I. Reviving a two-party system: ‘The Republican name is an enormous albatross.’
No one argues that a failing Republican Party is bad, and everyone has their own thoughts on why it’s bad.
“One-party rule is dangerous. The best policy comes when compromise is required,” said former Mayor Street. “I don’t think they’re nurturing young people.”
It is safe to assume urban demographic changes, coupled with its own corrupt machine past, knocked the Republican Party off its century of control, and most tend to agree with Street that the city’s GOP has since failed in recruiting young talent.
If we look back at the city’s three most competitive elections since the 1950s, sagging Republican registrations has also proved a worsening obstacle. In 1967, when Arlen Specter ran as a Republican, nearly 40 percent of voters were Republican. For Rizzo’s fight against Goode in 1987, it was less than a quarter, and in 1999, just less than one in five voters were Republicans. Of course, it is getting even worse, as about 15 percent of voters were Republicans for the 2007 mayoral election (Committee of Seventy).
In a draining pool, the Philadelphia Republican delegation to Harrisburg is arguably the largest fish for the city’s GOP. The current Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, Denny O’Brien, and his predecessor, John Perzel, are both Philadelphia Republicans, as previously noted.
“I don’t know if they have ever spoken for or were thought to be speaking for Philadelphia,” said Miller, the St. Joseph’s professor.
Rep. George Kenney, who is retiring, is the newest addition to the Philadelphia Republican state legislators, having been elected in 1984, which means the city’s GOP has had no significant successes for more than 20 years.
“Too many think Michael and Vito don’t take seriously winning elections. If it’s true, it doesn’t matter,” said Katz, of the city’s Republican committee leadership. “The Republican name is an enormous albatross.’
II. Nonpartisan elections: ‘Poorly educated… ignore elections without party representation.’
Some in urban political spheres think withdrawing party affiliation altogether is the best way to create a healthy political process among diverse populations. Phoenix, Seattle, Houston and New Orleans have all done so. All have had candidates in recent years who could be described as Republican-like, if current Mayor Ray Nagin’s business leanings and social conservatism could be counted for the Big Easy. Still, many academics reject the notion.
“Nonpartisan elections were devised to reduce turnout, which it does at the expense of already underrepresented voters,” said Kaufmann, the University of Maryland politics professor. “Nonpartisan elections are detrimental to minority voters… The poorly educated are the first to ignore elections without party representation.”
Some Philadelphia Democrats recognize that and perhaps see it as a threat to their hegemony, as at least a segment of their voter base is poor, uneducated and black.
“To have nonpartisan elections, well, most Democrats would be against it. It would be just to compensate for the Republican Party,” said former Mayor Street. “For African-Americans, it would dilute power. I would question the motives behind it.”
Still, those who have faced the daunting challenge of a Republican title in Philadelphia might be more open and question the academic response.
“Nonpartisan elections are something we ought to look at,” said Ellen Kaplan, who was Katz’s issues director in 1999. “I don’t think it’s healthy to have just one party. That is what dissuades people from getting involved.”
But Katz himself thinks the process makes the idea not worth pursuing anyway, as he wrote in an e-mail April 7, 2008.
As a practical matter, election law is controlled by the state, i.e. the legislature. Those laws are made by incumbents. The state has very few legislative and senate districts that are generally considered to be “in play.” So getting members of the House and Senate to vote for a system that would put their renomination at greater risk by enabling people outside of the party that nominated them to have a voice isn’t something we’re likely to see anytime soon. Pursuing it as a political agenda item, would, in my view, be a waste of time and energy.
Even Meehan, the embattled Republican general counsel, dismissed the idea.
“Philadelphia would be worse off with nonpartisan elections,” he said.
Similarly, Kevin Kelly, the Republican reformer, rejected the notion as meaningless.
“Two sides mean harmony. There will always be two strata, whether you have names for them or not,” he said. “Those on the left think people are basically good… I think people are basically flawed. Nonpartisan elections will still always boil down to those two camps.”
III. Fighting the Republican name: ‘never walked the walk’
Dave Glancey, a lifetime Democrat and former city chairman, has some advice.
