I. Philadelphia’s GOP machine: ‘The forces of evil were Republicans.’
From May 11, 1858 to Jan. 6, 1952, only three Democratic mayors led Philadelphia, less than a decade in a century of political rule. For 36 years, from January 1916 to 1952, not a single outside party broke a generation of Republican rule. Most interestingly is that Philadelphia’s century of Republican rule came during years of dominant Democratic parties in Boston, New York and Chicago, the political machines of greatest fame.
But something was building after the 1940s. Men returned from military service abroad and floods of blacks running from the Jim Crow South came to Philadelphia, and the city took on 140,000 new residents between the 1940 and 1950 census, better than 85 percent of whom were from the latter group (Philadelphia Historic Census). Citizens reasserted their attention on a contented ruling party.
“World War II ended, and then the forces of reform were Democrats,” said Voigt, Seventy‘s former executive director. “The forces of evil were Republicans.”
The foundation of our four voter groups was set in the years after the Second World War. Any sensible liberal progressive knew if local reform were to be had, it would naturally come from the Democrats because of the fat and contented local GOP. De-industrialization had not taken full hold to chase away ethnic Democrats and registered Republicans, but in the 1950s suburbanization began and the process was not slowed – and may have been accelerated – by the waves of Southern blacks, some of whom were already won over by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Democrats, flooding the major urban centers, like Philadelphia.
II. The Last Republican Mayor: Just old ‘Barney’
Republican Bernard Samuel joined City Council on Jan. 1, 1940. Upon the death of Republican Mayor Robert E. Lamberton, Samuel was made mayor on Aug. 22, 1941. He won reelection in 1943 and 1947 margins, better than 60,000 and 90,000 votes respectively (Mayoral Election Totals).
Samuel had a public persona that could be, at times, described as playful, from sliding a ball cap backwards and crouching into a catcher’s stance to pose with little leaguers in a June 1951 photograph for the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin to his insistence that he was just old “Barney” to his friends (Calpri 1951).
Still, Samuel, whose ten years, four months and sixteen days as mayor makes him the longest serving chief executive in Philadelphia history, exemplified a Republican hegemony that was overturned at the end of his term. Indeed, if his tenure in City Council – three months shy of 18 years – is included, Samuel enjoyed nearly three decades as one of the most powerful elected figures in Philadelphia.
When he moved into the mayor’s office – then room 204 of City Hall – after the death of Bob Lamberton, Samuel inherited a city in deep fiscal trouble, something not rare in Philadelphia history but daunting for a new mayor nonetheless. By many accounts, Samuel served the city well. By the time the 71-year-old, with a rounded double-chin and heavy circles under his eyes after a generation of public service, finally relinquished his office to Joseph Clark, Jr. with a warm handshake in January 1951, Samuel had given more than 5,000 speeches, actively overseen hundreds of construction projects, helped bring the Democratic National Convention to the city, and, most importantly, returned the city’s finances to the black, boasting a healthy surplus (Calpri 1951). That work didn’t much matter for his party.
In April 1951, Samuel’s control over the mayoral post was suddenly thrown into tumult. That month, reformers, including the Committee of Seventy, finally pushed through the Home Rule Charter of 1951. Passed on April 17, it prohibited a mayor from serving more than two consecutive terms for the first time in the city’s history (Home Rule Charter). The Republicans needed a new candidate, amid a series of citywide corruption scandals in the party.
Some of Samuel’s supporters did try to bring him back into the fold over the summer. A provision from 1885 that prevented a mayor from succeeding himself had been lifted in the late 1940s, allowing Samuel to be the first man to be reelected since William Stokley in the 1870s. Samuel supporters thought that if in just five years mayoral term limits had been changed twice, they could be amended again. They never were, because something was begun during Samuel’s last reelection campaign in 1947 (Erie 1988).
While he won handily, Samuel was opposed by a young lawyer who called for an ousting of the old guard. Richardson Dilworth lost to Bernard Samuel. But, in 1949, Dilworth was elected City Treasurer when Joseph Clark became City Controller, another young Democrat breaking through. Cracks in Republican power were showing. In 1950 Dilworth ran for Governor, also losing but, for the first time in more than 60 years, a Philadelphia Democrat was seen on the statewide scene. The Democrats in Philadelphia were gaining significant ground by leveraging small citywide offices and gaining name recognition even in defeat (Mayoral Election Totals).
So, when the Republicans chose a party man – Daniel A. Poling – they were severely outmatched by Clark, who beat Poling by more than 120,000 votes in the 1951 election with the help of a joint ticket with Dilworth, who captured the position of District Attorney. The pair became legends, and the Republicans suffered lesser defeats in the coming years.
