I. A Diagnosis: What’s Wrong with Philadelphia Republicans?

Al Taubenberger is, by all accounts, a friendly man, adorned with silvery white hair parted neatly and purposefully. He, too, is neat and purposeful. Taubenberger wanted to be mayor of Philadelphia – his hometown – but, of course, he will never be mayor of Philadelphia, hometown or not.

In June 2007, Taubenberger told the Philadelphia Inquirer that, on a scale of one to ten, his chances of victory in the November general election were around three and a half (Gelbert 2007). Most might agree he was being fairly generous. After all, Taubenberger is a Republican, a distinction that hasn’t been an asset in more than half a century.

Philadelphia, one of the largest and most historic cities in the United States, hasn’t seen a Republican win a mayoral election since 1947, just two years after the close of the Second World War.

Some question whether Taubenberger – a virtual unknown beyond his role as chairman of the obscure Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce – was the best candidate the Republicans could support. The current Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Dennis O’Brien, former Speaker John Perzel, Tenth District Councilman Brian J. O’Neill, and at-large Councilmen Jack Kelly and Frank Rizzo, Jr. all had better name recognition on which to build and, for sure, thicker legislative resumes – considering Taubenberger had never served in an elected office before.

In past elections, the Republican Party has supported a former Democrat as their mayoral choice, including Sam Katz in 1999 and 2003 and former Democratic mayor Frank Rizzo, who won the Republican mayoral primary in 1991 before dying of a heart attack. So perhaps U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter’s attempts at courting Democratic mayoral hopeful and powerful state Rep. Dwight Evans and businessman Tom Knox, another who vied for the Democratic mayoral nomination, to run as a Republicans could have found a stronger candidate (Davies 2007).

II. Lessons from the 2007 Mayoral Election: ‘I was projected to get eight percent…’

“By 2007, the Republican Party has become the weakest in my memory. They can’t win against anybody,” said former Democratic Mayor John F. Street. “They were never serious about recruiting a candidate. They led their candidate [in 2007] to slaughter. I don’t think it’s good for the city.”

Since November 1947, eight Democrats have won 14 elections by an average of more than 100,000 votes. Perhaps for that reason, when Michael Nutter won Philadelphia’s Democratic mayoral primary in May 2007, he was heralded as the heir apparent to Room 125 in Philadelphia’s historic City Hall. Seven months later, in anticlimactic fashion, that became a reality. Al Taubenberger would not be Philadelphia’s mayor, not that anyone ever thought he would be.

“I didn’t realize he was the candidate,” said Eric Mayes, a political reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, the oldest traditionally black newspaper in the country. “I thought he was just a man in a suit.”

Nutter, a more distinguishable man in a suit, grabbed nearly 83 percent of the vote, 223,000 to Taubenberger’s 46,000 (WHYY 2007). In a city where nearly 80 percent of registered voters are with the Democratic Party, the results came as little surprise. Indeed, if there was any surprise at all on election night, KYW News Radio reported that it came from Northeast Philadelphia, the de facto base of the city’s Republican Party, and even that surprise was how well the candidate no one took seriously did (Dunn 2007).

“I was projected to get eight percent,” Taubenberger was reported by KYW as having told his supporters. “I’m over 18 percent, and I think it’s going to be a little higher yet.”

At the end, the Taubenberger camp claimed little more than 17 percent of 270,000 votes (WHYY 2007).

“Al Taubenberger fell on the sword for the party, but he did it for the city,” said Randall Miller, a professor of history at St. Joseph’s University who teaches courses in urban politics. “I think the Republicans failed him.”

The central questions are how did the Republicans fail Taubenberger, how have they failed the city, and whether it is even reasonable to believe Philadelphia can sustain a healthy, competitive two-party system.

III. Today’s Republican leadership: ‘Meehan, in time, won, but soon the Republicans lost.’

Michael Meehan is a large man, in body and in name. He is often cited as the last of the big city party bosses, not an elected official himself, but rather general counsel to the Philadelphia Republican City Committee. Meehan’s father Bill filled the same role until he died, in 1994. Meehan’s grandfather Austin did the same.

Between the 1860s to the 1950s, Philadelphia had just three Democratic mayors. Just an additional one more Democrat – Richard Vaux – captured City Hall after Feb. 2, 1854 – a seminal, modernizing moment in the city’s political history, when an act passed the Pennsylvania State Assembly that consolidated Philadelphia city and county into a single political and geographical unit among other city charter alterations (Mayoral Election Totals).

Then in November 1951, Democrat Joseph S. Clark, Jr. broke through, beating Republican Daniel A. Poling by 120,000 votes. Philadelphia hasn’t had a Republican mayor since. So it seems there was an enormous shift from a Republican machine to a Democratic one.

