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Gale Force in Montgomery County Politics

A brash, 20-something upstart has taken Montgomery County politics by storm. How Joe Gale, a Trump Republican, suddenly became one of the most powerful people in the county.

Joseph Kaczmarek
Joe Gale, a 27-year-old Republican Montgomery County Commissioner

A couple months into last year's ugly primary election campaign for Montgomery County commissioner, Joe Gale took his mother to a stump speech at Valley Forge Baptist Church in Phoenixville.

It was the first time Roseanne Gale went on the trail to watch her son speak. Joe Gale was in the midst of taking on the county's Republican establishment. The political mud-slinging had begun, and its effects dug into the tight Gale clan.

"I was getting mad. I was sad. And I was tired from helping with the campaign," Roseanne said last week, tearing up at the memory from April 19, 2015. "As I watched Joe speaking before a packed church, Valley Forge is very conservative, I saw Joe and he was skinny as a rail. Tears were coming down my face."

But what she heard that day astounded her as Joe made a rousing pitch to the church members. Maybe her son -- only 26 at the time -- really could pull off a major upset and become county commissioner.

"I said to myself, 'It looks like Joe. But who is this?'" Roseanne Gale, a retired reading specialist, said. "He was amazing. By the end, the people loved him."

Fourteen months later, Joe Gale is a 27-year-old Republican Montgomery County Commissioner, one of three elected officials charged with overseeing 3,200 employees and a $390 million budget in Pennsylvania's third-most populous county. He picked off one of the two GOP-endorsed candidates in the May primary, then beat the other in the November general election.

How did a 20-something who lives with his parents in the Plymouth Meeting house he grew up in pull off one of the most surprising election victories in memory?

He credits a wave of anti-establishment disdain among the county's electorate as a big part of his winning calculus.

"My race was a microcosm of what's happening on the national scene now," he said, alluding to Donald Trump's stunning rise to Republican nominee for president, and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' enduring influence on the Democratic presidential primary. "You have to remember there was no Donald Trump yet."

But Gale is also brash and confident, traits that helped propel him along even in his darkest moments last year. And if he doesn't play the game the way the county's GOP elite would like him to, he at least looks the part. He's young and clean-cut, to the point that one wonders if he has even needed to buy a razor. His tie collection is growing stronger by the day, and he wears a collared shirt well -- and all the time.

Joe Gale shows off a signature Donald Trump campaign hat in his office.
Photo credit: Brian X. McCrone

He wants to be the loudest conservative voice in southeastern Pennsylvania.

He also describes himself as the first politician in Pennsylvania to endorse Trump.

"I'm very confident Donald Trump will be the next president," he said.

He is the lone Republican on Montgomery County's three-member board of commissioners. Democrats Josh Shapiro and Valerie Arkoosh fill out the governing body.

As Shapiro is trying to prove in his current campaign for state attorney general -- and other commissioners before him who have run for elected offices including governor -- the title of Montgomery County commissioner can catapult political careers.

Gale doesn't have his eye on any higher office just yet. For now, he's happy with his commissioner post.

And why wouldn't he be? By his own estimate, Gale is the second highest-ranking Republican in Pennsylvania, behind U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey.

His math is simple: He represents Montgomery County, which at 812,000 residents, is the third-largest in the state. That's a larger constituency than any Harrisburg lawmaker, any U.S. representative from Pennsylvania and, if divided by locally elected officials, any lawmakers in Allegheny or Philadelphia counties.

His political arithmetic aside, Gale faces immediate obstacles before he can begin pondering his long-term, higher office viability: mending fences with his own party, working with Shapiro and Arkoosh to shape the county's future, and finding his own home.

The first two are political concerns. The third is something every 20-something eventually faces.

Joe Gale's mother, Roseanne, dishes out pasta at the family dinner table to the Montgomery County Commissioner and his girlfriend, Danielle Battaglia.
Photo credit: Joseph Kaczmarek

'Everyone Told Me I Couldn't Win'

Gale hasn't always lived with his parents. For a couple years between graduating from Temple University and running for commissioner, he lived in an apartment in Lansdale. He worked as a loan specialist for NVR Homes.

He planned on buying a home with the help of his company's discounts, and thought the opportunity was nearing.

But along came running for commissioner.

Photo credit: Joseph Kaczmarek

Joe and his young brother Sean came up with the idea one evening with a few confidants. Sean, who would eventually become campaign manager despite attending Villanova Law School (he graduated last month), crunched the numbers and thought victory was possible, maybe.

"I wasn't planning on running, but the party put up two candidates I thought were flawed," he said of the party-endorsed slate.

In the May primary last year, Gale came in second among a trio of Republicans running for two spots on the general election ballot. He beat out Scott Zelov by 1,000, but finished 3,000 votes behind Stephen Tolbert Jr.

With Democrats Shapiro and Arkoosh expected to ride higher Democratic voter numbers to victory in November, Gale and Tolbert Jr. were battling for one spot.

Gale knocked on thousands of doors, and with the help of a small inner circle of four longtime friends, including his brother, he beat out the second of the two party candidates.

"Everyone told me I couldn't win without the party endorsement, but I brought excitement to the race," he said.

He loves to talk, if not so much brag, about his off-the-cuff speeches and his ability to relate to people he meets.

The Gale family during Easter in 1994
Photo credit: Gale Family Photo

"Joe can talk to anybody," his father, also Joe but not Sr., said. "It's what we taught our children: Shake everyone's hands. Look people in the eye. Hold a conversation. Don't give yes or no answers."