White flight – including registered Republicans and many ethnic Democrats who could have been lured – launched to its height, and during the late 1950s and the 1960s, the Democrats became the party of inclusion, leaving little question for younger blacks which party was theirs. With fewer Republicans, the Democrats using the last vestiges of patronage – reformers or not – to further attract the working class, and Philadelphia’s growing black ghettos becoming exclusively the ground of Democrats, the Meehans and the rest of the city’s Republicans were rocked and rendered an afterthought. After a century of near complete control, Philadelphia’s GOP was dropped from the conversation in 10 years.
“They never learn and they never change,” began an editorial from the Inquirer calling for the end of the city’s “60 years of GOP boss rule” (Inquirer 1951). In endorsing Democrat Clark for mayor and Dilworth for district attorney in 1951, the Inquirer called Poling “the machine candidate for mayor.” An ugly attack, but it may not be as direct as Dilworth referring to Poling as “a prisoner of the corrupt Republican organization.”
The mayoral victory by Clark, who was succeeded by Dilworth, began a streak of 15 consecutive mayoral victories for the Democrats (Mayoral Election Totals).
Under this Democratic reign, Republicans have been beaten by nearly 1.5 million votes or by an average of 100,000 votes every fourth November. Only three Republican candidates have managed to lose by less than 50,000 votes in that time, while two were toppled by more than 200,000 votes, or by more than the populations of the state capitals of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland combined (Mayoral Election Totals).
III. Close elections since: ‘the lazy, lethargic Democratic machine’
There have been close mayoral contests since then, though, and it is important to touch each. Since that 1951 election, Philadelphia has seen three conclude with two candidates less than 15,000 votes apart: in 1967, current U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., lost to incumbent James H.J. Tate by fewer than 11,000 votes, proportionally the closest election in modern Philadelphia history, just a 1.5 percent margin of victory; in 1987, former Democratic Mayor Frank Rizzo lost to incumbent W. Wilson Goode by 14,000 votes, a 2.18 percent margin, and in 1999, businessman Sam Katz lost to City Council President John F. Street by 9,000 votes, a 1.72 percent margin (Fish 1999). In addition to these three, this paper will also review the 2003 rematch between Street and Katz. While Street beat Katz by some 80,000 votes, the attention paid to that election suggests another important variable in urban mayoral elections – national political influence (Mayoral Election Totals).
A. 1967: James H.J. Tate versus Arlen Specter
“In 30 years you can make a lot of enemies, if you work at it,” wrote Alicia Mundy in a 1992 profile for Philadelphia magazine. “And Arlen Specter is one of the hardest workers anyone knows.”
Specter was a district attorney then and became the powerful Senator he is today, but even he could not break through the Democratic stronghold in Philadelphia, then less than 20-years-old. Still, he did take part in the single closest mayoral election this city has ever seen.
The seminal Philadelphia magazine profile established Specter’s past and his most cited characteristic, that of opportunism (Huber 2006).
Arlen Specter arrived in Philadelphia in 1956 a liberal Democrat. He grew up in Russell, Kansas, a town with about 6,000 folks, one of whom was Robert Dole [formerly] the Senate GOP leader. The perfect debater, Specter… trundled off to Yale Law School, where, to no one’s surprise, he excelled. Armed with credentials and a few connections, he landed a job at the prestigious Philadelphia firm Dechert Price & Rhoads.
Almost from the beginning, he was telling people he wanted to be a U.S. Senator. Ambitious? If Cassius had a lean and hungry look, Arlen was positively anorexic. In 1959 he took a job as an assistant prosecutor in James Crumlish’s district attorney’s office, where he advanced rapidly, where he began to lay the foundation for his political career, and where his legend began to grow. The first person he rolled over was his mentor, Crumlish, who quickly and memorably labeled Specter “a calculating calculator.”
Specter first ran for public office in 1965, seeking to become district attorney. He was set to replace his Democratic mentor Crumlish, but when the man decided to run again, Specter met with then-city GOP general counsel Bill Meehan and ran as a Republican, though he remained a registered Democrat until after he won (Huber 2006).
His success as a district attorney fed his political appetite, as the Philadelphia magazine profile suggested (Huber 2006).
