Local Politics | Did not rewarding Democratic Party donors cost Lower Gwynedd politician seat on the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners?

Local Politics is an as-needed column on the political scene in Montgomery County filled with speculation, opinion, and more.

The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article on February 15th titled “‘Ashamed’: Montco Democrats are facing backlash over their county commissioner succession plan,” which highlighted concerns from party activists over how the party’s leadership handled its internal vetting of applications who sought the appointment to fill a vacant seat resulting from the resignation of Dr. Val Arkoosh from the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners. Dr. Arkoosh’s resignation was followed by an announcement from County Commissioner Ken Lawrence that he would not seek re-election and party leadership subsequently announced the backing of a preferred candidate.

The issue came to a head on February 16th when party members met to decide whether to endorse candidates for the 2023 election cycle. The 2023 election includes all three seats on the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners, the row offices, judges, and municipal boards.

Filling the Vacant Seat on the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners

Dr. Arkoosh resigned her seat on the Montgomery County Board of Commissioners on January 11th and the county provided details to the public on how to apply. The decision would be up to county judges, however, since Dr. Arkoosh is a Democrat, the judges could only select a Democrat to replace her. The board of commissioners consists of three seats. The two candidates who get the most votes are guaranteed a seat on the commission. If these two candidates are of the same party, the candidate from another party with the most votes is then guaranteed the third seat (you can’t have three members of the commission from the same party).

While the county had a process to fill the vacancy, the Montgomery County Democratic Committee also had a process to determine which applicant would get its recommendation letter (and the likely appointment)

According to reporting from The Philadelphia Inquirer, the party’s leadership initially told Lower Gwynedd Township Supervisor Danielle Duckett that she would get its recommendation. However, Duckett was then told she was not going to receive the recommendation.

Jamila Winder, a supervisor in East Norriton Township and a former member of the school board for the Norristown Area School District got the backing of the party leadership. She was then appointed by the judges to fill the seat.

So what happened?

It is important to understand that Duckett is an established Democratic Party leader in the county. Politically, she is the first vice chair of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee and the co-area leader for the party in the communities of the Borough of Ambler, Lower Gwynedd Township, and Whitpain Township. She is an elected official serving as the chair of the Board of Supervisors in Lower Gwynedd Township. Professionally, she is the legislative director/policy director for State Representative Chris Rabb. She is very well known in Democratic Party circles.

Below is reporting from The Philadelphia Inquirer on how the recommendation came to be rescinded.

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.

If true, what exactly are the party leaders saying here? A central tenant of the Democratic Party’s argument involving healthcare is that getting sick shouldn’t force people into bankruptcy. Duckett actually experienced this. Is the party leadership really holding that against Duckett? And what exactly are they saying to women who believe they are discriminated against in the workplace?

Further, if filing for bankruptcy and a lawsuit are disqualifying for county commissioner, do the leaders of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee now deem Duckett unfit for the elected office and party positions she currently holds? And why is the party just discovering this? Was she not vetted in 2019 when she ran for office?

Or, more likely, was the party leadership upset about the lack of donors appointed as professional consultants in Lower Gwynedd?

According to Republican Kathleen Hunsicker, who serves on the Lower Gwynedd Board of Supervisors, with Duckett, Duckett has not moved to reward donors. Hunsicker shared the following statement with MoreThanTheCurve.com, AroundAmbler.com, and GlensideLocal.com.

I was concerned that the change in party leadership and ascent of Danielle Duckett to Board Chair would lead to a change in professional staff, as I have seen happen in other municipalities. Thankfully that did not happen and our professionals were chosen based on the best interests of Lower Gwynedd Township rather than the interests of party bosses and donors. 

In addition, under Duckett’s leadership, the Lower Gwynedd Board of Supervisors passed a resolution in 2022 that requires that all professional service positions be put out to bid every five years. Upon the passing of the resolution Duckett was quoted as stating the purpose of the resolution was to “establish a regularly reoccurring review of our contracts to ensure we’re getting the best services with the most consummate professionals.”

Since most Democrats generally agree with one another on the issues, these appointments are often the sole cause of local inter-party turmoil.

The party activists mentioned in the article are the first ones to raise this issue of an emphasis on rewarding donors through appointments and policies.

When sharing The Philadelphia Inquirer article on social media, Democrat Ken Wollman, a former supervisor in Whitpain Township, posted the following.

I called this abuse out years ago. People did not listen, instead, I was thrown out of office. Unfortunately, this is how politics is these days. But I know I did the right thing……and now everyone else knows.

Wollman had served as a Whitpain Township supervisor after running as an endorsed Democrat. He was not endorsed in 2019 and lost in the primary.

In 2018, a former president of the Colonial School Board, Alan Tabachnick, shared his story about the pressure to reward donors.

It was in the summer of 2009 when our Democrat area leader and campaign manager first introduced the concept of a Responsible Contractor Ordinance (RCO) to me, suggesting it was a very good thing to push for in the district. I soon came to realize that although there were many positives to an RCO, it was seen largely as a payback to Unions for their contributions to a campaign. Union contributions would flow to candidates, but in return, the candidate was expected to “play the game” and push for an RCO.

The campaign manager mentioned by Tabachinck, and the person Wollman is warning you about, is Jason Salus. Over the last 12 years or so, Salus has risen through the ranks of the Montgomery County Democratic Committee. He was on Conshohocken’s Borough Council and then was elected to be Montgomery County’s Treasurer (a position he continues to hold). He is the area leader for Conshohocken, Plymouth, and Whitemarsh, and most importantly now that the chair of the Montgomery County Executive Committee (making him the most powerful Democrat in the county).

For full disclosure, Salus once tried to cancel me (Kevin Tierney) and MoreThanTheCurve.com. You can read all about that here.

If the threat of non-endorsement doesn’t work, as it didn’t with a slate of candidates for Colonial School Board in 2019, then Salus will just send a postcard claiming you might be Trumpy, as he did with a slate of four Democrats (who ran with one Republican).

That is the type of person Montgomery County Democrats have elevated. It shouldn’t be a surprise. We have reported on it (and been threatened for it). Other Democrats have warned you.

But do you care…