Joe and Roseanne Gale raised their children in a conservative household, one where politeness, etiquette and a love for John Wayne ruled. Joe Gale, the father, works as an engineer specializing in industrial ovens. He has to travel, but always yearns to return to his wife's dinner table, he stressed during an interview at that very table during a big Italian dinner Roseanne cooked for the family last week.

The parents and their children, including their daughter and Sean's twin sister, Katiemarie, talked family and politics over large portions of pasta with gravy and sweet and hot sausage, salad, and a dessert of cake with ice cream and strawberries.

Joe Gale's girlfriend of a year, Danielle Battaglia, also joined the mid-week dinner.

It becomes evident when speaking with the elder Joe Gale that despite his conservative approach to parenting, he didn't object to his son taking a risk with politics.

"When you're young, that's the time to take a risk," he said, sipping a Yuengling Lager as he sat in his living room.

Joe Gale
Photo credit: Joseph Kaczmarek

'I'm the Head of the Republican Party'

How does Joe Gale feel about the Montgomery County Republican Party now?

"They're useless," he said. "I don't need them."

They're useless. I don't need them.Joe Gale, GOP Montgomery Co. Commissioner, on county Republican Party

He said he has talked to Montgomery County GOP Chairman Bill Donnelly once since taking office in January, and he's not sure when he'll talk to Donnelly again.

"In reality, I'm head of the Republican Party," he said in an interview in early June. "I'm de facto head of the party here."

Donnelly, who became chairman this year, hopes Gale will eventually make peace with the party, despite what transpired during the race last year. At a November party dinner, a Republican committeeman yelled to Gale, "I'd like to slice your throat and rip your esophagus out," according to a Philly.com story titled "Commissioners race tears at Montco GOP."

"I'd welcome him back," Donnelly said in an interview last week. "We want new people and young people and he's a young Republican."

The rift between Gale and his party might be the most outward sign of a larger trend in Montgomery County, one Donnelly faces the tough task of reversing. When Shapiro was first elected in 2011 with fellow Democrat Leslie Richards, they formed the first Democratic majority on the county's governing body in a century. Registered Democrats now outnumber Republicans in the county 247,000 to 202,000.

Richards has since gone on to become Gov. Tom Wolf's Department of Transportation secretary. Arkoosh was appointed by the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas judges to fill her term.

Mending bridges with the party may aid Gale's long-term future in conservative politics, but when it comes to short-term results, he'll need to work closely with Democrats in county government, namely Shapiro -- while the Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania attorney general is still in Montgomery County, that is.

Joe Gale's brother, Sean, became his campaign manager. The two gained a reputation for their gadfly-like appearances at township and county meetings over the years.
Photo credit: Joseph Kaczmarek

The Chair Incident

"Let me start out by saying, I like Joe," is the way Shapiro began a conversation about Gale.

Shapiro knows a little about what it's like to be in Gale's suit. He first won elected office 12 years ago at 31. He served three terms in the Pennsylvania House before running successfully for county commissioner in 2011.

Shapiro's experience before public office, however, included stints as adviser for two U.S. representatives and a U.S. senator. Gale lacks prior work in legislative offices, but he and his brother Sean were known around the county for their gadfly-like appearances at township and county meetings.

"We became known as the Gale Bros," Sean Gale said proudly. "We loved to dissect the meetings, and the way things got done."

Josh Shapiro

While they differ ideologically, Shapiro said his early election success used the same game plan that Joe Gale employed.

"When I ran for state representative in 2004, no one gave me a shot to win. I went out and knocked on 18,000 doors. I appealed directly to the voters," Shapiro said. "No one gave him a shot to win and he took it directly to the people."

Shapiro also said he has tried to mentor Gale in the ways of holding public office, but that the young lawmaker still has some learning to do.

Shapiro bristled a bit when a reporter brought up a story that Gale seems to enjoy telling -- the chair incident.

It began when outgoing Commissioner Bruce Castor, another in a long line of big personalities on the county Board, took his chair with him as he left office in January.

Gale said the replacement chair he received was a "banged-up" version from the junk pile.

"I just got this chair Friday," Gale said June 2 during an interview in his office.

He said county workers in charge of the office initially replaced the banged-up version with a $500 deluxe model, then asked Gale to pay $350 to make up for the difference between the $150 budgeted allowance for a chair.

"I said take it back," Gale said. "It was ridiculous."

Shapiro declined to comment specifically about the chair incident, but denied that anyone purposefully gave Gale the runaround for months.

Moving Ahead - and Out

Gale's talking points since he entered the public realm -- anti-tax, pro-life -- place him firmly on the conservative right. But he hopes most to bring "common sense and moral character" to county politics.

"These are the two qualities we deserve in an elected official," he said.

Soon, he plans to buy a house and move out of his parents' house. For the time being, he's enjoying the free room-and-board. And he credits his improbable victory to the house, which served as unofficial campaign headquarters.

And he plans on spending a bit more time down the shore this summer than last year. His father, brother and he just got the family boat in the water after they spent a weekend painting its hull. The Gales have a waterfront bungalow near Atlantic City.

"It doesn't stop," he said of the meetings, as his brother and mother took turns telling of how many events Joe attended each week during the election year and in his first few months as commissioner. "But it should slow down a bit in the summer."

"That's what I really missed last year, the shore," he said. A moment later, he was again talking Montgomery County politics with his brother and father.

Do they talk politics on the boat?

"Yes. They always talk about this stuff," Katiemarie Gale said.