behavior in a relationship that ended in 2012, and harassment after the relationship ended.
On March 15, attorneys for Miccarelli and Toohil entered into a three-year protection from abuse order. He admitted no wrongdoing.
After insisting he would continue his reelection campaign, Miccarelli announced March 21 he was removing his name from the ballot but intended to complete his term. With primary deadlines passed, District Republican leadership endorsed former county Sheriff Mary Hopper for a write-in campaign.
Leaving office on Nov. 30, he hit a 10-mark mark of legislative service making him and his family eligible to receive lifetime taxpayer-funded health care benefits, as well as a pension form the State Employees’ Retirement System.
Dems on Council
The year opened in the county courthouse Jan. 2 as five Democrats were sworn in to seats in government. Councilmen Brian Zidek and Kevin Madden were the first Democrats elected to the office since its creation with Delaware County’s Home Rule Charter in the late 1970s.
Democrats sworn into row offices were Jerry L. Sanders Jr. as sheriff; Mary J. Walk as register of wills; and Joanne Phillips as county controller.
January also brought the county a new district attorney after Jack Whelan’s election to the county Common Pleas Court in the 2017 general election. The county Board of Judges announced Assistant U.S. Attorney Katayoun M. “Kat” Copeland as its pick to fill the remainder of Whelan’s term through 2019. Copeland, a registered Republican, worked in the county D.A. office from 1992-2011 (rising to Deputy D.A. in 2004) before joining the U.S. Attorney’s office in Philadelphia.
During the year Copeland unveiled several new programs with the D.A.’s office, including a program in September that allows residents and business owners to register their security cameras allowing investigators to quickly find crime details. In November, she announced that doses of Narcan have been furnished for free to the public in approximately 60 automatic external defibrillator cabinets in the county courthouse, Government Center, and other county buildings.
The new reality of two-party rule for the county became apparent within a week, as Zidek had at least four questions and Madden two of the 17 agenda items at the Jan. 10 meeting. On Jan. 17, council debated Zidek’s plan of videotaping meetings to produce verbatim transcripts as opposed to council’s traditional minutes format per Robert’s Rules of Order.
Questions of contract bids became a staple of meetings in 2018. The first came in January regarding the lack of bids on software used to log and direct calls to the Domestic Relations Office. July brought a party-line vote approving a 911 call center equipment contract where Democrats expressed concern over the lack of bid solicitations and the business owners’ donations to Republican lawmakers. Those questions were repeated in September over an engineering firm chosen for bridge work in Chester.
A protracted debate came in the fall as the year-end deadline neared on the contract between Delaware County and the GEO Group Inc. regarding operation of the county’s George W. Hill Correctional Facility.
Delaware County Board of Prison Inspectors had contracted Phoenix Management Services to conduct a $100,000 survey comparing private and public operations of correctional facilities, which was anticipated to be received in October. The release is now delayed until March.
With the prison board receiving proposals from other interested firms and the Phoenix report delayed, Zidek called on the prison board to also have a transition plan ready to return to public management.
In the midst of the management debate, council also called upon the George W. Hill officials to conduct a review of Oct. 27 and 29 incidents where the toilets at the 1,883-inmate facility were unflushable after a 100-plus-year-old pipe cracked in the prison plumbing system.
On Dec. 12, the Board of Prison Inspectors unanimously approved a five-year, $264 million contract with a GEO Group Inc. subsidiary to run George W. Hill Correctional Facility. The contract includes two 2-year options that could extend it to a nine-year contract at a $495.9 million. It also allows the prison board the flexibility to give GEO six months’ notice at any time that they want to end the contract.
County cuts taxes
Following the debates that occurred through year, county council was able to deliver a small tax cut to residents at its close, which it attributed to prudent savings over time. Council approved a 2.55 percent cut in its 2019 budget. Zidek said at the Dec. 12 meeting that a further 5 percent of the budget could be shaved. “I’ve come to conclude a big part of the problem is that Delco citizens pay a corruption tax,” he said, again pointing to “instance after instance of no-bid contract being granted to Republican Party insiders.”
Philadelphia firefighter and life member of Springfield Fire Company Matthew LeTourneau died in the line of duty on Saturday, Jan. 6, prompting an outpouring of grief from Delaware County residents. The 42-year-old died at Temple University Hospital at 11:07 a.m. after being trapped during a structural collapse while battling an inferno that engulfed a North Philadelphia rowhome. LeTourneau was an 11-year veteran of the Philadelphia Fire Department and held the rank of lieutenant at the time of his death. The department posthumously promoted to him to captain.
A Springfield resident, he began his time in the fire service at Springfield Fire Co., joining at age 16. “He was like a sponge,” said Springfield firefighter Bill Lavery, referring to LeTourneau’s constant training and erudite approach to firefighting. He taught several classes at the Delaware County Emergency Services Training Center, where he also learned from engineers from the Underwriters Laboratories Firefighter Safety Research Institute and the national Institute of Standards and Technology.
In the days after his passing, Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all commonwealth flags on the Capitol Complex and at all commonwealth facilities in the city of Philadelphia to fly at half-staff. Delaware County Council held a moment of silence during its next regular meeting. A series of fundraisers were held to endow a memorial scholarship at Delaware County Community College, where LeTourneau earned an associate’s degree in fire science.
Super Bowl title
The Philadelphia Eagles broke their 57-year championship drought with their first win of the Super Bowl era on Feb. 4. “Even though they play down in South Philadelphia, Delco is the center of Eagles fandom – and our courthouse is the center of Delco fandom,” said County Council Chairman John McBlain during a Feb. 2 spirit day in the government center/courthouse complex. Hundreds of people lined the streets of Media Borough for a parade on Feb. 3, some travelling in from outside the county to cheer on the Birds in the large scale pep rally.
As the clock ran out on the Patriots’ final 65-second drive in Super Bowl LII, employees at Ampro in Primos were waiting for the green light to start a 30,000-plus T-shirt run to supply stores throughout Greater Philadelphia its first round of championship merchandise by morning. The company had done the same two weeks earlier with a contract for NFC Championship shirts.
Longtime Ridley Township-based costume designer James May came out of retirement to create “King of the Underdogs,” a 7-foot-tall dog wearing a gold crown with green jewels and a jersey bearing Carson Wentz’s number 11 to celebrate the Eagles’ “underdogs” rallying cry during the playoffs.
Thunderbird Pizza on Saxer Avenue, Springfield, was one of many businesses in the food service and hospitality industries to see a boost from the Eagles’ postseason run. The shop had to staff the largest crew in its 28-year-old history to keep with demand on Super Bowl Sunday.
The community at large came out in support of Our Lady of Angels Regional Catholic School over the summer in the wake of a July 18 fire that destroyed a wing of the school. No injuries were reported, but the damage meant the building on the campus of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church in the Morton postal section of Ridley Township would be unusable for the 2018-19 academic year.
Preston Tyrrell, a former archdiocesan school teacher with no direct ties to OLA, launched a GoFundMe fundraiser to support the OLA teachers who had lost school supplies in the fire. Less than a week after the fire, it had exceeded its initial goal of $9,000 to raise $30,000 from 500 donors. The outpouring of support led to recognition from County Councilman Chairman John McBlain at council’s July 25 meeting. Fundraising efforts continued through the fall, including a Ford Drive 4UR School event at Robin Ford in Glenolden.
The 330 students started their school year in September in space at Cardinal O’Hara High School. Demolition crews arrived at OLA in late October to clear the damaged wing. School officials hope the building will be ready by the start or mid-point of the 2019-20 academic year