The reviews were so good that after only two years, Specter decided to challenge the incumbent mayor, Jim Tate, in a race that still resonates. For years, the lazy, lethargic Democratic machine had tolerated, even encouraged, incompetence and corruption throughout City Hall. The result was a 1967 race that pitted a man who couldn’t win – the aging mayor – against a man who couldn’t lose – the dashing D.A. But Tate was not a fool. He understood that two issues mattered most – keeping hard-nosed folk hero Frank Rizzo as police commissioner and supporting aid to the city’s massive parochial school system. Tate promised both. Specter, troubled by the constitutional pitfalls of funding religious schools, not wanting to be backed into a corner on future appointments – even though he said privately he had no intention of replacing his friend Rizzo – took a stand, on principle. He also lost – by just 11,000 votes. “It was,” says attorney Gregory Harvey, a Democratic committeeman, “the last election in which he took a stand on principle.”
B. 1987: W. Wilson Goode versus Frank L. Rizzo
Steve Lopez was about as big as big-city columnists get to be. The former Inquirer columnist was the man who, in December 1989, broke the news that then-district attorney and oft-political loser – now Pennsylvania Governor – Cannonball Ed Rendell hurled a snowball at a member of the Dallas Cowboys to help begin what became known as the “Snow Bowl.” One of the too-many-to-mention incidents of Philadelphia fans indulging too much (Lopez 1995).
Lopez wrote with a sense of power and self-possession, knocking down politicians and playboys – often one in the same in Philadelphia – with a cutting wit and daring pen. He was an outsider, but Philadelphians had no choice but to forgive him for that.
He often related his California upbringing as a means to better understand Philadelphia. In May 1987, a Lopez column featured a supposed call from family in California. The caller was wondering what then-Mayor W. Wilison Goode was doing now that a grand jury presentment had called his administration “incompetent” and labeled the decision to drop a bomb on a West Philadelphia rowhome – which killed 11 – grossly negligent and showed a reckless disregard for life and property. Of course, Lopez was candid. “He’s running for reelection.” It was the same election in which a resurrected former-Democratic Mayor Frank Rizzo was running as a Republican.
“Do you mean it may be Goode against Rizzo in the general election? They could be the worst and second-worst mayors in United States history.”
Who’s first and who’s second.
But, of course, that was the Philadelphia mayoral battle in 1987. In the days leading up to the election, it was clear just how racially involved the campaign had become. Goode was Philadelphia’s first black mayor, a tangible success of the city’s black power political movement, the start of which is mostly credited to state Sen. Hardy Williams, who ran for the Democratic mayoral nomination in 1971 – without the party’s blessing and as the first black to do so (Gregory 2006).
Rizzo, on quite the other hand, is still remembered for his notoriously racial politics and divisiveness, perhaps more political choice than personal bigotry, as discussed by Rizzo’s 1971 mayoral opponent, Republican Thatcher Longstreth, in his 1990 autobiography (Longstreth 1990, 255).
Actually, Rizzo has always treated black people pretty well; he probably [had] more black friends and admirers than most liberals have. But in the course of oversimplifying the issues, he tagged himself with an anti-black label, apparently because he and his advisers saw an advantage to catering to white fears.
Still, in 1971, Longstreth became the only Republican candidate to get a majority of the black vote – 85 percent – since World War II, simply because he wasn’t Frank Rizzo (Longstreth 1990, 253).
So, Election Day 1987 was thought to be a race between Goode bringing in black voters and Rizzo bringing in his white constituents.
While opinion polls show Mr. Goode leading Mr. Rizzo, poll takers and other analysts consider the results inconclusive and say they expect the election to be close, with many voters disillusioned and indifferent.
“It’s a turnout election,” says Sandra Featherman, a political scientist at Temple University who is a longtime student of Philadelphia politics. “The percentage of blacks turning out has got to exceed the percent of whites turning out for Goode to win, and it’s my guess that will happen.”
If it does, she said, a style and an approach to mayoral politics, embodied by Mr. Rizzo, will have had its last hurrah in Philadelphia. Continuing to hold sway would be a newer style of government: less personal, more technocratic and more sensitive to racial minorities. That newer style, ushered in when former Mayor William Green succeeded Mr. Rizzo in 1979, has generally been continued by Mayor Goode, she said (Stevens 1987).
In the end, the race was tight, but Featherman was right. Goode escaped, perhaps not without thanks to the tail end of large-scale white flight. More than 130,000 whites left Philadelphia between 1980 and 1990, rendering the city 40 percent black. Less than two years removed from a city-dropped bomb that killed 11 and destroyed more than 60 homes, Goode won reelection over Philadelphia’s once favorite son (Stevens 1987).
