For more than a century, Republicans have ruled Delaware County and overseen the operations and functions throughout every corner of the county.
But after the voters elected three Democrats in November – Christine Reuther, Elaine Paul Schaefer and Dr. Monica Taylor, Delaware County Council, with Democrat incumbents Kevin Madden and Brian Zidek, will be under all-Democrat control once the newcomers take their oath of office Jan. 6.
In the midst of that transition, outgoing County Council Chairman John McBlain, Vice Chairman Colleen Morrone and Councilman Michael Culp took a moment to reflect on their county service and what the future holds – for themselves and for the party.
All three – McBlain, Morrone and Culp – first started their foray into politics at the local level.
Not coming from a political family, McBlain, 53, had just graduated high school in 1984 and was a lifeguard at the Aldan Swim Club when Larry McKeon, the club manager and a teacher at the Interboro School District, had a proposal, knowing McBlain was interested in government.
“He says, ‘Well, maybe you’d like to help out a friend of mine who’s running for Congress,’” McBlain said. “He’s a teacher also and he’s a firefighter and it ended up being Curt Weldon.”
Weldon, a Republican, represented the 7th U.S. Congressional District for two decades, from 1987 to 2007, until he was defeated by Democrat Joe Sestak.
In 1989, McKeon encouraged his involvement in Aldan Borough and asked if he’d be interested in the planning commission. McBlain chuckled, “I didn’t know what a planning commission was.”
From there, he was appointed to a vacancy on borough council and then ran for a full term on council.
Morrone, 53, a longtime executive with Goodwill, moved to Delaware County 22 years ago, having been born and raised in Delaware. She also saw an opening in Concord’s planning commission.
“Given that in Goodwill, we look for community involvement and want the support of the community, I felt that it was a way for me to give back,” the organization’s CEO said, adding that she and her husband were planning to have a family and they wanted to understand their community better.
Eight years later, Township Councilman Dominic Pileggi asked if she’d be interested in running for the township council, where she served for seven years before her run at the county level.
Culp’s start began as a coach with the Springfield Athletic Association, where he befriended Thomas McGarrigle, the former County Council member and state senator, now Delaware County Republican Party chairman.
Culp, 43, started on the township’s Park Board, then moved to township commissioner before his tenure on county council.
The three spoke about the differences between governing at the municipal and county levels.
“I’m from a very small borough,” McBlain said. “When you had an idea, ‘Let’s get new trash cans for the playing fields,’ or something like that, I could take care of it in a week at the local level.”
Procurement at the county level is more layered.
When he first arrived in 2012, one of the things he wanted was to replace the rugs in the common areas at the Government Center.
“I think we found a buyer for the refinery in less time than it took to put the rugs down,” he joked of the situation in 2011-2012.
Culp and Morrone spoke about how the issues are different at the county level as Morrone said her western township was more focused on growth in her time there.
At the township level, he said, “You’re getting a stop sign issue or ‘Hey, my neighbor’s cat’s in my yard.’ Here, you can actually help someone, ‘Hey, I’m displaced from my house’ or some domestic disputes or something. You can actually lend a helping hand more to vulnerable people that actually makes the job rewarding.”
Over their time – McBlain and Morrone had two four-year terms and Culp had one four-year term – they noted some of their accomplishments.
Morrone spoke of the panic buttons that were installed in all schools in Delaware County following the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. When activated, the panic buttons call for an expedited, all-hands response from a variety of first responders.
“I felt safer with my kids being in school,” she said. “I felt like we had a plan in place that if something were to happen that the notification system was in place for people to respond fast and efficiently.”
She also noted the open space effort in which $10 million was allocated with the intention to leverage other money. So far, $4.5 million has been distributed and is expected to reap $20 million of other investment.
They spoke of the difficulties of a county like Delaware that is mostly built out compared to Chester and Bucks counties, where they can secure easements rather than having to pay retail for the land.
Of the larger pieces preserved, Morrone noted the 270 acres of Concord’s Beaver Valley, saved in 2017, and Darby Borough’s Little Flower Manor, 30 acres that the county purchased in 2016.
McBlain also spoke of the refineries.
