New Dem. Leadership in PA & MontCo

Marcel Groen

Marcel Groen

— by Tom Infield

Marcel L. Groen, elected in September as the State Democratic Chairman in Pennsylvania, stepped down from his position as leader of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee on Thursday evening, saying it was time for him to turn over the reins of the local party and to give his full attention to crucial statewide races in 2016.

He is a member of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park where he was vice-president. Over the years Marcel has held a number of other positions of leadership in our Jewish community: He was board member of the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce, board member of Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation, president of Bucks County Jewish National, and vice-president of Solomon Schechter Day Schools.

Montgomery County Democratic Committee Officers: (Left to right) Olivia Brady, Jason Salus, Chairman Joe Foster, Jeanne Democratic Area Leader for Abington and Rockledge, Jeanne  Sorg, Veronica Hill-Milbourne, and Michael Barbiero.

Montgomery County Democratic Committee Officers: (Left to right) Olivia Brady, Jason Salus, Chairman Joe Foster, Jeanne
Democratic Area Leader for Abington and Rockledge, Jeanne Sorg, Veronica Hill-Milbourne, and Michael Barbiero.

The party’s Executive Committee, meeting in Plymouth Meeting, voted unanimously to select Joseph Foster, who had been First Vice Chairman, as the new Chairman. Foster hailed Groen for his 21 years of leadership and pledged to continue the unity and inclusiveness that enabled Democrats to achieve a historic first on November 3 by winning every county government office.

“The Montgomery County Democratic Party is large and vibrant and growing,” said Foster, who is a professor of American history at Temple University and serves on the county’s Board of Assessment.

“I have learned over time that the most important thing we do is stay in the same boat rowing in the same direction,” Foster told the Executive Committee. “Unity is our success. As long as we stay together, we will be successful.”

Jason Salus, re-elected as Montgomery County Treasurer on November 3, was unanimously selected as the party’s first vice chairman. Michael Barbiero, an attorney and Democratic Area Leader for Abington and Rockledge, was unanimously chosen to fill the position of party
Treasurer that was held by Salus.

The party’s ongoing leadership includes Jeanne Sorg, the newly elected county Recorder of Deeds, as Second Vice Chair; Veronica Hill-Milbourne as Corresponding Secretary, and Olivia Brady as Recording Secretary.

Groen, an attorney who was first chosen as party Chairman in 1994, said he was leaving with mixed emotions.

“This is really bittersweet for me,” Groen told the Executive Committee, which filled a large meeting room at the AFSCME offices on Walton Road. “You and this party have been an important part of my life.”

Two decades ago, Groen noted, Democrats were a minority in Montgomery County. The party trailed badly in voter registration, had only one Representative in the state Legislature, and held no competitive county offices. Now, the party holds a big lead in registration, has a large and growing delegation in Harrisburg, and dominates at the county level. The county has also grown into a major power base for the statewide Democratic Party, delivering large margins on November 3 for all of the statewide Democratic court nominees.

Groen praised the work of Democratic workers and volunteers at all levels of the county party, and said it was their willingness to sacrifice for the common good that made success possible. He also praised the work of the Montgomery County Democratic Party staff, led by Executive Director Dianna DiIllio and Political Director Joe Graeff.

Joe Foster

Joe Foster, the newly elected chairman of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee. Photo: Bonnie Squires

Foster earned his Ph.D. from Temple in 1989 and began full-time teaching in 2009. For two decades, he worked on a research and publication project sponsored by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and the National Endowment for the Humanities that focused on the state’s early history.

He and his wife, Debby, are parents of four grown children. They live in Bala Cynwyd where they are members of Lower Merion Synagogue.

The B Team: PA’s 2nd Congressional District Candidate Forum

Since 2006, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El’s Men’s Club, Sisterhood and Israel Action Committee have jointly organized candidate forums to provide the community an opportunity to discuss issues with our Congressman and his challenger during each Congressional election. Until the recent redistricting, our township Lower Merion was located in Rep. Jim Gerlach’s 6th district. The 6th District was one of the most competitive districts in the country. While the Republican incumbent was always reelected it was usually by small margins and the district was carried by the Democratic Presidential candidate.