Of that West Philadelphia bomb, which was dropped to smoke out MOVE activists, a black-to-nature movement based in a Powelton Village rowhome, Goode told Philadelphia magazine in 2004 that it wasn’t something that hurt him (Huber 2006).
“In the whole scheme of things, MOVE was a bad day,” he told Roxanne Patel. “But it’s not something that has ever, or that ever does, weigh me down.”
Tom Ferrick, who became an Inquirer columnist in 1998 and retired this year, sees the 1987 election as more harmful than helpful to the city’s Republican Party.
“Rizzo did death blows to the Republican Party,” Ferrick said. “Rizzo fanned a rise of blacks in Democratic politics. He was still depending on old voting norms, but Rizzo’s base was going out right around the time he was.”
To return to our four groups of voters, Rizzo’s switch to the Republican Party assured him Philadelphians registered with the party and base of white ethnics. Even then, Rizzo was the furthest from a reform candidate, so his campaign clearly looked for support from that base of ethnic Democrats. But, signs show he overestimated their draw, as too many had left Philadelphia to pursue the suburban dream.
What’s more, however many blacks hadn’t already given up on the Republican Party forever had a reason to do so in 1987, Ferrick said.
“I see Frank Rizzo as King Canute,” he said, speaking of a legend of the 11th century Viking king. Canute moved his throne to the beach to show that a man cannot stop the waves.
While Rizzo’s continued political dependence on his white ethnic supporters of the past – the so-labeled Rizzocrats – was likely not deliberately doomed.
“Rizzo,” Ferrick said, “couldn’t hold back the tide, either.”
C. 1999: John F. Street versus Sam Katz
City Republicans thought – if ever – 1999 was their year and Sam Katz was their man. New York City and Los Angeles had Republicans mayors for the first time in decades, Republicans mayors decidedly similar to Katz, not ideological conservatives, but business-first technocrats. Katz had some name recognition, having run in the heated 1991 Republican mayoral primary and the 1994 gubernatorial primary, in the same way that outgoing and popular Democratic Mayor Ed Rendell had. Rendell lost a race for governor in 1986 and one for mayor in 1987 before moving into City Hall in 1991. Katz was widely regarded as an able fundraiser (Infield 1999).
In fall 1998, a year before the general election, Katz held a $1,000-per-person reception at the Academic of Natural Sciences. It raised more than $250,000 (Infield 1998). Katz, like his eventual Democratic opponent Street, expected to raise $5 million for the general election, which they both exceeded (Zausner 1999).
Katz displayed confidence in his ability to fundraise when he happily aided another reason for GOP optimism – a crowded Democratic primary. Katz spent $750,000 in TV and radio advertisements attacking Marty Weinberg and former state Rep. John White Jr., considered the chief opponents of former City Council President John F. Street, whom Katz felt he could beat (Infield 1999).
“If there was a bitter, partisan fight that could leave the Democrats weakened, he would still have his campaign war chest intact,” Mary Ellen Balchunis-Harris, a LaSalle University political scientist who follows city politics, told the Inquirer in 1998 (Infield 1998). That is just what happened.
Michael Meehan brought together other leading Republicans and urged them to get behind Katz. It was convincing enough that lawyer George Bochetto, Katz’s primary rival, had already done so in October 1998 (Infield 1999).
Despite the support, Katz recognized his need to attract – beyond the same pool of Republicans – some portions of the other three broad groups of voters in Philadelphia, ethnic, lunch-pail Democrats, high-income liberal progressives, and black voters.
“Sam Katz went out of his way in 1999 to avoid the Republican title,” Street said.
But at 1:30 a.m., the morning after the election, Street learned he won, albeit narrowly. The New York Times characterized the campaign thusly:
Mr. Street, the second black mayor in the city’s history, seemed mindful that the tight result means he will have to work hard to show he deserves the office. Much of the campaign was about school and safety problems that, despite impressive downtown renewal, have seen 150,000 middle and working-class residents leave the city in the last decade. Beyond that, municipal unions that suffered with the city through fiscally thin years are preparing to bargain hard with the new mayor for larger benefits now that this city of 1.4 million is considered on the rebound.
“I have been in this business a long time,” Mr. Street told supporters. “I have not been perfect. I’m just going to ask you to give us a chance.”
Mr. Katz, a 49-year-old consultant on the public-private financing of sports stadiums, said, “My opponent learned a lot about himself and this city.”
A former Democrat with political ties to the black community, Mr. Katz rarely mentioned he was a Republican. He ran as a supporter of coalition government, private school vouchers and deeper cuts in the city’s wage tax.