“I always say one of the most impactful days I ever spent in politics was marching with the families that fall … down into Marcus Hook and you just saw the thousands of people that were there,” he said. “Many of whom I knew but didn’t know worked for the refineries were coming up to you saying, ‘You’ve got to do something.’”
That march was Nov. 4, 2011, a couple of months after Sunoco announced its intention to shut down the Marcus Hook and Philadelphia facilities and ConocoPhillips’ announcement to shut down the Trainer plant.
By summer 2012, Delta Air Lines had purchased and still operates the Trainer refinery. The Carlyle Group purchased the Philadelphia facility, renaming it Philadelphia Energy Solutions, which closed this summer after workers a massive explosion and fire. PES executives quickly said said it was “impossible” to continue operations there.
Sunoco did shut down the Marcus Hook refinery and has since repurposed the facility into the Marcus Hook Industrial Complex to store, process and distribute the natural gas liquids coming from the Marcellus Shale regions via pipeline – a source of one of the more difficult parts of McBlain’s, Morrone’s and Culp’s tenure.
Morrone spoke about the challenge of trying to balance economic development and the responsibility of making certain the county’s residents were safe.
“A lot of it is beyond the control of county council,” she said. “They were (Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission) issues. They were state issues and we were trying to do the best for the residents here in Delaware County.”
Another issue that was complex was the opioid situation.
“Sometimes,” McBlain said, “you felt helpless and you just relied upon those that were involved.”
He said the county’s Medical Examiner Fredric Hellman began to notice a pattern in deaths related to opioids and heroin around 2011 in a trend that continued to grow and has recently begun to decline.
In its height, about two years ago, about 200 county residents a year died related to the epidemic, which has had its effects felt nationwide.
“Try to put it in context,” McBlain said. “If we have 40 homicides a year and 30 of those are gun deaths in Delaware County, people think that’s a lot. That’s 40 deaths. This is 200 people a year – and thousands of others who have the problem.”
It also had its personal toll.
“A woman called me who I went to grade school and high school with her older sister,” McBlain said, “and she called me in tears because her son was being released from prison.”
She said to him, “John, if he gets out, he’s gonna be dead in 30 days because he’s going to go right back to using heroin.”
McBlain checked and the man had finished his maximum sentence for the low-level crime, had gone through the drug treatment program in the county prison and was set up for drug treatment on the outside.
There wasn’t anything else that could be done.
“Thirty days later, I saw his obituary,” McBlain said.
Perhaps because Delaware County was on the front lines, the three council members spoke about the approaches taken to combat this, including being the first county to have first responders using Narcan for those overdosing.
McBlain admitted when he first heard about it, he said, “This sounds like magic beans to me.”
Yet, he’s reassessed that. “This thing was a miracle drug,” he said. “For somebody that’s laying there dead to come back and sits up, it’s just the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen.”
Drug Court was also initiated so those with non-violent, low-level crimes and addiction issues could be redirected to the help they need rather than just being sent to jail, where McBlain said much of the opioid problem landed.
Delaware County also joined a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers that is playing out in Ohio federal courts now and stands to potentially benefit from those proceedings when they conclude.
“That was one of the things I was most proud of – to get out in front of that and to be at the forefront,” Culp said. “Unfortunately, we’re not going to be on council to see that come to fruition … Hopefully, we’re successful and that money can go towards helping the residents of Delaware County at least make a dent in the scourge.”
They also spoke of other challenging moments such as when Folcroft Police Officer Christopher Dorman was shot seven times June 24, 2016, responding to a call about someone smoking marijuana and the 2018 death of firefighter Matt LeTourneau of Springfield, who was trapped in a structural collapse while fighting a North Philadelphia row home fire.
At the turn of the New Year, not only will these three be relinquishing their seats, but it will be a change for the Delaware County GOP, which has held a solid majority on County Council since the county was established.
“That’s probably the toughest part of leaving,” Morrone said, “is seeing that full transition to a completely different governmental party. I think that’s the hardest thing to leave, but if nothing else, I think, we’ve provided them a road map to success.”
She noted the studies completed in the last couple of years evaluating pipeline safety, the county’s wage and salary structure and 911 upgrades.
