LS Attorney Montgomery County primary election for commissioner upended ‘party politics as usual’ for Democrats

Montgomery County primary election for commissioner upended ‘party politics as usual’ for Democrats

The Montgomery County Democratic machine isn’t broken. But it may need some maintenance work.

Attorney Neil Makhija of Lower Merion, who pushed for a contested primary election in the commissioners’ race over the objections of party leaders, won a spot on the ballot in November’s general election.

Commissioner Jamila Winder, who had the party’s endorsement, won the most votes and will run on a ticket with Makhija in the general election. But after years of carefully orchestrated local campaigns, Makhija’s victory Tuesday in a messy five-candidate primary disrupted party leaders’ plans for an orderly candidate selection process. The party’s system this year was led in part by Democrats affiliated with law firms that raised money for the party and got government contracts.

The question going forward is whether the system is likely to reform in response to criticism from party activists — or shake off the loss and reassert itself.

“This is a repudiation of party politics as usual in Montgomery County,” said Ryane Sophia Kilmer, a Democratic activist from Cheltenham. “It represents the committee people taking back our power and helping elect a rising superstar in the Democratic Party in Neil Makhija.”

There were still signs Tuesday of the party’s influence. The decisive victory for Winder, who was appointed to the three-member Board of Commissioners earlier this year to fill a vacancy, showed the power of the party’s backing. And in the contested primary for register of wills, the candidate with the most establishment support — Tina Lawson — defeated rival Hilary Fuelleborn.

The Montgomery County Democratic Committee in February endorsed Winder’s campaign for a full term — meaning her name appeared on sample ballots distributed to voters at the polls and in mail.

Given that advantage, Winder was widely seen as a heavy favorite.

“Obviously, the party endorsement of course helped. Despite the challenges that existed in the party this primary season, I feel the party rallied behind me, and really worked to get voters to know me, and learn about me,” Winder said. “I also think getting the appointment — I hit the ground running. I’ve been crisscrossing the county with Commissioner [Ken] Lawrence, meeting various stakeholders, understanding the issues. I think I’ve demonstrated I can do the job.”

Winder and Makhija will run together in the general election and are favored to win, given the Democrats’ voter registration edge in the county.

‘Open primary’

Even as the party endorsed Winder, a 44-year-old executive with an education company, activists rejected party leaders’ recommendation to endorse a second commissioner candidate, state Rep. Tim Briggs, with some activists citing an Inquirer article that scrutinized the selection process. Makhija, 36, was the only candidate who pushed for such an “open primary” — participating in Zoom meetings with activists before the party convention while visiting his 100-year-old grandmother in Mumbai.

“It’s pretty extraordinary to think it came down to that one night,” Makhija said. “If it had gone the other way, and the committee said we’re just gonna pick our people and that’s it, I wouldn’t have had a shot — and neither would anyone else who was considering running.”

After the party convention, three other Democrats jumped in the race: Kimberly Koch, a teacher and Whitpain Township supervisor whom Winder tapped as her running mate; Ask Bamford, a marketing executive and Montgomery Township supervisor; and Noah Marlier, the county prothonotary and a municipal lawyer.

Koch got a boost from his association with Winder, with whom he shared a campaign committee and much of the same campaign literature. And Koch had support from many state and local elected officials, including House Majority Leader Matt Bradford.

But discontent among some activists with the party apparatus offered an opportunity for a candidate to emerge as an alternative.

Trump is back in the news

Makhija was able to pull it off through a combination of fundraising, key endorsements, and a message that connected his experience as a lawyer and activist to the job responsibilities of county commissioners.

He highlighted his background as a lecturer of election law at the University of Pennsylvania, as well as his work leading an Indian American civic group that promoted voting rights and helped elect Democrats across the country.

With Donald Trump running for president again, Makhija campaigned on using his background in election law to help Montgomery County administer the 2024 election — and protect against Trump-inspired attacks on the election process.

