Red, White Blue and Black: an honors thesis proposal

Last week I chose a focus for my honors thesis project, Philadelphia’s Republican Party. Since then, I have further extrapolated my focus, though I am sure it will change over the next year. Still, I have also begun reaching out to academics, journalists and otherwise researching other urban GOP.

See my longer thesis focus in its longer, perhaps, meandering form below.

Philadelphia is said to be the birthplace of America. There is no overestimating the responsibility that should come with such a title, yet, most might agree, this historic metropolis has seen a precipitous decline in its prestige. Indeed, this City of Firsts hasn’t had many firsts in centuries.

Instead, the Quaker City fell into swirling government malfeasance in the late nineteenth century and has been tripping and stumbling on its way back to prominence ever since. In 1904, noted muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens famously called Philadelphia “corrupt and contented.” Some might say little has changed. It is a charge many make of big cities, and self-reproachful Philadelphians would hardly miss an opportunity to do the same.

Many social scientists and urban historians point to political machines, largely orientated around labor and party, to explain pay-to-play politics in the great cities of the United States. The library of research on the party machine in Chicago is, perhaps, the clearest, most emblematic example of this.

It would make sense, then, that citizens, particularly those living in the cradle of American democracy, would simply use their vote to oust corruptible elements, forcing candidates and political parties to compete for the right to lead. After all, competitive elections, it has been said, are a primary symptom of a healthy democracy.

Of course, despite all their criticism, it could be argued that Philadelphians haven’t done this. Philadelphia hasn’t chosen a mayor without the city’s Democratic Party endorsement since 1951. In that time, eight mayors have been elected, not one of whom was denied a bid for reelection.

In May of 2007, a reformer, Michael Nutter, was chosen as the Democratic candidate for the November mayoral election, a victory largely credited to his condemnations of current mayor John Street, also a Democrat. Al Taubenberger, the Republican nominee, has been ignored, if not entirely forgotten. Vote after vote Philadelphians have looked for change in the same party, rarely allowing for even a competitive general election.

While urban centers have largely remained bases for Democrats since the 1960s, not all cities have an effective one-party system like Philadelphia does. Other historic American cities like Cleveland, Baltimore, and Cincinnati have seen Republican mayors more recently than Philadelphia. So has our country’s second most populous metropolis – Los Angeles – in addition to cities with great liberal legacies, like Jersey City, Seattle and even San Francisco.

Perhaps the best known example of a Republican takeover in the mayor’s office of a Democratic town is New York City. Since January 7, 1952, when Joseph Clark, Jr., entered the second floor mayor’s office in Philadelphia’s City Hall to begin a still uninterrupted run of Democrats as the city’s top executive, New York City has seen three Republicans win its mayoralty: John Lindsay in 1966, Rudy Giuliani in 1994 and Michael Bloomberg, who succeeded Giuliani in 2002 and still runs the city.

Without question, when change has been desired, Republican reform candidates have had plenty of recent success in cities very similar to Philadelphia, but Philly remains stubbornly myopic. If it has happened elsewhere, why hasn’t Philadelphia seen a Republican mayor in well over a half century?

Over the next six months, through interviews, literature review, and historical evaluation, I hope to answer just this question. Conveniently, New York City provides a splendid comparison to Philadelphia. As the cultural capital of the United States, New York City politics have been researched and categorized a thousand times over, providing a library of relatable literature.

More importantly, even more than other cities that have found competitive general mayoral elections, New York City has many similarities to its historic neighbor to the south, Philadelphia. The political demographics of these two heavily blue cities are certainly equitable.

As of April 2007, more than two out of every three Gotham residents are registered Democrats. The Cradle of Liberty has even more, with better than three out of every four residents voting in Democratic primaries. The small difference becomes even smaller when one takes into account that more than 12 percent of voters in the nation’s largest city are Republican, while 15 percent of Philadelphians are Republican, meaning what small differences they have are made with independents and small party affiliation rather than with the two major parties.

Conveniently, in comparable years to GOP victories in New York mayoral elections, Philadelphia saw Republican candidates come as close as any other time. In 1968, then-District Attorney Arlen Specter came within 11,000 votes of the mayor’s office, narrowly losing to James Tate, who became the last three term mayor of Philadelphia. In 1999, Sam Katz came within 9,000 votes of beating current-mayor John Franklin Street. Then 2003 saw the match’s sequel. Though the result was more lopsided, national attention turned its focus on Philadelphia as Katz ran another spirited campaign against Philadelphia’s Democratic machine. This means that Republicans ran competitive campaigns in both Philadelphia and New York during the late 1960s, the 1990s, and the early twenty-first century.

So, these elections are valuable for wondering, in staunchly Democratic towns, how were Lindsay, Giuliani and Bloomberg successful where Specter and Katz weren’t?

This is a fine way to limit this investigation enough to thoroughly examine Philadelphia’s political culture. When and if New York fails to compare to Philadelphia, as previously mentioned, there are many other urban Republican parties that have succeeded where Philadelphia’s hasn’t.

With helpful case studies to serve as comparison, this project will first require a further establishment of why Philadelphia and New York merit comparison. Then this paper will develop a brief understanding of the history of Philadelphia’s mayoralty, in addition to some of New York’s. Special attention will be paid to Bernard Samuel, the last Republican mayor in Philadelphia, in order to understand what, if anything, has indefinitely shifted what had been a GOP town to the Democratic side. Primarily though, this paper will focus on the three Republican victories that New York City has seen in the last half century, in comparison with those three close elections during which Philadelphia’s GOP candidate fell short, always searching for the difference between NYC Republican successes and Philly Republican failures.

Image courtesy of the Douglas County GOP.

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