This afternoon I was privileged enough to speak with Sam Katz, one of the most successful Republican politicians in Philadelphia in the last half century. Nothing speaks more to the party’s struggles here than the truth of that statement and the realization that Katz has never won a major public office.
It also is important to say that Katz spent much of his life as a registered Democrat and registered as an Independent in May 2007, to retain the possibility of running outside the two-party structure. In the end, he found Michael Nutter a palatable enough candidate to not run at all.
Still, in 1991, 1999 and 2003, he was considered a respectable Republican contender in a city that rarely considers the non-Democrat at all, set aside considering them somewhat palatable. But, Katz grabbed a handful of meaningful endorsements, including former Democratic mayoral candidates Happy Fernandez and John White Jr. in 1999 and former Street confidant Carl Singley in 2003.
There were two topics I wanted most to address with Katz, his general thoughts on the reality of a two-party system in Philadelphia and if nonpartisan elections could add a more competitive element to city-wide elections.
On the first point, he made a distinction between a Republican candidate winning an election and the Republican Party sustaining. Transcription of the interview to follow, but, to paraphrase, Katz said he could easily see another Republican candidate like himself finding the opportunity to squeeze past the Democratic machine, but the likelihood of a sustaining loyal opposition from the city’s GOP is far less likely.
On nonpartisan elections, he told me hadn’t given it much thought, beyond mentioning it felt like it was a process that would require more work than it merited. Interview transcription to follow.
Katz had a number of other interesting thoughts, particularly on what a two-party system even means in Philadelphia. I noted how during my interview with John Street, who beat him out twice to be mayor, Street contended that Katz was, by most standards, more liberal than he, about which Katz agreed. What then, does a viable party in this city mean, when it is an ‘urban Republican’ set, as the party’s General Counsel Michael Meehan called it during our interview on Tuesday.
Still, we are stuck on a national model of Democrats and Republicans, so that is what we expect, and, in that way, Katz remains one of the GOP’s biggest fish, if not the largest, in this small conservative pond.
Indeed, the Philadelphia Republican Party might be one of a few places where a candidate who has every election in which he has participated still carries enormous political capital. Of course, there is no questioning why; in 2003 he got within 9,000 votes of City Hall, the closest match in Philadelphia mayoral history. To show the weight he still carries, see below, where David Oh, a Republican candidate for an at-large City Council bid, used a Katz endorsement.