Jamila Winder was named to the Montgomery County Commissioners after an offer to another Democrat was rescinded.
Candidate Neil Makhija, a 36-year-old lawyer from Lower Merion, is drawing praise as representing new talent and diversity.
Montgomery County Democrats just sent one of their own, Josh Shapiro, to the governor’s office. But there are signs of discontent inside the local party organization ahead of its convention Thursday.
With former County Commissioner Val Arkoosh resigning last month to/www.inquirer.com/health/pennsylvania-human-services-secretary-josh-shapiro-val-arkoosh-20230111.html"> join Shapiro’s administration and fellow Commissioner Ken Lawrence Jr. not seeking reelection, the party has an opportunity to shape the next generation of leadership in Pennsylvania’s third-largest county. But a conflict over the party’s handling of the succession plan reflects a larger struggle to break machine-style politics.
On one side is a cautious, old guard of party leaders who remember the days when Republicans controlled county government more than a decade ago — and the jobs and contracts that flow from that. On the other is a group of party activists — some of them relatively new to politics and perhaps more progressive in ideology — that chafes at heavy-handed leadership and believes Democrats should lean into the county’s increasingly liberal bent.
Initially, the party told Danielle Duckett, policy director for State Rep. Chris Rabb, that she’d be appointed to replace Arkoosh, according to three people familiar with the matter. She was set to become the first Black woman to serve on the board.
Within days, however, the offer was rescinded, with party officials saying they were concerned about Duckett’s “background,” according to people familiar with her account. It’s unclear exactly what they meant, but the decision came after officials learned Duckett had filed for bankruptcy more than 20 years ago when she was a single mother of two. She’d been diagnosed with thyroid cancer and had unpaid medical bills.
Duckett’s allies say her association with Rabb — a progressive Philadelphia lawmaker who’s clashed with the /www.inquirer.com/news/ryan-boyer-building-trades-council-john-dougherty-20211117.html">influential Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council — appears to have been a factor in the rescinding. The trades are a major campaign donor and political player in state and regional politics.
“I can’t think of a time I’ve been more ashamed to be a Democrat,” State Sen. Katie Muth told party officials on a Zoom call Thursday evening, according to Muth. “I’m tired of hearing the boys club gets to call the shots.”
In an interview, Muth told The Inquirer: “A really qualified, hardworking Democrat was essentially eliminated from being the appointed commissioner because basically there’s concerns you’re not going to march to the beat of the drum of the status quo machine Dems in Montco.”
With Duckett cast aside, Democrats ended up/www.inquirer.com/politics/jamila-winder-montgomery-county-commissioners-vacancy-tim-briggs-20230130.html"> tapping East Norriton Supervisor Jamila Winder, who is also Black, for Arkoosh’s old seat. Winder, who was sworn into office Feb. 1, has been praised by many Democrats, and some who have faulted the process also say that criticism shouldn’t detract from her appointment.
At the same time, party leaders threw their support behind longtime State Rep. Tim Briggs to succeed Lawrence.
All three county board seats will be on the May primary ballot; one spot is reserved for the minority party, currently held by Republican Joe Gale.
Briggs, a white 53-year-old from King of Prussia who was first elected to the House in 2008, is well-liked in the party and has powerful friends. He’s a lawyer at the /www.skilkennylaw.com/">municipal law practice founded by Montgomery County Sheriff Sean Kilkenny.
Some Democrats say the party should instead tap into emerging and diverse new talent, like 36-year-old lawyer Neil Makhija of Lower Merion, who runs an /iaimpact.org/about/">Indian American civic and political group. U.S. Sen. John Fetterman and former Gov. Ed Rendell have advocated for Makhija’s candidacy.
On Thursday, party committee members will decide whether to accept party leaders’ recommendation to endorse in the commissioner race. An endorsement could make it harder for other candidates to challenge those favored by party leaders.
“We have an embarrassment of riches,” party chair Jason Salus said in an interview. “But we’re confident these are the best leaders to lead and move our party forward. We’re excited about this ticket. The recommended slate of candidates in total is … one of our most diverse slates ever, in a number of dimensions.”
A rescinded appointment
Democratic Party officials moved quickly to fill the vacancy on the board after Arkoosh resigned Jan. 17. Under county ordinance, such appointments are handled by Common Pleas Court. But in practice, the court takes the recommendation of the party that held the seat.
Starting next year, /www.thereporteronline.com/2022/12/02/salary-increase-for-montgomery-county-elected-officials-prompts-argument-in-special-meeting/">commissioners will be paid $98,200 a year. The board chair will make $101,800.