Mr. Street ran on his record as the ally of Mayor Rendell in bringing the city back from bankruptcy, and as a veteran of 19 years on the City Council and a proven master of the city’s Democratic machine (Clines 1999).
Again, racial politics came into play, as perhaps as many as nine out of ten black voters supported Street, and Katz made necessary in-roads with white liberal reform-minded voters in his native Chestnut Hill and elsewhere. But, Katz came 8,000 votes too short among the three voting groups not his own to have.
“Sam was somewhat of an aberration,” said Ellen Kaplan, a childhood friend of Katz’s who worked as his issues director in 1999. “He is a Republican, and he wasn’t. There was a Republican obstacle. For the GOP, he wasn’t one of their own.”
D. 2003: John F. Street versus Sam Katz, Round Two
It was billed as a rematch of champions. It was the Democratic incumbent in a Democratic city squaring off against one of the most competitive Republican challengers in a half century. In 1999, their battle proved to be one of the closest in the centuries-old tradition of Philadelphia mayoral elections, but 2003 would end differently.
The question of race was apparent. In 1999, Katz was supported by many white Democrats, a trend not without urban mayoral precedent, as discussed in a paper written by Jeffrey Kraus, a professor of politics at Wagner College in the New York City borough of Staten Island.
In New York City, the David Dinkins-Rudolph Giuliani contests of 1989 and 1993 demonstrated that race was an issue in the nation’s largest and most diverse city. In 1993, the perception that Mayor Dinkins had been “soft on crime” and had been ineffective in dealing with a number of racial controversies cost him significant support among white Democratic voters, who opted to support Giuliani. The 2001 contest in the same city saw the Democratic Party’s alliance of liberal whites, African-Americans, and Latinos unravel as the result of a racially divisive primary campaign, allowing a neophyte billionaire Republican to win.
New York was not alone. During the 1980s and 1990s a number of cities with elected African-American mayors saw those mayors succeeded by whites who often subscribed to more conservative policies than did their African-American predecessors. In the same year that Giuliani was elected in New York, Republican Richard Riordan became mayor of Los Angeles. In 1992, Bret Schundler became the first Republican mayor elected in Jersey City in 75 years. In Chicago, Richard M. Daley, the son of Richard J. Daley, was elected mayor following the death of Chicago’s first African-American mayor, Harold Washington. Edward Rendell succeeded Wilson Goode, and in Baltimore Martin O’Malley replaced Kurt Schmoke. Like Giuliani, all stressed crime reduction, economic development, and fiscal discipline as prescriptions for urban revitalization (Kraus 2005).
A central issue of the 2003 election was whether Katz would benefit from white Democratic frustration with the Street administration or be challenged by white Democrats who, having lived through four years with Street in charge, learned their left-leanings could be embraced once again because Street was not to be feared in the way he was once thought to be.
In some cities where African-American mayors have sought re-election their white support has actually increased as those voters found that their fears about a city administration led by an African-American mayor had not come to pass. In fact, a 1983 study found that African-American mayors expressed attitudes and followed policies that were not different from white mayors regarding fiscal policy (Kraus 2005).
Changes had come to Philadelphia’s political climate. Early in the year, one of the city’s few Republican elected officials, state Rep. John Perzel, became Speaker of the House of Representatives, a year after the city’s former Mayor Ed Rendell became Governor, giving Philadelphia remarkable sway in the state Capitol.
Perhaps even more noteworthy is that George W. Bush became President of the United States in 2000, a year after the first match up between Street and Katz. In the ensuing years, Bush became the scourge of the Democrats and progressives that overwhelmingly populated the city of Philadelphia. With a Philadelphia Republican leading an anti-urban state caucus and a polarizing Republican president in office, GOP party identification was even less popular in 2003 than it was in 1999, when Bill Clinton, considered an ally of then-Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, was president. What’s more, Philadelphia had lost even more white residents, the total falling from some 644,000 in April 2000 to 615,000 (Committee of Seventy).
It seemed that the contest had even more reason to not be as close as the previous election had been, and yet strange things happen in Philadelphia mayoral elections, particularly when race – a campaign between black and white – is involved. So attention grew.
While Street tried to portray himself as the neighborhood candidate – a step away from his Center City-focused predecessor Fast Eddie Rendell – Katz tried labeling Street a part of the corrupt Democratic machine, a clear swing at reform-minded liberal progressives, a group that had largely supported him in 1999. To do so, Katz focused on Street’s own words, as reported by the Associated Press.
“The people who support me in the general election have a greater chance of getting business from my administration than the people who support Sam Katz,” Street said in 1999 (Walters 2003). Then the world collapsed.