Year PA 6th Congressional District Presidential Race
2002: 51.4% Jim Gerlach, 48.6% Dan Wofford
2004: 51.0% Jim Gerlach, 49.0% Lois Murphy, 48% George W. Bush, 52% John F. Kerry
2006: 50.6% Jim Gerlach, 49.4% Lois Murphy
2008: 52.1% Jim Gerlach, 47.9% Bob Roggio, 41% John McCain, 58% Barack Obama
2010: 57.1% Jim Gerlach, 42.9% Manan Trivedi

Since the redistricting, Gerlach has replaced Democratic leaning Lower Merion with Republican leaning parts of Berks county in order to give himself some breathing room. Lower Merion is now part of the heavily Democratic 2nd Congressional District. The 2nd District is represented by Chaka Fattah who has been elected and reelected by enormous margins.

Year PA 2nd Congressional District
1994: 86% Chaka Fattah, 14% Lawrence Watson (R)
1996: 88% Chaka Fattah, 12% Larry Murphy (R)
1998: 86% Chaka Fattah, 14% Anne Marie Mulligan (R)
2000: 98% Chaka Fattah,  2% Ken Krawchuk (L)
2002: 88% Chaka Fattah, 12% Tom Dougherty (R)
2004: 88% Chaka Fattah, 12% Stewart Bolno (R)
2006: 89% Chaka Fattah,  9% Michael Gessner (R)
2008: 89% Chaka Fattah, 11% Chris Kunc (R)
2010: 89% Chaka Fattah, 11% Rick Hellberg (R)

The lopsided demographics in this district lead to insurmoutable odds which discourage any serious challengers. In fact, the Republicans did not even bother fielding a candidate in 2000. (Ken Krawchuk was the Libertarian party’s candidate.) I have long argued that redistricting should be nonpartisan and have the goals of eliminating such non-competitive districts and creating a state map that reflects the partisan balance of the state.

The country is best served when both parties field the best candidates they have to offer and provide the voters with a real choice. This year Rep. Fattah is facing a pair of political neophytes: the Republican Robert Mansfield and Independent candidate Jim Foster. According to the Federal Election Commission, Fattah has raised over a half-million dollars while Mansfield has raised about ten thousand, and Foster has not reported any campaign contributions.


Photo: Richard Chaitt.

Rep. Chaka Fattah

A fair crowd was on hand to get acquainted with our new Congressman. However, due to a couple of simultaneous events at the synagogue and the lack of a competitive contest the attendance fell short of the previous candidate forums organized at the synagogue. Rep. Fattah spoke first and a sizable fraction of audience excused themselves after his remarks.

Rep. Fattah described the annexation of Lower Merion by his district as “a shotgun wedding arranged by the Pennsylvania Republicans” but he was happy to meet his new constitents. His first political campaign was to represent the Overbrook neighborhood (in Philadelphia about one mile from our synagogue) in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. He won that 1982 primary by a mere 58 votes out of over 10,000 votes cast, so he is well aware of the value of every vote.

AIPAC has described Chaka Fattah as one of the most reliable and stalwart pro-Israel members of Congress. His chief of staff has just returned from a mission to Israel, and the Congressmen will soon embarking on his first trip to Israel. As the ranking member of the Appropriation Committee’s Science Subcommittee, he will be leading a delegation from the National Science Foundation to launch new collaborations between the US and Israel in the field of Neuroscience. Fattah has spearheaded this funding which is destined to improve our understanding of age-related degenerative diseases of the brain and traumatic brain injuries. The leadership of the local Hadassah chapter was on hand and encouraged the Congressman to visit Hadassah Hospital which is a pioneer in medical research and an example of how Arab and Jewish doctors can cooperate to improve the health of patients of all races, religions and nationalities.

