SPRINGFIELD — Among the political contests this coming fall are races for Springfield Township commissioner, where Republicans and Democrats will battle for four posts with both sides passionate about serving their community.
Since the election of state Rep. Jennifer O'Mara, D-165 of Springfield - breaking the GOP stranglehold on the seat - a group of Democrats have galvanized and poured their energy into the commissioner campaigns called "Springfield Forward." Mostly a political action committee, its members hope it sows the seeds for a progressive cultural shift in a well-off town that has been controlled by Republican for decades.
The last Democrat to be elected commissioner in Springfield was Bernie Stein. Elected in 1976 as a Democrat in the Fifth Ward, he changed his registration to Republican in the late 1980s.
"Power tends to corrupt," Emilio Buitrago, the driving force behind Springfield Forward and a unified Democratic slate, said. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely. You have these group of folks, they have been sitting there way too long with no oversight. There is not discussion. At the local level, it shouldn't be partisan."
The Republican candidates, three of them incumbents, said that's not true.
Third Ward candidate and the sole GOP newcomer Suzanne Hoffman said, "I would never do for another based on party. Springfield's a community. We've all grown up together. I don't even know what (party) half my friends are. Do I care? No. But do I care if they're not being taken care of? Absolutely and I would definitely be there for them."
The fields are filled as follows.
In the First Ward, incumbent GOP commissioner Ed Kelly, 44, faces Matthew "Westy" Westergaard, 33. Kelly first came to the board four and a half years ago to replace Delaware County Councilman Michael Culp. Kelly is a partner at Fox Rothschild, specializing in business and commercial real estate law and is married with two children. Westergaard is a scientist for a pharmaceutical company and is married.
The Third Ward features two newcomers as longtime incumbent Lee Janiczek is retiring. Here Democrat Rose Fasciocco, 54, opposes Republican Suzanne Hoffman, 41. Fasciocco is a health and wellness coach and personal trainer who owns Nutrition Zone in Springfield and On Track Nutrition in Morton. She is married and has two sons. Hoffman is an administrative assistant for McKee Risk Management in King of Prussia and is married with three children.
In the Fifth Ward, incumbent Republican Commissioner Jeffrey Rudolph, 62, will run against Democrat Pasquale Cipolloni, 27. Rudolph is president of Klensoid Inc. and is married with four children and 13 grandchildren. Cipolloni has studied political science and is a surgical scheduler for an ophthalmology office. He is single.
In the Seventh Ward, Democrat Marie Turnbull, 54, vies for the seat of incumbent GOP Commissoiner Dan Lanciano, 65. Turnbull is a director of client relations and is married with one son. Lanciano is Delaware County's director of records and archives and is married with three children and two grandchildren.
Turnbull, in fact, shared the genesis of the name of her group.
"There's been such a stagnation and a lack of change in Springfield for so long," she said. "That's why we came up with the name 'Springfield Forward.' It's time to move Springfield forward."
The Republicans dispute that, outlining their plans for the parks, improvements on Saxer Avenue and Brookside Road, a thriving business community and more public events from concerts to movies to dining series. Plus, they say, there's only been one tax increase in six years.
"The four of us have all been community people, starting on athletic fields," Rudolph said. "We've been here. This is our community as well and we want this to thrive and we want it to be affordable and we want it to be a fun place. This is why we do this."
Both sides spoke to a commitment to Springfield as the motivation for their campaigns.
"It's my opportunity to give back to the community," Lanciano said. "It's all about really trying to make the community as good as what it is and improve it as best we can."
Kelly said, "For me, it's a way to help people with their day-to-day, whether they need a permit or whether they're not sure what they need ... It's just that continuation of service that appeals to me."
Rudolph, who with Lanciano shares 12 years on the board, said it stems from his coaching days.
"I got into this because I spent 17 years on fields in youth organizations," he said. "You learn this craft by helping people there and handling people that have questions and concerns."
Hoffman said she want's to give her community more of a say.
"I am seeking election because I absolutely love Springfield," she said. "I'm just looking to continue my services that I've always done more behind the scenes and now kind of be out in the front and be more of a voice for the Third Ward because I really think that's what they need."
Their opponents are driven by a change they see occurring.
Turnbull, who's lived in the township for 21 years and has been a Democrat for all of them, said she's noticed a difference when she goes to vote.
"I remember walking up to the table and giving them my name and I'm getting ready to walk to the machine and all I hear is somebody shout out from the table, 'Wait a minute! She's a Democrat,'" she said, adding they had to reset the machine. "I felt like I was wearing the scarlet letter."
Then, Turnbull said, there were lines during the presidential election of 2008, as well as in 2012 and 2016.
Her running mate and former committeeman, Cipolloni, agreed.
"We kept pushing on and telling people, 'It's OK, you can be a Democrat and come out a little bit,'" he said. "2016 sped things up, I think. Before 2016, it was very daunting."
