A quarter-century ago, Bucks County Democrats rallied around the Pump. Or, rather, voters' disdain for it.
Plans for a pumping station on the Delaware River so riled residents that protesters, led by Abbie Hoffman, were arrested daily. Some mounted an unsuccessful recall campaign against a local judge who ruled on the Point Pleasant project.
But the biggest shocker came in November 1983, when Democrats won control of county government, boosted by voters along the river who crossed party lines over the Pump.
Today, no issue looms to stir such passions and so sway the loyalties of Bucks County voters. But as the May 15 primary nears, Democrats say their candidates will have the best shot in two decades at winning a November majority on the Board of County Commissioners.
Which is why, amid several municipal races and District Attorney Diane E. Gibbons' run for a county judgeship, most eyes are on the commissioners race, where four Democrats are vying for two spots on the November ballot. The two Republican incumbents, Charles H. Martin and James F. Cawley, have no primary opponents.
Aside from a four-year Democratic run in the mid-1980s, the three-member Board of Commissioners has been controlled by a GOP majority since 1976. No party can can run more than two candidates in the November general election; the top three vote-getters win seats, ensuring minority representation.
"We believe we are in a very strong position," said John Cordisco, chairman of the county Democratic Committee.
Democrats continue to register more new voters than Republicans, and have narrowed the countywide registration gap to less than 24,000. The party ran well in last fall's state and national races, sending a Democrat to Congress for the first time in 14 years.
And the county organization has strengthened under Cordisco. Democratic candidates are running in municipal races once left uncontested. Finances have grown enough to hire a campaign manager for the party's endorsed commissioners slate.
County Republican chairman Harry Fawkes said he was not taking the Democratic challenge for granted, but he believes his party will prevail.
"We have good candidates, they're incumbents and they've done a good job, so I believe we will win the election," Fawkes said. "I think the people in Bucks County think the Republicans have kept the county in pretty good shape."
Few expect dissatisfaction with President Bush and GOP policies to provide local Democrats with the type of boost that unseated so many Republicans last year. National issues, have, however, helped invigorate the local party, said Lower Makefield Township Supervisor Steve Santarsiero, one of two Democrats endorsed by party leaders for county commissioner.
"People have gotten involved over the last few years because they are unhappy with the direction in which our country is going, and that has filtered down to the local level," said Santarsiero, 42, a social studies teacher at Bensalem High School.
The other endorsed Democrat is Middletown Township Supervisor Diane Marseglia, 46, a school social worker in the Pennsbury School District and a part-time criminal justice instructor at the College of New Jersey.
They are opposed in the primary by 16-year incumbent Commissioner Sandra A. Miller, 62, of Lower Makefield Township; and by former commissioner Andrew Warren, 64, of Middletown Township. Warren, a former high school teacher, served four terms as a Republican commissioner in the 1980s and '90s, then 10 years as PennDot's district executive for Southeast Pennsylvania. He switched parties two years ago for an unsuccessful congressional run.
Despite 32 years of combined experience as commissioners, Miller and Warren were shunned Feb. 24 when county Democratic committee members gathered for their endorsement meeting. Santarsiero led with 234 votes, followed by Marseglia (225), Warren (207) and Miller (183).
Some Democrats had grumbled that Miller had not battled the Republican majority enough on some county issues.
"There has not been a checks-and-balances system in our county government for over 20 years," Marseglia said. Miller "has been with the majority, and people are concerned about that."
Miller responded that some level of cooperation, not constant bickering, is necessary for a minority commissioner to be effective.
"I have been a voice of reason over my tenure on so many issues," she said. "You can't have change just for the sake of change; it should be brought about by experience."
Despite losing the endorsement vote, Warren and Miller have vowed to press on.
The resulting contested primary, all four candidates agreed, would cost more money but also would attract earlier attention to the Democratic candidates and their issues. "I think it will help us more than hurt us," said Santarsiero.
He and Marseglia, unlike Miller and Warren, are running as a team, pooling finances and campaigning time. They are pressing for greater government openness and better land-use policies to help contain development, limit property-tax increases and control local flooding.
"Bucks County hasn't touched its comprehensive plan in more than 10 years. There is not one word in the plan about controlling sprawl," Marseglia said. "Updating that plan would allow us to control some development. Any time you do that, you are going to be bringing in less people who require the services that drive property taxes up."
Marseglia and Santarsiero say they want to televise commissioners' meetings - most of which are poorly attended morning sessions - and open most county records to public inspection.
"The more transparent the government, the more people are confident in the decisions being made," Santarsiero said.
Miller, a commissioner since 1991, called her last-place finish in the party's endorsement vote "very disheartening," but stressed that her experience was crucial as the county prepares to build a new courthouse - its costliest project ever.
"It's critical that someone here from the beginning of these discussions be part of that planning as we go forward," Miller said. "It is incumbent on the commissioners to make sure it is a building that provides for the efficient operation of the courts. But it is also incumbent to make sure that the debt service is structured in such a way that the taxpayers can afford it."
The project's slow pace - demolition for a new parking garage has yet to begin - have pushed some cost estimates to as much as $200 million, Warren said. He pledged to step up the pace to help control costs.
"We can walk and chew gum at the same time," Warren said. "I don't know why we can't discuss and plan the courthouse construction while construction for the garage is going on. This is an issue that needs to be brought out."