In early October, a listening device was found in Street’s City Hall office. Soon after, federal officials admitted it was planted by F.B.I. agents.
Going on the offensive, Mr. Street’s campaign said federal investigators might have planted the device as part of a conspiracy by the Bush administration to undermine the mayor’s integrity a month from the election.
”We are openly speculating and questioning the timing of this discovery with the backdrop of the next presidential election,” a spokesman for the campaign, Frank Keel, said, ”and quite frankly wondering aloud could the Republican Party of George Bush, John Ashcroft, etc., have engineered an incident like this that would cast some doubt and questions on the current Democratic mayor at a critical time in the election.
”State and federal Republican power brokers are pulling out all the stops to get their Republican candidate elected” (Dao 2003).
It was a masterful step in what has already become legendary political theater in Philadelphia. Polls were showing the two candidates were running closely before the bug announcement, most with Street in the lead (Dao 2003). But in the weeks leading up to the election, things changed:
The effect of the bugging on the election was significant. In September 2003, a Temple University/CBS 3/KYW poll showed Mayor Street had the backing of 74% of African-American voters. Overall, Katz held a 46% to 40% lead. In early October, Street had taken a lead, with a Philadelphia Daily News/Keystone Poll having him ahead by eight percentage points, 42% to 34%. By late October, after the surveillance had been disclosed, Street continued to lead Katz, 48% to 41%. The bug appeared to galvanize Street’s support in the African-American community, as 93% of African-American respondents indicated that they planned to vote for the Mayor. Professor Randall M. Miller, of St. Joseph’s University, explained the effect of the bugging on African-American voters: “To many blacks, this seems like another example of someone coming after one of our own…. Even if they don’t like Street, there is a sense of collective violation that works to the mayor’s advantage” (Kraus 2005).
IV. Election Analysis
The first three elections reviewed here left candidates within 20,000 votes of each other. They all are examples of elections during which Republican candidates – facing declining registered Republicans in each successive election and always with dramatically fewer than their Democratic challengers – made positive, though not ultimately successful, efforts to recruit voting blocs who have been otherwise likely to vote Democrat since the 1950s, black, with ethnics and liberal progressives.
In 1967, Specter, perhaps even the favorite among analysts, was a clear candidate to take reform progressives, having been a young district attorney. But the Democratic machine was less than 20-years-old, not long when compared with the city’s former Republican control. Progressives still clearly identified with city Democrats. The national Democratic Party made it even harder for Specter to attract progressives and certainly black voters, as the Civil Rights movement – Philadelphia itself touched with its own 1963 race riot in North Philadelphia and lawyer Cecil B. Moore’s work – was at its height. Robert Kennedy – liberal, reform progressive – and Martin Luther King Jr. – symbol of black empowerment – were both still alive. One was a Democrat and one’s cause was – at least in the public view – Democratic, too.
So, while Specter’s strengths may have been with the reform progressive group, because of national politics, his only real chance at cross over was with ethnic Democrats, the working class in South Philadelphia and stretches of the then-expanding Northeast. However, in an uncharacteristic political misstep for – a still green – Specter, he took a strong, ideological stand. He opposed making two campaign promises: funding Catholic schools and reappointing Frank Rizzo. There were no two issues with more broad appeal among working class whites in Philadelphia than keeping costs down on public school replacements and protecting the city’s ethnic Democrat folk legend, Frank Rizzo. Specter did neither, and he lost the election – despite a vulnerable Democrat.
“Race is always involved in politics in Philadelphia,” said Mandel, the tax reformer. “People say that about other cities, but in Philadelphia, even when race isn’t involved, it is still involved.”
If that’s the case, it will come as no surprise that one of the more racially polarizing elections in local campaign history may have happened in Philadelphia in 1987: when the city’s first black mayor squared off against the alleged race baiter and legendary former mayor.
But Rizzo’s misstep was in aligning himself with the two groups of our four voting blocs that were declining most in the 1980s: Republicans and white ethnics, or lunch-pail Democrats, his “Rizzocrat” base. His attempts to court many of the black voters he once alienated proved unsuccessful.
He energized the black voting base and liberal progressives, having to choose from two politicians backed by machines, swung to their Democratic Party affiliation – even though Goode was not far from one of the most destructive moves in modern urban government. In a later section on race, this will be reviewed further.
