On Wednesday, Josh Shapiro and Leslie Richards will take office as Montgomery County Commissioners after winning the most important political race in the state in November. As you must know, this will be the first time in this history of the County that Democrats have controlled the County Commission.
At the same time Joe Hoeffel will be leaving public office, perhaps for the last time.
But everyone, from Josh and Leslie down, know that without the efforts of Joe Hoeffel, there would be no Democratic majority on the County Commission in Montgomery County. Without Joe, Allyson Schwartz would probably not be the member of Congress for the 13th Congressional district which includes a big part of Montgomery County and which Joe once represented. And many other Democratic public officials would not old the offices they do today.
The contemporary Democratic Party in Montgomery County is, to a very large degree, the creation of Joe Hoeffel. The “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” agenda Joe has been articulating for years is the platform of Democrats in Montgomery County. The reputation for rectitude and integrity that Democrats have in Montgomery County—and that was so important to the victory in November—is in large part due to the reputation of Joe Hoeffel.
Democrats were going to control Montgomery County sooner or later. As Republicans embrace an ever more conservative stance on both economic and cultural issues, middle class people in the suburbs have been warming to Democrats for twenty years. But trends don’t win elections. Candidates who can articulate the ideals of a growing majority are needed to do that work. Joe Hoeffel figured out how to do it in Montgomery County. Joe did this and not just with regard to the political issues on which left and right divide. He also embodied the stance of political rectitude that was so important to winning in the suburbs, especially given the reputation of Philadelphia Democrats for ethically challenged behavior.
But Joe did more than win elections. Other politicians have moved suburban districts in other parts of the country in a Democratic direction but often by sacrificing some of the core ideals of the Democratic Party. Joe didn’t just create a Democratic majority in Montgomery County, he became the embodiment of progressive ideals in Pennsylvania, as we saw in his unfortunately unsuccessful campaigns for Senator and Governor. That was no easy combination to sustain. But Joe did it with the force of his character and his ability to explain progressive ideals in a way that made them seem like commonsensical ideas that anyone, from the city or suburbs or rural parts of the state, should embrace.
This is not the place for a long review of Joe’s efforts in office. But let me just say that whether in Harrisburg, Washington, or Norristown, Joe acted on progressive ideals. He supported government action that enhanced economic growth and economic opportunity for everyone. He defended the rights of women and minorities. I didn’t always agree with everything he did–and given his almost unique ability to rethink his positions, he didn’t always do so either. But once could always be confident that Joe’s was acting as a thoughtful, reflective progressive would. He also showed how Democrats could work with moderate Republicans, as he did with Jim Matthews for the last four years in Montco.
Joe was not known for being an incredibly dynamic campaigner and his success may have come in part because his low key style fit with the commonsensical message he offered. But I hope there are some videos somewhere of the speeches he gave towards the end of his Senate campaign because I know that I was one of many who found Joe’s forceful defense of progressive politics inspiring.
I don’t know if Joe will ever run for office again. But I’m sure he will remain a leader for progressives statewide. Still this is a good moment to remember that, as a Joshua takes power in the Montgomery County, he would not be there except for the work of the Moses who held many offices in which he did important work, but who never quite made it to the promised land that Shapiro and Richards enter this week.