What patronage means

State Rep. JOHN PERZEL is an integral figure to understanding Philadelphia’s Republican Party.

He is a power player in the city’s politics, even if he does his work in Harrisburg. Perzel still works with the Republican City Committee and its general counsel and de facto leader, Michael Meehan.

One doesn’t need Meehan’s permission to run, of course. But this state’s elections, like those in much of the country, expect it. The blessing of the Republican committee comes with the promise of making the ballot and much less competition than in the Democratic Party. In the small pond of the Republican Party, Meehan holds influence to divvy available jobs, which keeps some Philadelphians registered with the party. Thus, in deciding that the party will support a particular candidate, ward leaders and committeemen rarely deviate from Meehan’s choices.

This is machine politics in historic viability.

Machine politics that have mostly been buried, the obituaries written and memory evoked. In the 2006 5th edition of their text City Politics: the political economy of urban America, Dennis R. Judd of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Todd Swanstrom of St. Louis University did just that.

The urban machines that endured beyond the 1920s relied heavily on relationships forged with national politicians and federal aid for their survival. After the New Deal, many machines skillfully used federal programs to expand their resource base. But those days have passed. After the late 1970s, the federal government sharply cut grants to cities. In addition, the exodus of industry and the middle class to the suburbs has deprived the cities of critical tax sources and borrowing power. The largest public projects are now administered through special authorities that are separate from municipal government…

…It would be extremely difficult for today’s politicians to assemble the patronage and other material rewards necessary to build and maintain machine organizations. City services are now administered through civil service bureaucracies, and merit employment systems have been put in place so patronage can no longer be regularly delivered on the basis of personal or political relationships.

“What we have is Meehan using 19th-century politics in a 21st-century world,” said Kevin Kelly, a former leader of Philadelphia’s Young Republicans who is trying to energize the party, largely during meetings at nights in the conference room of his design firm Silica in Fishtown.

One of the most cited examples of living patronage in Philadelphia is the city’s Parking Authority. In mid-2001, State Rep. John Perzel (R-Phila-Montco) led a GOP takeover of the city’s agency.

It has its critics.

“I think Representative Perzel has done a terrible job,” said former Democratic Mayor Street. “The Parking Authority just didn’t work. The bureaucracy has tripled in the PPA, in the Convention Center Authority. Partisan political activity didn’t work.”

Yet, for the Republicans it might be all that is sustaining a party that is largely broken, as displayed by the parking authority’s development of a red-light camera program, according to the Philadelphia Daily News.

Although the installation, equipment, ticketing and collections for the red-light program are handled by outside contractors, the Parking Authority has established a red-light unit with five employees. It’s run by a Republican ward leader, Christopher Vogler, who has two GOP committeemen among his four staff members.

Critics remain.

“I reward results,” Kelly said. “If you were zero for the last 50 years in any other job in the world, would you still have that job?”

Photo courtesy of Game Politics. Hat tip to the Next Mayor.

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