C. 1999 & 2003
In 2003, Sam Katz was supposed to be a more broadly supported candidate, when accounting for our four voting blocs. Labor unions – often representing working class Democrats – had all but entirely supported Street in 1999. Four years later, they were divided, perhaps as many as a dozen supporting Katz. The city’s Teamsters, Gas Workers Employee Union Local 686, Philadelphia Firefighters Union Local 22, the Fraternal Order of Housing Police and districts of the carpenters and AFSCME and others were behind the Republican (Kraus).
Additionally, in early fall, more than a quarter of black voters were not supporting Street – a portion of whom were likely Katz voters, and the Republican nominee’s base was among the city’s reform progressives, particularly when contrasted with Street as an opponent.
For much of the general election, Katz appeared to be making impressive strides in attracting members of two groups on which he had the least impact on in 1999 – black voters and working class Democrats. With registered Republicans and his reform base, Katz, one might think, should have won.
But something changed between the two elections, a racial element that will be discussed later in this paper.
One academic – a prototypical member of the reform-minded class of our four voting blocs, with a doctorate, leftist leanings and a home in Katz’s elite, native Chestnut Hill neighborhood – seemed to embody a key switch over between Street-Katz 1999 and Street-Katz 2003.
“In 1999 I just thought Street was so vile,” she said. “So, I voted for Sam Katz, the first and last Republican vote I have ever made because in 2003 Street didn’t seem so dangerous.”
In 1999, more than three quarters of the vote in Roxborough, Chestnut Hill and Manayunk was for Katz, but ir dropped to 68 percent in 2003. That seven point slide came in Center City, Fairmount and University City, too – from 68 to 61 percent – districts that largely feature reform minded progressives mixed among ethnic Democrats in Fairmount (Committee of Seventy).
Similarly, successes he made among working class Democrats in 1999 – perhaps some on the basis of fears of Street – were struck deeply in 2003. In South Philadelphia, Katz lost nearly 10 points, from 77 in 1999 to 68 four years later. He made similar drops in working class Northeast neighborhoods like Mayfair, Frankford and Rhawnhurst. In Port Richmond, Kensington and Bridesburg – among the poorer white neighborhoods in Philadelphia – Katz went from 76 to just over 63 percent of the vote in 2003, the worst drop he suffered in any of the city’s regions (Committee of Seventy).
After the bug, nearly 95 percent of the black vote polled as Street supporters, reform liberals identified with their mayor and his supposed plight against a President that was becoming increasingly distasteful among their ranks (Kraus 2005). What’s more, when reviewed academically, Sam Katz may really never had a chance in 2003, a bug or not. The national attention that flooded Philadelphia after the listening device was found in incumbent Democratic Mayor John Street’s City Hall office only served to make that event more pronounced in the minds of voters. It also served to show the true failings of Philadelphia’s Republican Party.
In 1999, the Democrats were shocked. Never had an election been separated by so few votes in the city’s modern mayoral history. The Republicans should have tasted blood. Yet, between April 2003 and the general election, more than 86,000 new Democratic voters were added to the rolls, led by a U.S. Congressman and Street ally Chaka Fattah voter registration drive. During that same period, fewer than 8,000 new Republican voters were added (Kraus 2005).
That meant that while Katz must have thought he faced tough odds in 1999, as just 19.4 percent of registered voters were Republican, by 2003, that total had fallen to 17.6 percent (Committee of Seventy).
The Katz campaign could only hope those voters didn’t show up. When the world pays attention to a mayoral contest, voters tend to show up, and the world was paying attention to Philadelphia after the bug was discovered. So, voting blocs that were once possible-Katz supporters instead rallied with the mayor, and Street surged forward.
V. Meehans and the GOP: ‘Bill Meehan was losing too. He was just better at getting shit.’
It is stunning to think how far Philadelphia Republicans have fallen. Sam Katz remains the most recognizable name and face for the party in the city, but he has yet to win public office.
The one constant has been the Meehan family, a power share begun by Austin Meehan, grandfather to the current GOP general counsel Michael Meehan, as three-time Republican mayoral loser Thatcher Longstreth wrote in his autobiography.
For more than a generation, Sheriff Austin Meehan was the most powerful and influential Republican in Philadelphia. His interest in politics stemmed from two motives: his love of power and his love of people. He exerted a hold on people that had to be seen to be believed, largely because he performed so many favors for so many people.
Virtually every night of his life, Meehan held court in his home after dinner until midnight. A steady stream of supplicants would come to him with problems – usually people looking for jobs or trying to get a street fixed or a son into college. If Meehan felt there was any chance he could help them, he would try. Even after he was voted out of the sheriff’s office, he remained on such good terms with the Democrats that he could get things done strictly on a personal basis. The size and devotion of his following was such that when he died in 1961 and I went to his wake, I had to walk nine blocks to reach the end of the line (Longstreth 1990, 199-200).
