When former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial begins in the Senate today, two of the people at the center of the action will have a common connection: Montgomery County, Pa.
Impeachment manager Madeleine Dean, a congressional Democrat, will try to make the case that Trump directly incited violence at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. Trump attorney Bruce Castor Jr., the Republican former county district attorney and commissioner, will argue that Trump can’t be convicted because he has already left office.
Although it’s a coincidence that they’re playing opposing roles in the impeachment, Castor and Dean’s joint presence is symbolic — both of the outsize presence that counties like Montgomery have come to have in national politics, and of the changing fortunes of their respective political parties.
Marcel Groen, the Montgomery County-based former head of the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, puts the significance simply: “We’re almost like the center of the universe.”
For many years, Montgomery County was a Republican stronghold in a key swing state. Although Democrats’ electoral chances improved steadily beginning in the mid-1990s, Republicans continued to dominate local and countywide elections until the 2010s.
The GOP has been almost entirely shut out in recent years, however. In the 2020 presidential election, the county delivered more Democratic votes than almost anywhere else in Pennsylvania.
It was in the middle of this decades-long transition that both Dean and Castor came on the scene.
Described as smart and ambitious by both his friends and political enemies, Castor, 59, dreamed of using county politics as a springboard to become state attorney general and eventually, governor.
Instead, the worsening electoral odds for suburban Republicans and his personal reputation for infighting kept him stuck in his home county, in a minority role, before he left politics for private legal practice.
Castor began his political career as Montgomery County district attorney in 2000. However, his 2005 decision not to prosecute Bill Cosby earned him public notoriety a decade later, after it landed him in the hot seat as a controversial witness in the case.
He ran unsuccessfully for state attorney general in 2004 but struggled through a combative primary that alienated him from many GOP power brokers. Four years later, he won a seat on the three-member county commissioners’ board. But Castor’s colleagues — one Republican and one Democrat — formed their own coalition and gave him the cold shoulder.
Asked about his political aspirations now, Castor says he has no desire to get back in the political game, despite rumors that he’d taken the impeachment job from Trump in order to boost his profile.
“I have had my lifetime fill of that,” he said. “I’m probably too plainspoken and too honest to be an elected official in statewide politics in Pennsylvania.”
Castor spoke from his car — a Corvette, he noted — while driving from Washington, D.C., to his Montgomery County home.
He sees his decision to defend the president as patriotic, not political. He said he would have done the same thing for Bill Clinton.
“If the president calls you and asks you to help, no matter who it is, you say, ‘Yes, sir, where do you want me and when?’ ” he said.
One the other side of the impeachment trial is Dean, whose political trajectory has been virtually the opposite of Castor’s. The 61-year-old is in her second congressional term — one of the newest members appointed as an impeachment manager.
Dean came to elected office relatively late in life after careers as a lawyer and then as an English professor. A longtime political volunteer, she didn’t run for office herself until 2011, when she was elected commissioner in her home township, Abington.
In 2018, she was part of a wave of newly elected female Democratic representatives that gave Pennsylvania equal partisan representation in a delegation that had been dominated by Republicans.
Dean and the other eight impeachment managers are barred from talking about the proceeding before it begins, and she wasn’t available for an interview.
State Rep. Mary Jo Daley, another Montgomery County Democrat, who’s close to Dean, said she’s not surprised to see her former colleague rise to such a prominent role.
“She’s a really hard worker and she does her homework,” Daley said. “She’s always prepared, she’s a very good speaker, and she’s serious.”