“You can build bottom up, but sometimes you got to go big. Invite a big name, the biggest start they can who can collect the most money, run him and build your party underneath that,” Glancey suggested. “I remember writing to Julius Erving, just to let him know the Democrats in this city could find a spot for him. They simply haven’t recruited.”
Tom Gola, the former basketball star turned successful running mate of Arlen Specter, comes to mind as an example from the past. But, recruiting itself is likely difficult in Philadelphia today. It may be a case of the GOP being unable to recruit because they didn’t recruit.
“Right now, you can’t say who Republicans are in this city, what they are, where they are, why they are,” said Miller of St. Joseph’s. “So we put national politics on them, which will only fail them, particularly in black and young progressive communities.”
Many say it begins with standing for something.
“The Republicans have never walked the walk of reform,” said Davies of the Daily News. “When they have gotten power it has been a disappointment.”
Davies cited their electing Milton Street – brother of then-Democratic Mayor John Street – to the city’s traffic court, after he served as a Republican state senator in the early 1980s, after he served as a Democratic state representative in the 1970s. Their waffling on Street and his personal action is an example of the city’s GOP failing to serve as a source of reform, Davies said.
“He was an utter buffoon,” Davies said of Milton. “It just shows that they were patronage grubbing hacks.
“In the 1980s, there was a real nucleus in the Republican Party. Denny O’Brien, George Kenney, John Taylor, John Perzel in the Northeast, and Chris Wolgan.”
But their work is seen as having been done more in Harrisburg than Philadelphia.
“Republicans here are geared to leadership in Harrisburg,” said Goldsmith, the former managing director. “They take positions on issues that are not aligned with their constituents in Philadelphia.”
The city’s Republican delegation to the state Capitol is largely seen as moderate or too left-leaning in Harrisburg, Goldsmith said, but too conservative in Philadelphia, beyond their representative districts. Michael Meehan sees it differently.
“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,” Meehan said, waving out over the city through the large window of his 22nd floor Wolf Block office. He also mentioned federal money for highway renovation and maintenance.
“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,” Meehan said. “You could get nothing done for the City of Philadelphia without Republicans.”
IV. Changes in Philadelphia: ‘the GOP… has to offer a big tent.’
“This is a city that has changed since the 1980s. Maybe the Republicans haven’t,” said Ferrick of the Inquirer. “Right now having an ‘R’ next to your name is a liability here.”
Kevin Kelly created a 35-page platform of reform for the city’s GOP and circulated it among the party’s leaders. In it Kelly reiterates he has no desire to blame individuals but rather find solutions, however it reads like an indictment of current party leadership, listing broad concerns like “Qualified and electable citizens will not run for office as a Republican,” and more specific worries like “[Approximately] 10 wards currently have no Ward Leader.” The platform includes suggestions like appointing an official spokesman and creating a policy committee.
“The lack of an overall strategy,” Kelly writes, “combined with outdated tactics are the primary reasons for the past failure of the Philadelphia GOP.”
While it comes in no direct missive, Kelly is calling for new leadership.
“It’s way overdue,” he said.
“The trouble in Philadelphia is that the folks who control things think it’s not in the party’s interest to compete,” said Brett Mandel, the leader of the tax reform group. “There is no reason to put up good candidates. The alternative is true.”
If the party is to develop, it seems clear they will need to attract one of the city’s largest, least tested voting blocs: black Philadelphia, a diverse community of more than 448,000 residents at least 18-years-old. As our continued review of the city’s four, broad voting groups have shown, the other three – Republicans, reform liberals and white ethnics – have been explored. Black voters, by wide and by large, have not.
“Really, it is the GOP that has to offer a big tent in local politics,” said Myers, of the Tribune. “I think the African-American vote could be splintered. There are socially conservative, religious segments to the black voting bloc who could be won by the party’s national platform and could be lured if city Republicans adequately portrayed themselves as possessors of change from their Democrat counterparts.”