Chaka Fattah is married to NBC10 anchorwoman Renee Chenault-Fattah and has four children. He is now running for his 10th term in Congress and emphasized the value to the district of having a senior member of Congress on the Appropriations Committee. The Congressman was happy to get acquainted with his new constituents and promised to return after the election and continue the conversation at greater length.


Photo: Richard Chaitt.

Sgt. Robert Mansfield

The Republican challenger Robert Mansfield is a combat veteran having served thirteen years in the US Army and National Guard. His service was ended by trauma from an I.E.D. explosion. In a spirit of true bipartisanship he thanked Rep. Fattah for his dedication to funding research on traumatic brain injuries.

Mansfield has been a champion of adversity:

  • At birth he had to overcome a dependance on heroin he had acquired from his mother who used drugs during her pregnancy.
  • He  endured a tumultuous childhood in foster care.
  • He overcame kidney cancer.
  • And he suffered from the homelessness all too common to our returning veterans.

As a fervent member of the Episcopal Church, he expressed dismay at Christian groups boycotting Israel. For Sgt. Mansfield support for Israel is founded in the teachings of the Bible.

He fears that Obama is not taking the Iranian nuclear threat seriously and that Obama has agreed to negotiations with Iran. He says Iran is “four years closer” to making a bomb. He says that the US has sat idly by with ineffective sanctions. He recommended imposing “real sanctions like we had against South Africa”.

During the Question & Answer session, I commented that the sanctions are having a real economic effect on Iran, with the Iranian Rial losing 80% of its value in recent months with strikes and real unrest in the streets. I added that I didn’t remember the sanctions against South Africa as being so universal and so effective. (The biggest annual drop in the South African Rand was a drop of 34% in 1985.)

While Iran was said to be “months” away from a bomb when Obama took office, his administration is clearly responsible for the CIA working hand-in-hand with the Israeli Mossad to sabotage Iranian centrifuges, missiles and most recently computers. Meanwhile, Iranian physicists are dying in the streets of Tehran and this is not from the common cold. I concluded by asking specifically what additional steps would Mansfield recommend if he was in Congress? If he were Congressman or President, would he recommend an immediate tactical nuclear strike on the underground bunkers where the Iranian enrichment facilities are hidden?

Sgt. Mansfield pondered my question for fifteen seconds and then gave a one-word response: “Yes.”

Some of Mansfield’s other remarks ran afoul of the truth:

  • He repeated the discredited meme about Obama’s “apology tour”.
  • He warned that the bridge from Yemen to Somalia “to be completed by 2020” would strengthen al Qaeda. While such a bridge (The Bridge of Horns) was proposed, it is not under construction and has not been funded. The fanciful bridge would be 18 miles long and in order to avoid disrupting navigation it would have the longest suspension span in the world (3 miles long). The Saudi and Yemen government oppose the African refugees that such a bridge might bring to the region. Moreover, Yemen and Somalia are two of the poorest countries in the world, so a bridge connecting them would not be “a bridge to nowhere” but rather “a bridge from nowhere to nowhere”.

Photo: Richard Chaitt.

Jim Foster

Jim Foster is running as an independent although he had to win a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Election Commission in order to do so. He has published the Germantown Chronicle since 2009.

He spoke entirely about Philadelphia issues such as broken schools, cronyism, and pay-to-play. During the Question & Answer period several people tried to redirect the conversation towards questions of foreign policy or national domestic policy. He gave only the most general of answers, for example, “some extremists want no taxes at all, and some want a 97% tax rate for the wealthy. Whatever rate we pick, I just say I want accountability.”

He also mentioned that he “saw Israel as self-supporting and honest with a legitimate government, and Iran and others without one.”

He said he “would use all means to keep Iran from getting the means to make a bomb.”

He would then steer back to local Philadelphia politics. I almost got the impression that Foster was running for Mayor Nutter’s job, not Representative Fattah’s job.