“I think we couldn’t leave the county in a better position,” Morrone said. “I think the road map is there. If they implement the road map, hopefully, they’ll have continued success for the county.”
Culp voiced concern for county employees.
“I think the hardest part for me is you worry about the employees,” he said. “These are hard-working people. This is their full-time job and you just hope that they walk the walk and talk the talk and they keep the employees there and they don’t just fire people for no reason. That’s inexcusable.”
McBlain said he wished the new council well.
“I think there’s a lot of lofty ideas and I think much like Brian (Zidek) and Kevin (Madden), I think, found out over these last two years, that it’s perhaps a lot different than what people have told them in terms of just the mechanics of government and what needs to be done,” he said.
“Most of the functions that the county has is simply the delivery of services,” McBlain continued. “I anxiously will watch from afar to see how they make out and what would really be that different.”
Noting the shifts, Delaware County Republican Chairman Thomas McGarrigle issued an open call for candidates from U.S. Congress to state representative to delegates for the 2020 Republican National Convention.
“While our Republican candidates for countywide office ultimately came up short in the November election, we actually saw a significant increase in engagement and enthusiasm among registered Republicans in Delaware County,” he said.
“In fact,” he noted, “more registered Republicans came out and voted in the November 2019 election than in any other municipal election in this history of Delaware County.”
Crediting that to the party’s ability to attract different, more unique candidates, he noted that the number of registered Republicans who voted in November – 78,215 - increased by 20 percent compared to the 65,083 who voted in the 2017 off-year election.
“I want to encourage more people who are interested in serving their community by running for office to speak up and step forward,” he said, adding that there was a perception that previous recruiting and endorsing methods were somewhat mysterious and secretive. “I want people to know that is not the case today and if you want to run, we want to hear from you.”
He was asking those interested to send their resumes to the county GOP Party Vice Chair Carol Miller at email@example.com by Jan. 6, in advance of the Jan. 28 deadline for candidates to begin circulating nominating positions.
Others, such as McBlain, said the party needs a top-level change to have impact in suburban counties throughout the country.
“Whether you like him or not, undoubtedly President Trump is the largest factor that has influenced the elections in 2017, ’18, and ’19,” he said. “I do not believe that the next county council would be composed the way it was … if President Trump was not in office.”
He said there needs to be a national change.
“The success of the Delaware County Republican Party over the last 100 years was that we were always able to identify what people wanted and implement those things without this dogma,” McBlain said. “I think we need to identify that.
“Fifty years ago in the county, it was bottom up and now, just because of communications, it’s top down, so I think a little bit of that needs to change before we have a change in parties back to Republican here,” he said.
Now, as the three prepare to return to their professional positions – McBlain and Culp as attorneys and Morrone at the head of Goodwill - they spoke of their appreciation for having been able to serve.
“Thank you to the people of Delaware County for allowing us to have what I think is one of the greatest jobs you could ever have,” he said. “Like I said at my last meeting, I’ll miss it terribly.”
McBlain shared the story of another call he received from a woman asking for his help this time of year.
“There’s these men, four, five men that are special needs, live in a group home, there was some problem with the group home and their provider with Comcast,” he said. “All these wanted to do was watch the Christmas specials.”
McBlain said he went into action.
“We started rooting through the issue and the problem and, you know, that’s when knowing somebody at Comcast and knowing somebody in Human Services (helps),” he said. “We got it back so those men could watch the Christmas specials. All they wanted to watch was Frosty and Rudolph.”
And even with six consecutive no-tax increase budgets, including one with a tax decrease, all three said they hoped they left with the county realizing they gave it their all.
“I think the legacy should be that we did the best we could and we helped as many people as we could and we cared about Delaware County – we really did,” Culp said. “None of us came in – John, Colleen or I – with an agenda. We actually sat down and thought if there was an issue, ‘How can we best help Delaware County residents?
“At the end of the day, we love Delaware County,” he said. “I was born and raised in Delaware County. John was. Colleen’s been here for 22 years. It’s actually ingrained in our blood. It becomes your way of life. I hope we were able to help as many people as we could and we left them in a better position than when we started.
“And I absolutely think we did that,” he said.