As promised earlier, it is important to note where Frank Rizzo failed in 1987 – an issue of a small tent. By Prof. Karen Kaufmann’s analysis in The Urban Voter, a Republican in a Democratic city – like Rizzo in Philadelphia – should have benefited from the racial polarization of the city’s first black mayor overseeing government during the MOVE debacle. But, Rizzo tied his candidacy to the two groups from our voting blocs that were declining the most in the 1980s: Republicans and white ethnics, or lunch-pail Democrats, his Rizzocrats.
Privileged communities of the far northwest and Center City still hold liberal progressives, and North Philadelphia and West Philadelphia still hold large black communities. So, the lesson Rizzo learned then is one Republicans of today can learn.
What Philadelphia’s population will be for the next census in 2010 is, of course, yet to be determined. By all accounts, cities in general and Philadelphia specifically seem to be turning a corner, but how quickly that corner can be turned is likewise unknown. Between the 2000 census and a 2006 projection that will be used for the count in 2010, Philadelphia still lost 60,000 people, nearly as many lost between 1990 and 2000 (U.S. Census). Still, as early as 2006, a real estate report in the New York Times reported the end of urban decline in Center City.
Center City’s population grew to 88,000 by the end of 2005 from 78,000 in 2000. Even more striking, the number of households rose by 24 percent, according to figures compiled by the Center City District, a business-improvement group (Chamberlain 2006).
Population booms traditionally grow out of a city’s core. So, the first voting bloc to grow are the wealthier liberal progressives who can afford Center City condos – a population that ignored Rizzo is growing still. So, in different circumstances, Sam Katz in 2003 should have been better supported than in 1999, and certainly a better candidate than Frank Rizzo, whose two primary voting groups in 1987, as previously noted, were Republicans and his white-ethnic base, the two groups that are not yet returning to Philadelphia.
The black vote is too strong today for the Rizzo-style racial politics of the past. Though, as previously discussed, the city’s Northwest Alliance is fractured, the black vote remains viable and connected enough to require Republicans to make modest gains if they will ever succeed. A judgment needs to be made by the city’s GOP on whether the Center City population boom is sufficient enough to racially polarize the electorate and win liberal progressives or whether the Republicans can win over enough black voters. Some might point to the 1987 mayoral election as an example of liberal progressives neglecting to vote race over party identification, but Rizzo’s stature in Philadelphia politics likely complicates that analysis.
As mentioned in discussing the 2003 election between Street and Katz, national politics can play an enormous role. In the political climate of the 2008 U.S. Presidential election, the Republican name remains tarnished, in both black and liberal progressive communities.
Further related lessons can be learned from that 2003 election. Despite a rematch between a black Democrat and a white Republican, race was not as overt an issue in their first campaign as in the latter. During the election, Street was criticized for a 2002 speech to the NAACP during which, in noting its black mayor, black managing director, black fire commissioner, and black police commissioner, he gloated that “the brothers and sisters are running the city. We are in charge.” Also, though Katz distanced himself and denied authorizing the mailing, he was criticized for “race baiting” after the Republican City Committee urged white voters to help Katz “take back Philly” (Kraus 2005).
Of course, the act helped alienate black voters and liberal progressives, more likely to identify with causes. Kaufmann’s analysis would point to 1999 as a prime example of racial politics persuading white voters to identify with a white candidate, but Street’s past in Philadelphia politics and Katz’s connections to the liberal progressive community could carry more weight. That is although the racial politics displayed in the 2003 Katz campaign – largely forgotten because of “the bug” – may increase turnout and support from lesser educated, working class whites – the ethnic Democrats from our voting groups – they, as noted above, motivate blacks and liberal progressives to rally against what can be perceived as bigotry.
So, while in national and some state campaigning, Republicans can benefit from a racialized electorate, like Rizzo in 1987, the Philadelphia Republican City Committee would only be attracting registered Republicans and white ethnics, two of the smaller voting blocs. As Mayes, the Tribune reporter put it, city Republicans need to offer a big tent, finding commonality in issues – like business-first policy and budgetary discretion – rather than the racial politics and patronage that may have worked in the past and may work elsewhere today.
