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Local Elections: A Taste of What's Ahead?

October 26, 2011 By:
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At a Whitemarsh deli, Democrats Leslie Richards and Josh Shapiro campaign together in the Montgomery County commissioners race.
Liz Rogan and Beth Ladenheim are both suburban moms who live in Wynnewood and belong to Temple Beth Hillel/Beth El, but when it comes to politics -- especially the local variety -- they have little in common.
 
Ladenheim, a Republican, who is also a member of the Orthodox congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood, thinks the Lower Merion municipality has irresponsibly taxed its residents. Rogan, a Democrat, argues that township commissioners have done their best to keep taxes down while maintaining vital services in a challenging economy.
 
Rogan happens to be the president of the Lower Merion Township board of commissioners and Ladenheim is running a spirited -- some say bitter -- campaign against her.
 
The stakes of their race -- to become one of 14 commissioners representing a total of 60,000 people -- might not seem high beyond their township. But the two do agree on one thing: The outcome may serve as a barometer for how suburban voters feel about national politics.
 
"I'm the least political person on the board," Rogan said, adding that she thinks more about pragmatic solutions than any particular national partisan battle. Still, she asserted that township and countywide races do "have an implication" for 2012.
 
After all, a year from now the country will decide whether President Barack Obama wins a second term. Montgomery County -- where Lower Merion is the most populous township -- is sure to be one of the primary theaters of battle in a state that is considered up for grabs -- even though Pennsylvania hasn't gone with a GOP presidential candidate since 1988.
 
Montgomery County -- a 487-square-mile area straddling both sides of the Schuylkill River -- is also the site of the closest thing the region has to a high-profile race, with a contest that will decide who will run the county board of commissioners. The outcome could provide a local barometer as to the mood of voters, though political scientist Terry Madonna cautioned against reading too much into the results.
 
"Local elections are about local things," said Madonna, who is director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College and widely considered an authority on statewide politics.
 
Montgomery is the state's third most populous county and among the 20 wealthiest in the nation. Jews make up 65,000 of its 800,000 residents -- at 8 percent, the largest percentage of Jews in the Keystone State.
 
Jews from both parties are heavily engaged in several of the local Montgomery County races in this off-year election.
 
And when the focus turns to the 2012 elections for president and Congress, it's a sure bet that the county will be the center of attention amid debates about the president's record on Israel and whether the Democrats or Republicans better serve Jewish interests and represent Jewish values.
 
Though Republicans seem to make the claim before every national election in recent years, many of them appear convinced that 2012 will be the year the GOP finally makes substantial gains among Jews, who until now have voted solidly Democratic.
 
Formerly a solid Republican stronghold, Montgomery County has become a heavily contested prize in statewide and national elections as Democrats now hold an edge in voter registration.
 
In the run-up to next week's elections, the debate in local races at times has sounded similar to the national conversation, with candidates focusing on deficits, taxes, jobs and the overall economy. (Unemployment in Montgomery County stands at 7 percent, below the national average.)
 
In the commissioners race, the Democrats have tapped two Jewish candidates, State Rep. Josh Shapiro (D-District 153) and Leslie Richards, a Whitemarsh Township supervisor.
 
The Republicans have put forth incumbent Bruce Castor and Lower Merion Township Commissioner Jenny Brown.
 
Each voter can select two candidates and the top three vote-getters become commissioners. It's been more than a century since Democrats have held the majority on the three-commissioner body.
 
Observers from both parties said that Castor and Shapiro each have high name recognition and should win a seat; Castor was a popular district attorney who ran for statewide office and Shapiro has long been touted as a rising political star. He campaigned heavily for Obama in 2008.
 
All of which means that the real race may be between the lesser-known candidates, Brown and Richards.
 
In an interview, Castor said that voters at every level are tiring of the fiscal policies of Democrats. He also reiterated a claim he made earlier in the year that struck some as odd in a local context: Backing Obama in 2008 showed poor judgment on Shapiro's part because, Castor said, the administration has proven unfriendly to Israel.
 
"He was advancing the qualities of a candidate that turned out not to be accurate," said Castor.
 
Shapiro responded that the race is about the future of Montgomery County and that presidential politics -- let alone the Israeli-Arab conflict -- have nothing to do with the campaign.
 
"Clearly, the other side is acting out of desperation," said Shapiro, a day school graduate whose children attend the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School. "They are grasping because they are down and they have very few ideas to offer themselves, so they attack us."
 
At an Oct. 22 county commissioner's forum at Temple Sinai in Dresher, where vacant seats far outnumbered attendees, the candidates were largely pressed on local fiscal issues, but some broader concerns, such as immigration and abortion, did come up.
 
Liz Stone, a 22-year-old pre-school teacher from Maple Glen, said that she had come because she was undecided and wanted to educate herself on local issues and choose the best candidates.
 
But Jonathan Roth, an anesthesiologist solidly in the Democratic camp, said he couldn't separate the candidates from their respective parties. He quipped that congressional Republicans make him shudder practically every time they open their mouths.
 
While the majority of Jews still identify more closely with the Democratic Party, according to polls, Jewish Republicans are pointing back to Lower Merion Township as perhaps another indication that the tide may be turning.
 
In the race for town commissioner, four of the five Republicans challenging incumbent Democrats are Jewish, including Ladenheim and Lou Barson, owner of Hymie's Merion Deli. Democrats have held a majority on the Lower Merion board of commissioners since 2003 and have a 10-4 edge now.
 
Ladenheim said she was motivated to run by what she described as the township's out-of-control spending, which she likened to Obama's approach.
 
But while she was clearly concerned with macro trends, her current focus is far more micro in nature.
 
"I want to win," she said definitively. "I don't want Liz to stay there."
 

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