Leading the vetting process was party chair Salus, 44, who was elected to the position by his fellow Democrats last year. Salus is also the county’s elected treasurer — a post he first won in 2011 running alongside Shapiro, then a commissioner candidate — and is up for reelection this year himself.
Salus formed and cochaired a seven-member screening committee to interview more than 20 candidates. The panel included cochair U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean; State Rep. Matt Bradford, a lawyer who’s in line to chair the Appropriations Committee in the newly Democratic House; Commissioner Lawrence; George Schools of Steamfitters Local 420 and the Philadelphia Building Trades; Sandra Jenkins of the MCDC’s diversity committee; and Beth Moy, chief of staff at Salus University.
Applicants had to sign paperwork acknowledging that they’d be expected to raise $450,000 for this year’s campaign and that the party may conduct a background search. They agreed to help provide information to assist the search.
Duckett soon drew the panel’s interest. In addition to her work in the state House, Duckett had experience as a supervisor in the state Department of Human Services. She’s also an elected supervisor in Lower Gwynedd Township and the first vice chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee.
Duckett declined to comment for this article. People familiar with her account described it to The Inquirer on condition of anonymity to discuss internal party conversations.
On Jan. 24, party officials told Duckett she would get the job, according to people familiar with her account.
Within a couple of days, Duckett faced questions that hadn’t previously come up in the interview process.
As part of the background search, the party learned Duckett, 45, had filed for bankruptcy in 2001. And in 2018, Duckett had filed a lawsuit against the Department of Human Services alleging she had endured a hostile work environment and gender-based discrimination. A federal judge dismissed the case in 2019.
Party officials asked why she hadn’t disclosed this information — and suggested it could be used against her by political opponents.
Duckett told them she did not think the information was relevant. In 2001, she got sick while she was pregnant and was subsequently diagnosed with thyroid cancer, she explained. Duckett had to take care of her two children and was unable to work. She had trouble paying medical bills.
Everything came to a head three days later on a Zoom call with the screening committee. Duckett faced questions about her approach to governance — including professional services appointments made by her and other members of the Lower Gwynedd Board of Supervisors. Specifically, Duckett was asked about the appointments of township solicitor and engineer, sources familiar with her account said.
A committee member subsequently told Duckett they’d heard she wasn’t a “team player” — a charge Duckett denied.
Allies of Duckett who have heard her account of the meeting say they interpreted this line of questioning as suggesting that party leaders were disappointed she had not used her authority in the township to hire politically connected firms.
Salus, in an interview, said he didn’t recall participating in “any conversation about professional appointments.”
He added, “I’m not going to comment on any one person’s particulars and their background.”
At the end of the Jan. 27 call, the committee encouraged Duckett to run for Lawrence’s seat. She declined.
During a Zoom meeting of the party’s executive board last Thursday, Muth said she’d been told that Duckett’s appointment was opposed by the Philadelphia Building & Construction Trades Council, /www.phillymag.com/news/2022/08/20/ryan-boyer/">whose leadership has clashed with Duckett’s boss — Rabb, the progressive lawmaker.
The building trades backed Rep. Isabella Fitzgerald against Rabb in last year’s Democratic primary. Rabb, who won the race in /whyy.org/articles/rabb-fitzgerald-redistricting-democratic-primary-northwest-philly/">the newly drawn district, declined to comment.
Asked about that, Salus said in the interview: “All I would say is that our recommendations coming out of the screening committee were unanimous.”
Ryan Boyer, business manager of the building trades, didn’t return a message seeking comment.
With Winder’s appointment settled, the party’s focus is now on its convention Thursday. Salus said he wants the hundreds of members who make up the party committee to endorse the Democratic ticket.
He noted that the recommended candidates had been thoroughly vetted and reflected the party’s diversity, not just in race and gender but geography as well.
Some committee members are pushing back, saying they don’t want a coronation. They’ve also raised concerns that if Briggs is elected commissioner, his resignation from the House could jeopardize Democrats’ razor-thin majority in Harrisburg.
“If we’re going to be the party of democracy, then we have to do democracy inside of our party,” said Kofi Osei, a 29-year-old party activist from Towamencin. He said he doesn’t want the party to endorse in the commissioner race — such a move would make it harder for other candidates to mount a primary challenge.
Osei is backing Makhija, the Lower Merion lawyer.
“There’s a good chance people coming out of this office will be important in statewide politics,” Osei said. “I do want to be able to vet these candidates more before they have that incumbency advantage.”