“A black [Republican] candidate, I think, would make things interesting,” Ferrick said. “[New Democratic Mayor Michael] Nutter was derided as the white candidate. Did he get the black vote because he was black, because he was a Democrat, because he was always going to win, or because he was the best candidate for the job?”
No one, Ferrick included, can know for now.
V. How to win an election and build a party: ‘If the Democrats get too fat, too happy.’
The title of Kevin Kelly’s platform is “Rebuilding a Majority,” rebuilding a Republican power share that has been limping since the first Eisenhower administration. There is no avoiding the reality that the city’s GOP needs to build its party.
“It starts at the lowest level, on school boards and neighborhood blocks,” said Miller of St. Joseph’s. “Republicans have not worked hard on the nitty gritty parts of local politics.”
Look to the lessons of past narrow mayoral elections, as discussed above, Philadelphia Republicans must recognize that the largest single voting bloc from our four groups is, though diverse in its own right, the black voting bloc, also the most evasive for Republicans. Nearly 10 percent of black adults are under some form of correctional supervision and thusly disenfranchised – a wildly disproportionate number considering just two percent of white adults are in the same situation (DOJ). Even accounting for a slightly higher rate among black Philadelphians would still would leave more than 400,000 blacks of voting age.
If national elections are becoming increasingly candidate-driven, local parties need to adopt a stronger, clearer message or become an increasingly open tent for candidates who can attract different voting blocs.
Still, as Dave Glancey suggested, the Republicans could use a star. Athletes, like Tom Gola – the basketball star who became city controller as a Republican in the 1960s – gain notoriety without having to expend political capital. So, while Sam Katz is a household name in Philadelphia through defeat, Gola did the same through victory. It does not matter in what venue those victories or defeats came. Katz, although a worthy candidate by any and all accounts, has used up his political capital with a struggling minority party.
Other big names, like the city’s Republican delegation to Harrisburg have never made in-roads in Philadelphia beyond their Northeast communities. O’Brien, Perzel and Kenney – their relative power in the state capital aside – are not viable options because, to anyone beyond Holmesburg or Fox Chase, they are relative unknowns. Instead, since Philadelphia is particularly familiar with political machines, the Republicans could learn lessons from the Democrats of the 1950s.
“If the Democrats get too fat, too happy. If the demographics really changed, more affluent people kept moving into Center City. The more educated might not only vote for Democrats. New folks won’t all vote ‘D,” said Mandel. That sounds eerily similar to the Republicans of post-World War II Philadelphia. Mandel added: “You’d need a polarizing Democrat with a scandal”
So, improving fiscal promise for Philadelphia, which could attract more affluent and, perhaps eventually, middle-class families, might actually help Republicans – though they must be wary that the Democratic regime would be credited with ushering in a Philadelphia renaissance that may be growing. A city with populations beyond resistant blacks and progressive whites and a Democratic mayoral scandal – most often charges of corruption in Philadelphia – could be the opportunity.
It is important to remember that Joseph Clark’s triumphant victory came not against Bernard Samuel, the well-liked Republican mayor who was suddenly ousted as the GOP candidate because of a change in the city charter. Clark beat an under prepared, less known contender. Incumbency was not a factor, so previous years of corruption allegations surfaced.
To the credit of the Democrats, though, they had been building for years. As discussed earlier, Clark became City Controller and Richardson Dilworth was elected City Treasurer in 1949. A year later, Dilworth ran unsuccessfully for governor, but his name recognition soared. They leveraged elections and waited for an opportunity. That opportunity came in 1951 when Samuel was ineligible to run and the Republicans replaced him with a machine candidate. The Democrats were ready. The Republicans of today are simply unprepared to benefit from Democratic failures or other such opportunities.
“Mayors, to be successful, they have to be lucky,” said Miller. “One bad snowstorm, a crack in the pipes. Just look at the stuff under these streets. If they go, an entire administration might be ruined. Mayors can’t really control the economy, they have no way to fight a national recession… What Republican is going to step in and take over for a disaster like that?”