Interview: Michael Meehan, Republican City Committee general counsel

This afternoon I got the chance to slide into a seat in the office of Michael Meehan. He’s still unpacking.

The general counsel of Philadelphia’s Republican City Committee left the Philadelphia offices of Reed Smith for Wolf Block back in January 2006, as reported by the Legal Intelligencer.

This was perhaps the interview to which I most looked forward.

So many of many of the other people to whom I’ve spoken have pointed to Meehan for answers as to why the city’s Republican Party continues to shrivel and die. He has big shoes to fill.

His grandfather, Austin Meehan, first took control of the city’s powerful Republican machine in the first half of the 20th-century. Meehan first brought about the city’s Republican Northeast focus, beating out other Republican machinists, guys like the Vere Brothers in South Philadelphia and the Hawthorne brothers in Roxborough, as I discussed after my interview with former Committee of Seventy CEO Fred Voigt.

Michael Meehan’s father, Bill Meehan, who ruled the Republican Party until his death in 1994, was also known as a great leader, though it was under his tenure that the city’s GOP first developed a strained existence. David B. Glancey, who was Bill Meehan’s rival as the city’s Democratic Party chairman from December 1979 to 1983, told me during an interview in December that he had nothing but respect for Bill Meehan.

He was the man behind the curtain. His currency was his word. But, of course, he expected it back from everyone.”

While Bill Meehan faced the highest rate of white flight and racial conflict, Michael Meehan has struggled to make an impact in his 14 years as general counsel and de facto city Republican chief. Though he was always involved, he is largely the scapegoat for the party’s most recent failings.

Undeniably, though, there is no one more representative of Philadelphia’s Republican Party than he, for better or worse. He has been there from his own beginning.

I can remember driving in my father’s station wagon as a child, taking people from the neighborhood to vote.”

When I got to his office, Meehan welcomed me warmly, and I was interested to learn we’d be joined by Al Schmidt, who was made deputy director of the party back in the summer. Schmidt didn’t say much, but I got the clear impression he deferred to Meehan on every matter, in a seemingly reverential manner.

After formalities, I wasted little time in asking Meehan to defend his party’s struggles under his leadership.

To get things done, we need friends in Washington and Harrisburg. In a state like Pennsylvania, there are those who are running against the city. We’re criticized for regionalism, but the convention center, the stadiums, the Republicans made that happen… We get 18 percent of state money for schools, but we have just 12 percent of the kids… The Republicans created the School Reform Commission… You could get nothing done for the City of Philadelphia without Republicans.”

There will be more of Meehan in my final paper.

I was left with many of the impressions one might expect. He is undeniably likable, more affable than what I might normally associate with a big city attorney. Still, one can see he doesn’t exert the kind of expert charisma one might expect of the leader of a major party in a major city. (Though, to be fair, Bob Brady, Meehan’s Democratic counterpart, doesn’t exactly always scream charm in the public light).

While I thought he seemed a genuine man, he didn’t seem to summon a rallying nature, nor did he convince me of his being a great strategist, beyond having family ties to the role.

That said, he was nothing but welcome and forthright and, as he said, his work has, without question, benefited the City of Philadelphia in many ways.

No surprise considering the man is pure Philly. Though he twice avoided mentioning what particular neighborhood, the Meehan family has been a Northeast entity since at least the 1950s. He is on the board of St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls, on Torresdale Avenue near Cottman in Mayfair.

“Now I live three or four houses down from where I was born,” he said.

Meehan got his law degree from Widener University and his undergraduate degree from Villanova.

Republican Elephant

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