'A seismic change in the whole county'
● By Richard Gaw
On Jan. 3, just before noon in the Ballroom of the Sykes Student Union on the campus of West Chester University, four elected officials -- all Democrats, none of whom had ever pursued a public office prior to their election last Nov. 7 -- took their oaths of office to assume their newly-elected roles in Chester County government.
Patricia Maisano became treasurer, Yolanda Van de Krol became clerk of courts, Dr. Christina Vandepol became coroner and Margaret Reif became controller. They became the first Democrats to occupy seats on the Chester County row since 1799.
To the many who claim to know the real skinny behind Chester County politics, these elections simply represented a backlash against the controversial presidency of Donald J. Trump, but to Maisano, Van de Krol, Vandepol and Reif – all of whom attended a Chester County Democratic Committee party at Barnaby's in West Chester on Dec. 19 – the results of the historic election had less to do with the President than it had to do with the public's need for increased transparency in county and local government.
“This election was a seismic change in the whole county, and I say that not just from the standpoint of these four elections,” Lani Frank, vice chair of the Chester County Democratic Committee. “We were hoping for one of the candidates to be elected, and we got four, but where we're really going to start to see change is in the individual townships.
“Residents will begin to elect supervisors who have never served before, and where decisions that used to be made behind closed doors will be now changed. Elected officials will no longer be able to have those conversations behind closed doors, and walk in lock-step from meeting rooms.”
Beginning early, Maisano's ear-to-the-ground campaigning took shape in the form of her announcement that if she were elected as county treasurer, the books of the county coffers would be flung open for public view: Where is the money? Where and how is it being spent? Who is being awarded the bidding contracts for county projects? Is the money being spent outside of the county, or is it being recirculated throughout the county?
Now that she's in office, Maisano said that one of her goals is to include a summary of the county expense sheet on her own website, and possibly, she said, on the county's website.
"I saw it as promise to the people, and it's still my objective to share not just the budget but where we stand in it," she said. "There's never been transparency, and a feeling of 'That's just how we do things.' My attitude is, 'No. It's about the people. It's about our money, and I'm not afraid to share this.'
"I want to put that information out there in a way that everybody can understand it. I don't want to use 'money speak' or 'political speak.' I just want to talk to people. I want to share the simplicity of the message, and let them see how these figures affect them personally, as individuals. I want to help answer questions like, 'Is the county helping your schools? Is the county accountable on the investments that we make on their behalf?'"
While negative reaction to the results of the Presidential election of 2016 still reverberate around the sound chambers of social media, the noise coming from the progressives and liberals about the Trump election has done little but fan the waves of an already volatile cauldron. In between this chorus of dissent, however, a small movement has emerged, one that has turned anger into action.
Reif, a controller for a non-profit organization, is the mother of two children, aged 18 and 21, respectively, and up until the presidential election of 2016, she had never entertained the notion of getting involved in politics. Soon, she became a candidate for county controller, and began her campaign not in terms of her own needs, but her children's.
"For me, the election of 2016 was the catalyst for me to get involved," she said. "I had never had any intention for running for office, but I try to model myself for my kids. I tell them all the time that if they're not happy with the way things are, then stand up and do something.
"I didn't want to look back at this moment in history and feel I hadn't done enough. Democracy is not a spectator sport, and I needed to up my game."
Slowly, Reif said, the rigors of campaigning began to exhaust her -- the meet-and-greets, the speeches, and the sense that what had been entered into as a private gesture of giving back had become a public story. On Election Day, however, what she saw confirmed her efforts.
"Everywhere I turned, I saw women coming out in droves to the polls," she said. "I was so proud of everyone stepping up and making sure their voice was heard."
Vandepol was also compelled to run for public office largely on the impact of the 2016 presidential election, which she said had begun a slow march away from the country's Democratic principles. Another influence to run, she said, came from her bloodline; for five years during World War II, the Netherlands, her native country, was occupied by Nazi rule, and in protest of the occupation, her father joined the underground resistance.
“I said to myself, 'I am going to join the resistance, and follow in my father's footsteps,” she said.
Vandepol, a physician, began her campaign by scanning the list of available county offices that were in play last November.
“When I saw the offices that were in the running, I didn't know about county politics, but I do know about medicine,” she said. “I thought being a coroner would be a position that I knew I could do effectively.”
Soon after declaring her candidacy, Vandepol was supported by a base that was both enthusiastic and realistic.
“We thought we were doing something important,” she said. “We didn't know how it would turn out, but we knew that people were very energetic. We thought that the election would be close, but when election night came, we all looked at the results, and then at each other and said, 'Can you believe this?'”
As her campaign got underway, Van de Krol began to construct it in terms of exploring the need for more efficiency in county government, specifically in the clerk of courts office. One of her chief goals is to explore the idea of incorporating automation like e-filing into county government.
“A lot of what I ran on was asking questions about how things are being done in county government, compared to how I saw them being done in other nearby counties,” said Van de Krol, a former banker. “I was wondering about why we weren't involved in the automation that a lot of other counties around us have done. I ran on the question, 'Why aren't we doing this, and what would it take to do this, in order to become more efficient?'”
By definition and in theory, the election of Maisano, Van de Krol, Reif and Vandepol may merely be a pin prick response in what may serve as a potential and growing national backlash. In its application, however, these four county seats, occupied by Democrats for the first time, represent a tabula rasa slate that will likely shake up the status quo of county business. And yet, given the fickle nature and swaying tides of public sentiment both local and national, whether or not these new row officers will be judged by performance or by party remains anyone's guess.
“I think this election speaks to a need beyond the Democratic Party,” Maisano said. “It's the need for change. People will say that this was a win against Trump. Perhaps a little bit, but more so, it was won by people who said 'This is our community, and we want to have some knowledge about our community.
“'We're not going to bury our heads in the sand any more.'"
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email email@example.com.
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