“That resonated with everybody,” said Makhija campaign manager Eric Stern, who was previously a top aide on US Sen. John Fetterman’s winning Senate bid. “People are seeing Trump and DeSantis in the news. If you’re a Democrat, and you want your votes counted and other people’s votes counted, that’s terrifying.”

Makhija raised more than $1 million in three months — far more than his rivals — tapping a network of donors he’d cultivated through his nonprofit and activism.

His television ads highlighted his background as the son of Indian immigrants who made it to Harvard Law School. And they featured prominent Democrats backing his campaign such as the former Gov. Ed Rendell, former US Rep. Allyson Schwartz, and former State Sen. Connie Williams. Late in the race, he got another lift from an endorsement by The Inquirer’s editorial board, which operates separately from the newsroom.

‘Kobe numbers’

Makhija initially faced skepticism from some Democratic activists given that he was relatively new to Montgomery County, having moved to Lower Merion from Philadelphia in 2021. He used those questions to share more about his life story — about how he grew up in Carbon County, Pa. ., where his parents were able to get green cards. He worked for a Philadelphia law firm after law school, and moved to Lower Merion, close to his wife’s parents. “I’m the first three in three generations that have ever had a choice, really, of where to live and where to raise my family,” he said during an April forum.

Supporters of some of his rivals tried to portray him as a political opportunist, pointing to his unsuccessful campaign for a Carbon County-based state House district in 2016. Makhija responded that he “wanted to take one for the team” by running in a rural area district Republicans had won years earlier. That’s also when he met Fetterman, who was then running his first primary campaign for the Senate.

Fetterman backed Makhija’s campaign for commissioners.

“While some might have seen me as a ‘newcomer,’ the reality is I’ve been very much active in support of Democratic efforts for almost the last 20 years,” Makhija said.

On Election Day, Makhija likely benefited from the fact that candidates’ hometowns were printed next to their names on the ballot. Lower Merion is the biggest municipality in the county, and home to a lot of Democrats. Makhija’s vote margins in Lower Merion and Narberth were roughly equal to his total margin of victory countywide.

“Neil being from there … we needed him to put up Kobe numbers there, and that’s exactly what he did,” said campaign adviser Dan Kane, referring to Lower Merion High School’s most famous alumnus.

Push for reform

Makhija and Winder will face Republicans Tom DiBello and Liz Ferry in the general election.

The bigger test facing Democrats may be over the future of their own party. During the campaign, some committee members criticized party chairman Jason Salus for what they saw as overly aggressive enforcement of party bylaws. For example, he was accused of allegations that party official Joyce Keller had violated the bylaws by allegedly supporting non-endorsed candidates in Facebook posts and fundraising efforts. A complaint sought the committee member’s removal from the party organization.

And many objected to the composition of screening committees the parties used to vet candidates for endorsements, saying the process lacked transparency.

Salus has defended the process as rigorous and said endorsements send important signals to voters, many of whom don’t have time to research candidates in local elections that don’t get much news coverage.

Committee members in recent days have been circulating a letter to party leaders asking them to establish a panel to review the selection and endorsement process “to ensure it is fair, democratic and prevents even the appearance of any conflicts of interest.”

Nancy Kleinberg, a committee member who’s helped circulate the petition, said she hopes it will “provide a unified voice for Montco Democrats to advocate for a more open, transparent and democratic endorsement process.”

“I am proud of our ability to embrace positive change so we can continue to fight for important issues,” she said.

Dozens of committee members have signed the letter — including Salus. “I do want us to collectively think through what the format of that effort looks like,” he wrote in a May 15 email to the party’s executive committee that was reviewed by The Inquirer.

Regarding the complaint against Keller, he added in the email that the party was “obligated to undertake an investigation” but that he’s “not recommending her removal from any position.”

The party was scheduled to hold an event aimed at promoting unity Friday evening at Von C Brewing in Norristown.

“Our party is a dynamic and growing organization and I am committed to continuing to reassess our processes as we move forward,” Salus told The Inquirer. “This will be an ongoing effort to adapt and change in keeping with the input our members have provided.”