It was a hell of an introduction to Tom Ellis, former Republican commissioner in Montgomery County with an alleged #metoo history. But then again, this is Montgomery County, where the GOP is so dysfunctional it’s good to have a giant stash of Advil handy before wading into its latest civil war.
“I was actually expecting your call,” Ellis blurted out when I got him on the phone Tuesday. “That was the threat that was made if I didn’t get out of the race.”
He’s right that the knives were out. Ellis was asking county Republicans to make him party chief — and forget that he made headlines in 2004 after a former fiancee requested a protection-from-abuse order against him. And forget that he made headlines again in 2010 because an ex-girlfriend-slash-county-employee accused him of harassment. Ellis told me he had long ago apologized, redeemed himself, and had only the party’s best interests at heart.
But committee members voting on a new chairman next week would also have to forget that their ex-chairman four years ago, Bob Kerns, was convicted of indecent assault amid rape allegations. They’d have to vote for Ellis despite our current cultural moment in which even the mere whisper of misconduct against women can be lethal.
When we spoke Tuesday, Ellis vowed that he wouldn’t get out of the race — a vow he’d break before dinnertime Wednesday.
He then declared war against the faction that had lined up against him in favor of the 47-year-old woman who’d just announced her candidacy hours earlier Wednesday — Liz Preate Havey, lawyer and daughter of ex-Attorney General Ernie Preate. And he said his former running mate, Lauren Casper, would run in his place.
“This cancer on our party,” Ellis wrote in a letter announcing his withdrawal, “… has gone on a scorched earth attack using totally unfounded allegations from many years ago.”
For good measure, he said the party was a “disintegrating and moribund organization.”
What’s amazing isn’t the high drama, the party’s communal capacity for self destruction, or that I had caught wind of this eyebrow-raising candidacy.
It’s not amazing that Republicans were leaning on Ellis, a big-firm attorney, to pull out of the race. This is a county party that once elected governors and presidents but now most reliably manufactures grudges and warlordlike power struggles with zombie half-lives.
No. What’s amazing is that Republicans in Pennsylvania’s densely populated and second-most affluent county are mired in toxic muck even this year. Even now.
They should be focused on protecting political seats, on bracing for what many think could be an electoral bloodbath this fall at the hands of Democrats, whose voters are supercharged by women at the polls and on ballots. Dems are looking to take control of the U.S. House and make a dent in GOP control of state House and Senate seats.
But until I started making calls this week, the only people running to replace departing GOP chairman Bill Donnelly were Ellis (a well-known insider) and Marina Kats, a lesser-known self-made immigrant-attorney.
And Ellis, I soon found out, was secretly in the line of some big-time fire.
Anthony Spangler, a 39-year-old GOP committeeman from Horsham, gave me a taste of gunpowder when I called for his opinion Tuesday.
“He’s had several accusations of misconduct with women,” Spangler said. “It’s 2018. People in my generation don’t tolerate that kind of stuff. The accusations against him alone, the optics alone of that, especially happening multiple times, is going to be a big stick that the Democratic Party is going to hit every elected Republican over the head with – everywhere from school board to Congress.”
I asked a Democratic consultant: Would you bludgeon Montco Republican lawmakers with Ellis’ old headlines if he won?
“Hell, yeah,” the consultant replied.
Even James Williams, a Philly-based GOP operative running for a state Senate seat that straddles Montgomery County and Philly — a seat currently held by Democrat Art Haywood — could see why Ellis was a potential political liability. (Ellis also touts having the backing of longtime county power broker Bob Asher.)
“Right now, as a party, we’re not doing good with female voters at all,” said Williams, who ran Beth Grossman’s unsuccessful GOP campaign last year against Larry Krasner, Philadelphia’s new district attorney.
A few days ago, another bigwig in the county, Frank Bartle, sent a letter to GOP candidates running for office this year. He warned that electing Ellis on May 31 “would not be the message we want to send.”
He added: “While I personally like Tom and do not disparage his ability, the several personal issues he faced involving allegations of abuse or harassment near the time he served in public office more than disqualify him from legitimate consideration.”
I’d heard Bartle was hoping Preate Havey would run. We chatted Tuesday. He threw an unmistakable dart while explaining that other people were concerned about Ellis, too.
“I’ve had many people call me,” he said. “Probably because I’m the last chairman of the party who’s had any success.”
(That one gets a round of applause, no?)
Wouldn’t you know, what happens on Wednesday morning? Preate Havey announces she is running. Her running mate for vice chair is none other than Spangler, the gentleman from Horsham.
“Our party is at a crossroads,” Preate Havey told me with what I presume to be a straight face. “We’ve been divided for too long. I’m running to bring a new energy and much-needed unity to our organization.”
Someone please pass the Advil.