As recently as the mid-2000s, row offices were unwinnable for Democrats in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania — a GOP stronghold for over a century. By 2011, the Democrats would take over the Board of Commissioners. They now enjoy a three-to-two voter-registration advantage.

But now some Republicans sense voters are wearying of what the Democrats have overseen during their dozen-year ascendancy, including a “bail reform” measure that has unsettled local police. The commissioners also frequently increase property taxes, most recently by eight percent in 2022. 

This winter, Liz Ferry (pictured above, left) and Tom DiBello (pictured above, right) stepped into the fray to mount a conservative response to the progressivism now holding sway in their county. Both have stood athwart difficult political tides to win elected office in their hometowns and both have racked up achievements that have impressed the party base as well as the independent and Democratic voters Republicans need to win in the Philadelphia suburbs. 

It’s uncertain which Democrats they will face in November — and that’s if they both get nominated over incumbent Republican Joe Gale (pictured above, middle) in what’s certain to be a contentious primary. 

The Democrats have quite the busy primary of their own, meanwhile. Commissioner Val Arkoosh (D) just left the Board to join Governor Josh Shapiro’s cabinet and her party compatriot Ken Lawrence announced he will retire at the end of the year. Former East Norriton Supervisor Jamila Winder got appointed in Arkoosh’s stead this year and is running in a primary field that includes Prothonotary Noah Marlier, Lower Merion attorney Neil Makhija and Whitpain Supervisor Kimberly Koch. 

Because each party will nominate two candidates and three seats are up for the taking in November, the GOP is guaranteed minority representation on the Board. But Ferry and DiBello insist their party can do better than that. 

“It’s time to bring people in that have real experience, real accomplishments, real ideas, real concerns and who are not coming in to just pander to voters,” DiBello told The Pennsylvania Daily Star. “What we’re doing is saying, this is time time for us to get Montgomery County back on track.”

Ferry has been the sole Republican on the Upper Dublin Township Board of Commissioners since first getting elected seven years ago despite just 30 percent of her ward’s voters affiliating with her party. Now the legislative-affairs vice president of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, she served in both the private and public sectors as well as the U.S. Navy. 

While a municipal official, Ferry spearheaded ordinances to safeguard open space and preclude the introduction of new apartment buildings in residential areas. She also prioritized revitalization and flood-proofing of the township’s office park. She credits her discussions with the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission as a major impetus for the creation of a new “zip ramp” connecting the park to the highway interchange. 

“Businesses like it, residents like it,” she said. “That was a lot of work and I think it’s going to be a terrific help to the revitalization of the office park even further.”

Her running mate also has an extensive background in both government and business. A software-solutions entrepreneur who has worked in the finance and defense industries, DiBello has served his community of Limerick in various capacities as well — as township auditor, township supervisor and, until 2021, as school director. 

His work in local politics began in 1999 when he led a successful grassroots campaign against the construction of a natural-gas plant next to Limerick’s two-unit nuclear generating station. Though a supporter of natural gas, DiBello objected to the close proximity of the proposed gas plant to the nuclear facility. 

“There were concerns from an environmental standpoint, being right next to a nuclear power plant,” he recalled.

Both Ferry and DiBello have compiled fiscal-policy records that could appeal to Montgomery County residents unhappy with a Board of Commissioners that has been all too happy to increase taxes. Although Gale has cast dissenting votes on county budgets, his primary opponents believe those tax-and-spend budgets need not be treated as inevitable. 

In Upper Dublin, Ferry discovered that a major driver of her township’s costs was workers compensation which had to be paid copiously to workers who were getting injured during yard-waste retrieval. Ferry championed a pilot program for automated waste pickup that reduced the need for manpower and, in turn, the need to pay so much workers compensation. The commissioner cites this as a significant reason that her township has recently avoided tax increases, even with six-to-one Democratic control.

As a director in Spring-Ford School District, DiBello also overcame financial challenges, among them an almost $15 million budget deficit and over $270 million in district debt. During his years of service, he worked with colleagues to eliminate the deficit and about $200 million of the the debt. 

Previous Spring-Ford directors oversaw an average of 5.5 percent annual property-tax increases each year while DiBello’s tenure saw that fall below two percent with no tax increase in 2017. Now the Spring-Ford property-tax millage is under 29.7, a low rate compared to most other county school districts. 

Ferry and DiBello said these are records voters should consider when they think about the $20 million deficit the county faces going into the next budgeting period. 

“We’re potentially looking at another eight percent-plus tax increase,” DiBello said. “I guarantee you that we could probably reduce that budget by 10 percent and have zero impact on any services.” 

To run as a team against the Democrats, Ferry and DiBello will both need to best Gale in the May 16 primary. Though an eight-year incumbent, the 33-year-old commissioner avidly courts controversy, even among the conservatives he aspires to represent. 

Gale has won no policy victories during his time in office and stoked anger among many right-leaning Pennsylvanians after waging an intemperate primary campaign for governor last year. The bid failed to even generate much support in his own county, where he won only 10.66 percent of the vote. (He attempted to run for lieutenant governor four years prior but didn’t meet the 30-year age requirement; he then blasted the conservative judge who removed him from the ballot as a judicial “activist.”) 

When community concerns have arisen, residents have often found the Republican incumbent disinterested. He loudly refused to support local GOP efforts to implement election security measures to prevent illegal ballot harvesting. And he cannot serve as an election-integrity watchdog on the county Board of Elections, having had to resign from that panel to run his statewide campaigns. 

Gale’s opponents have said they will make election integrity a priority if elected in November. They have questioned the need for absentee-ballot drop boxes and promised to push for more measures against cheating. 

“A lot of people — right, wrong or indifferent — lost faith in the election system,” DiBello said. “They don’t believe that things are happening on the up-and-up as everyone would like them to be. I know our goal would be to go in and make changes to the point where people start feeling comfortable again voting.” 

Ferry said Gale hasn’t been much of a presence on other urgent issues and recalled she was particularly disappointed in his absence after the 2021 tornado that caused severe damage and one woman’s death in and around Upper Dublin Township. Though the county secured funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to repair local buildings and infrastructure, Ferry said the minority commissioner played not even a perfunctory role in the disaster response.

“Joe Gale was nowhere,” Ferry recollected. “He never showed up, he never called.” 

Gale did not return a phone call seeking comment. 

Ferry and DiBello also cited violent crime as an increasingly major concern for their county which sits north of Philadelphia. The candidates promised to fight to rein in pretrial release, a practice that the county has lately expanded. The two have lamented reports of defendants reoffending as they await trial for previous allegations.

“There’ve been literal examples that the police have sent me of guys getting out who were arrested based on this new bail reform process and repeating their crimes and having to be rearrested,” Ferry said. 

Her running mate concurred that reversing this policy and strengthening support for law enforcement are top items on their agenda.

“We’re going to be there and stand with our police,” he said.

– – –

Bradley Vasoli is managing editor of The Pennsylvania Daily Star. Follow Brad on Twitter at @BVasoli. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Liz Ferry” by Liz Ferry. Photo “Thomas DiBello” by Thomas DiBello. Photo “Joe Gale” by Montgomery County. Background Photo “Montgomery County Courthouse” by Douglas Muth. CC BY-SA 2.0.