November 2007

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Ruth Damsker and running mate Joe Hoeffel.
In Their Own Words

Interview with Commissioner Ruth Damsker
Montgomery Couny Commissioner.

-- Alan Tuttle

Ruth Damsker is an incumbent Montgomery County Commissioner, having been first elected in 1999. Damsker was reelected in 2003, and is running again this year with fellow Democrat Joe Hoeffel. She previously served as Cheltenham Township’s Finance Officer and Township Controller. Damsker also was Vice-President of the Eastern Montgomery County Jewish Community Relations Council.

PJV: Probably most readers are aware of their township representative and their state and national representatives. County politics may not be as visible. Why should voters care about this county race? How do the results affect voters?

The resident voters care about the county race, even though, as we are told over and over, most people simply do not understand this level of government. But the county along with your local officials has a large impact on everybody’s individual lives. What we do in the county, we have a half-billion dollar budget, and with half of our budget we provide all of the social services throughout Montgomery County. We serve over 100,000 residents for aging adult services, children and youth, mental health, mental retardation, drug and alcohol, and the county also runs a 460-bed skilled nursing facility. And these are the types of services that are generally pass-through dollars from the federal and state governments, but the county provides these services. And it makes a huge difference in the election, because there has been in Montgomery County, one party rule for 126 years.

Joe Hoeffel, a former Congressman who has federal, state and local experience, is running with me, we’re running as a team, to really improve and make a difference in people’s lives. Not only through human services, but also through quality-of-life issues, whether it would be improving our open-space program throughout the county and be more aggressive – one of things is, we are a big county, we have big challenges and we need to act like a big county and we need to be aggressive. We do not want to continue the status quo. Joe Hoeffel and I have a vision to change things here in Montgomery County.

One more point about the importance of this election: ’07 will have a huge impact on ’08. Montgomery County is the 3rd largest county in Pennsylvania. By turning Montgomery County Blue, it will have a big impact on the state and in making Pennsylvania Blue and electing a Democratic President in 2008.

PJV: The influence of partisan politics on government is getting press these days, witness the hearings to confirm a new U.S. Attorney General after the Alberto Gonzales political influence flap. Does this come into play in the race for County Commissioner?

It comes into play for this election in ’07, because we are electing a new district attorney, and the current district attorney’s office is very political – it’s almost like a political farm-team. A lot of assistant district attorneys run for office and there appears to be, just recently, in the last several months, there was alleged that a county employee who worked in the district attorney’s office was doing political fundraising during county work time. So it has been very political office, our current district attorney’s office. I think there are some comparisons to the Alberto Gonzales situation in Washington.

PJV: I know that you have mentioned transparency as an important issue. How is that the case in this race?

Yes, Joe and I want to reform county government to have an open, transparent government. And Joe and I have addressed concerns that the contracting is not an open, competitive process here in Montgomery County. There are several examples that have occurred this year. We need to look at best practices in our procurement office, that needs to be addressed.

PJV: The current County Commissioners hired a lobbying firm which was founded by and still employees the current County Republican Party chair, Ken Davis, to lobby on behalf of the county. Did you support this, and if so, why?

The two Republican Commissioners several years ago wanted to hire a lobbying firm. I was not anxious to hire any lobbying firm. I felt that your elected officials are elected to work with your state delegation and we should be lobbying on behalf of our residents. However, I knew they were determined to hire a lobbying firm, and additionally, the lobbying firm that I did vote for, which is the firm that you are talking about, at that time it was not the same firm that it is today. Ken Davis was not Chair of the Republican Party when I voted for it. And also, the two other firms they were proferring did not have a Democratic lobbyist part of the firm, so I thought it was important with a Democratic governor that there should be a bipartisan lobbying firm, and this particular firm, of the three that we were choosing from, was the only one that had a bipartisan participation.

Now, once Ken Davis was elected, I felt it was inappropriate for us, and I requested that we do a new request for proposal, and choose a new lobbying firm.

PJV: How does your serving as a Director of the Jewish Social Policy Action Network relate to your work as County Commissioner?

Well, I’m very proud to be one of the founding board members of JSPAN. Previously, I had been involved with American Jewish Congress, and several board members had made the decision to begin a new, progressive organization. And I am very pleased to have been asked to be a part of that board. And being an elected official, I was interested in becoming a county commissioner to do public service. You know, making a difference in people’s lives is something that is part of my upbringing as far as tikkun olam, to repair the world, so you see, between my volunteer work and JSPAN, being part of the progressive Jewish community and helping others, is parallel with my interest in running as an elected official and providing services and helping to improve quality of life for all of our residents.

PJV: Were there any defining moments or people that moved you in that direction?

Well, my family –- my father, my parents. Growing up, I was a member of Adath Jeshurin Congregation, and we always had family discussions about politics and what was going on. I am a social worker by background and I worked in medical social work for several years, and I was active in my synagogue. When I was home several years raising my four children, I was a volunteer in my community, in my synagogue as well as in the community. I was involved with the American Cancer Society, and several schools; for a while I was very active in the PTO. I’ve always been involved in my community, and that is because I feel it is my responsibility to give back to our community.

PJV: You had mentioned that you and Joe Hoeffel have a vision for the county in terms of the challenges, can you give more detail about that and what you are hoping to accomplish?

One of the areas that I had spoken about is the human services and my involvement in the human services. I spearheaded a collaborative board for all the different agencies in the county which were individual silos, so the importance of working together to improve human services was to have a collaborative effort to improve the delivery of human services. That is our family [supports] objective, which will be a very important aspect, a high priority.

Another priority is the quality of life issues, which are the open-space program and farm preservation, attacking sprawl. An aspect of that would be economic development, which is actually a separate entity unto itself, which would be working to help revitalize our older boroughs, including obviously, Norristown, our county seat, which would be one of our highest priorities. But it would also include Ambler, Lansdale, and Jenkintown –- all the older boroughs and smaller communities. There needs to be an investment made and we have come up with a new, innovative idea of having a fund, a $50 million fund called "Grow Montco," which would be funded either through borrowing or using some of our fund balance that right now we have at 19% fund balance; in order to keep our AAA bond rating we are only required to have a 10% balance, so we would like to see some of those dollars turned back to the taxpayers in tax reduction, as well as possibly using some of those dollars along with borrowing to create this $50 million economic fund that would be used to jump-start transportation improvements, for intersectional improvements, as well as working with the private sector in order to bring them back into the older developed communities.

Part of our quality of life issues would be our environmental plan, and we would have an environmental policy coordinator as well as establish a Commissioners’ Environmental Council, that we would also develop. By the way, we were endorsed by the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action, as well as being endorsed by Planned Parenthood, the Business and Professional Women’s state organization, and I’ve been endorsed by Emily’s list.

One of the areas of reform is with ethics. After we took office in 2000, Jim Matthews and Mike Marino gutted a portion of the ethics code in the handbook, and that enabled personnel to be politically active. They rescinded that, and that enabled them to be politically active, instead of initially, it banned political activity. And that’s one of the first things, I think we need higher standards of government, that’s one of the first things that Joe and I would like to do after we begin a new administration, it would be to reinstate the ethics code.

Previous Interviews

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