There were other powerful Republicans then, including Bill Meade, generally noted for being masterfully manipulative, and Bill Hamilton, whose family had extreme influence in Roxborough’s 21st ward, among the last to go Democrat (Longstreth 1990, 201).
As Republican power waned, Meehan family control waxed, at least in the party. After his father’s 1961 death, Bill Meehan took over the mantle. While a popular leader, like his father, Bill Meehan suffered a still-declining voter base, to which he had no answer, though he tried to use what power he had.
“Bill Meehan was losing too,” said Kelly, the young Republican reformer. “He was just better at getting shit.”
It became increasingly difficult for city Republicans to extract patronage jobs and exact influence over city contracts. Whether that has anything to do with the abilities of the three generations of Meehan city GOP rule is difficult to evaluate, but perceptions remain that Bill Meehan was nearer in relative influence to his father, than Michael is to his own, Kelly said.
There is little question that the comparisons are unfair in today’s divergent political climate, particularly considering what northeast cities have had to overcome since Austin Meehan’s rule – racial upheaval, suburban expansion, de-industrialization, job loss, growth of the sun belt, and more.
“But it comes down to wins and losses,” Kelly said, without apology. “I have no vendetta against Michael, but we’ve had the Meehans for a long time. This isn’t good for Philadelphia.”
VI. Successes in other citywide offices: ‘The last real Republican in Philadelphia’
Like City Hall, the Meehans have found it similarly difficult to find success in lesser citywide offices, so those victories they have had become important to understand.
In 1953, the party won a city controller election. Trial lawyer Mort Witkin was generally credited with winning the campaign by portraying a Republican controller as a healthy check for Democratic Mayor Joseph Clark (Longstreth 1990, 201). Why this hasn’t worked since has much to do with demographics, which we’ll discuss later, but it is important to understand that in the 1950s, Democrats finally cast themselves as a balance for a powerful Republican machine. Considering a lengthy hegemony has set in for the Democrats since then, city Republicans have failed themselves and Philadelphia. This is also why Michael Nutter winning the 2007 mayoral election, as previously discussed, campaigning as a reformer of his own party should seem so threatening to any GOP revival.
The 1953 win, just two years after the city’s GOP lost City Hall, came at a time when white flight was reaching its peak, upper-income whites – largely Republicans – were beginning to leave for Philadelphia’s growing suburbs and lower-income blacks – largely Democratic- were coming from the U.S. South (Philadelphia Census Data). It was the start of nearly 40 years of urban decay and middle-class exodus that, perhaps counter-intuitively, has cemented control for the now in-power party.
But, Philadelphia Republicans have had other successes, however small and isolated, that should speak to the possibilities.
After Arlen Specter’s 1965 ascension to district attorney, the first Republican elected to the post in 18 years, Specter failed at capturing City Hall in 1967, as discussed earlier. Undeterred, Specter retook the district attorney seat in 1969, accompanied by a former La Salle University basketball stand out and N.B.A. All-Star Tom Gola, who successfully ran for comptroller. The campaign is still lauded by political scientists, highlighted by their slogan: “They are young, they are tough, and nobody owns them” (CPI 1996).
There are lessons there, too. The recurring one is how necessary a message of reform is for city Republicans, and youth is an unquestioned portion of that. Another message here is one of name recognition, which will be discussed later. Gola, who also ran in the 1983 mayoral primary, was a familiar name without the enemies a politician of his fame would almost certainly have accrued.
In 1985, Republican Ronald D. Castille, now a state Supreme Court justice, was elected district attorney (Infield 1998).
“Ron Castille was the last real Republican who was groomed and became successful in Philadelphia,” said Miller, the St. Joseph’s history professor.
Dave Glancey, the Democratic counterpart to Bill Meehan from December 1979 to 1983, credits the Meehan in the middle for some of these victories.
“He was the man behind the curtain. His currency was his word,” Glancey said. “But, of course, he expected it back from everyone.”
Castille’s win was the last citywide victory for which the Republicans can take credit at all. Michael Meehan has yet to break through. If Bill Meehan ruled through the darkest days of modern urban American – tough times for a predominately white, business-first political party – and Philadelphia has turned a corner, as Glancey suggested, perhaps, more should be expected of Michael Meehan and the city’s GOP.
“There are no excuses anymore,” Kelly, the reformer said. “There can be a Republican Party in Philadelphia.
“Or at least there has to be. Because, if not, what else?”