That election is what spurred O'Mara to seek her seat.
And the Springfield Forward members were moved by her campaign.
"She was just so inspiring to me," Fasciocco said. "She was so young and just so energetic and she was a woman and it was Springfield and she was Democratic and I was like, 'This is amazing. Let me know how I can help.'"
Wetergaard also knocked on doors for O'Mara and remembered asking her, "If I wanted to get more involved, what would be the best way to do that? She literally just told me, 'Well, then run. Run for something.'"
One of the things they say they'd like to change is township communication.
"These commissioner meetings are empty," Cipolloni said. "They remind me of the early Democratic committee meetings ... The thing I'd like to see the most is open communication from the government to the people living there. The lack of communication from commissioners to constituents has been very frustrating. It's almost like when you ask a question or you try and figure out what's going on, you're a burden or you're prying."
The Republicans say that's false.
"I've heard that line about communication and it's just not true," Kelly said, adding that he's answering questions and available at his children's sporting events.
Rudolph said all the commissioners' emails and cell phone numbers are on the township page and that each commissioner self-publishes a quarterly newsletter for their ward.
"If anybody asks a question, they get a response," he said. "There's no smoke and mirrors."
"I tell people there's a hundred ways for you to get a hold of me," Kelly said. "That's the thing, anyone reaches out by phone to any one of us, we're either on the phone with them or at their door within 24 to 48 hours."
The Democrats said they also want to change how residents get service.
"That fear in Springfield of 'If you weren't registered Republican something bad would happen, you wouldn't get your trash picked up,'" Cipolloni said, adding he recalled a woman at a Democratic committee meeting saying her grandmother, in her 80s, was fined because no one would pick up her Christmas tree by the curb for three weeks.
"That's a fallacy," Lanciano said of having to be Republican to get services. "That's just not true."
Kelly added, "I've been on the other side and I have never had that happen to me ... We come together for the issues that actually impact the residents' day-to-day lives and we're not busy chasing some type of urban myth and using that as one of our platforms ... It's offensive when you hear that, it really is."
One area where the Democrats said better communication would have helped is the expansion of the Outback restaurant in the Olde Sproul Shopping Center.
"They're just not good neighbors and these people are really upset," Fasciocco said. "It's trash, rodents, off-hour deliveries and pickups as far as garbage ... the smell, 24 hours a day, steak and blooming onion, no thank you. Again, the communication. Did the people on Sheffield (Drive) have a say that their new neighbor was going to be Outback?"
The Republicans said the situation had its difficulties at first, but they've been addressed.
"We have gone over backward to try to meet with residents and get their feelings and what they wanted and I think we've been pretty successful in that," Lanciano said. "We were able to, with Suzanne advocating, to get the proper fencing and extend it all the way over so that all the neighbors will not be forced to see headlights coming in their backyard."
Kelly added, "(The developer was) willing to address all those concerns about the cleanliness, about noise and the fence and sight line. It's not as if it fell on deaf ears. It seemed to me there were some issues but they were addressed rather thoroughly."
As they ready to face their competitors, the GOP candidiates say they welcome the contest.
"I've run opposed every time," Rudolph said. "So, I've had opposition every time and I think that's healthy. I think it's healthy to have that dialogue ... Most of the time we have opposition and opposition is good. I encourage it. I think ideas and bringing people together to discuss these ideas is healthy."
Lanciano agreed, "Participatory government. That's what it's about - participatory government."
The Democrats understand the road to victory in Springfield would not be an easy one.
"You open that door and someone asks right away if you're a Democrat or a Republican," Westergaard said. "You've got to redirect them and (say), 'Well, it doesn't really matter for this. Let me tell you why.'"
He told the story of a man he met in his ward who told him he'll never vote for a Democrat and they talked for about five to 10 minutes.
"By the end of it, he said, 'Well, I'm still not going to vote for you, but I really hope you win," Westergaard said.
Turnbull said she noticed another phenomenon as one voter told her, "I don't care as long as my taxes don't go up."
"Are you getting the best use for that money?" Turnbull asked in turn.
Both sides say they want to see a vibrant, engaged Springfield and they hope voters see them as the best to foster that.
"I really care about this community," Rudolph said. "I really care about the message we've brought (and) helping people. We're bringing more and more community events in. We're seeing our businesses thrive. We've improved infrastructure ... We have a Master Parks Plan where we are going to be reinvesting in our parks. There's just so much good things going on, we want to keep it moving in that direction."
And, one of the Democrats shared their viewpoint of this campaign.
"We're really just out there trying to make a difference for the township," Westergaard said. "We're really out there trying to bring it back to the people. To have everybody here helping, everybody running to try and bring this all back to the people in Springfield, to get them more involved and to keep them informed about this government that is probably the level of government that affects them the most, it's very inspiring and it's very hopeful."