“In 1938, no one thought a Democrat would ever win in Philadelphia again,” Goldsmith, the former city managing director said. But there was more involved.

“There was no Republican machine. There were five machines,” said Fred Voigt, a former executive director of political oversight group the Committee of Seventy. “Like the Vare brothers in South Philly, the Hawthorne brothers in Roxborough, and Austin Meehan in the Northeast. They were only united by protectionism for high tariffs like the national Republican Party, so they battled for power. Meehan, in time, won, but soon the Republicans lost.”

IV. Understanding Philly’s GOP: ‘They’re stuck in the Northeast and scared to come out.’

The city’s Republican Committee fills a modest lower level of room in the Windsor Suites on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, but no one who knows much of anything about Philadelphia politics is fooled. The GOP’s Philadelphia successes have been almost exclusively based in Northeast Philadelphia, a suburban-like enclave that is still primarily white.

“The Republicans have become a regional party,” said Tom Ferrick, a lifelong Philadelphian and celebrated columnist for the Inquirer. “They’re stuck in the Northeast and scared to come out.”

Still, there are more than 140,000 Republicans registered in Philadelphia, as many as 147,000 according to the latest total Meehan had seen before our interview in April. As of that same month, there are more in neighboring Montgomery, Delaware, Bucks and Chester counties, with more than 240,000, nearly 190,000, 182,000 and more than 147,000 registered Republicans respectively (Republican Registrations). But, still, as Meehan is quick to point out, Philadelphia’s total is among the largest county totals in the Commonwealth.

Those Republicans comprise one segment of a purposefully over-simplified division of the city’s voters that can help us better understand voting patterns in Philadelphia. There are at least three others, including: the white, working class; educated, liberal progressives, and remaining black voters. All can certainly and naturally be further divided into yet smaller and more determinable groups, but these four broad-based categories can be valuable in evaluating the possibility of citywide Republican victory.

Registered Republicans: All registered party members, mostly based in the Northeast. Few are likely ideologically based, but, party workers may use what is left of patronage to gain employment. Many may be employed in city agencies run by the GOP, like the Parking and Convention Center authorities.
Ethnic Democrats: Working class, largely white residents, many of whom are members of trade or public employee-unions like those representing police or firefighters. Many are based in South Philadelphia and river wards
Liberal progressives: Educated and established families in Chestnut and Society Hills, growing affluent populations in Center City, and reform-minded voters pocketed in these and other gentrifying communities in northwest, South and West Philadelphia.
Black voters: Broader socioeconomic groups in North, West and lower Northeast Philadelphia. They are often more socially conservative and religious but traditionally the least likely group to vote Republican.

Philadelphia isn’t without Republicans of note. The city is, after all, the largest in Pennsylvania, a Commonwealth with a rich conservative history. But, as suggested earlier, current state House Speaker O’Brien, his predecessor Perzel, and other state Reps. Kenney and Taylor are limited in their reach.

“They have never had wider ambition to do more. What they have done, they’ve done it in Harrisburg,” said Dave Davies, who has been the senior political writer at the Philadelphia Daily News since 1990. “Recruitment: that’s where I fault the Meehans.”

Because Kenney and Taylor – the newest state Republican presence from Philadelphia – both first went to Harrisburg in 1984. It also comes as no surprise that all four are from the Northeast, like 10th district City Councilman and Kelly.

“The fact is that Frank Rizzo gets elected because his name is Frank Rizzo. Jack Kelly gets elected because his name is Jack Kelly. Kenney’s retiring. Perzel took a blow. How many more times will Brian [O’Neill] retain his seat [on City Council]?” said Katz, the former Republican mayoral contender. “Look, they’re getting older, and no one is there to keep the fight going.”

What’s more, the Republican presence the city does have may not be representative of how little GOP activity there is. Of 17 City Council members, three are Republican, and the party is effectively guaranteed two seats by the city charter. Of three City Commissioners, who oversee city elections, one – Joe Duda – is Republican. But even those positions come with the city’s municipal charter, which effectively guarantees bipartisan in Council and Commissioner offices. Article two, section two, clause 101 in the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter reads as it follows:

At the municipal election held in 1951, and in every fourth year thereafter, one councilman shall be elected from each councilmanic district and seven from the City at large. Each elector shall have the right to vote for one district councilman and for five councilmen-at-large. To this end not more than five candidates for councilmen-at-large shall be nominated pursuant to law by any party or other political body. (Emphasis added)

Should a vacancy occur in the office of any councilman, the President of the Council shall issue a writ of election to the board of elections having jurisdiction over elections in the City for a special election to fill the vacancy for the balance of the unexpired term, which election shall be held on a date specified in the writ, but not less than thirty days after its issuance. The President of Council may fix as the date of the special election, the date of the next primary, municipal or general election.

“There is a structural problem to Philadelphia,” said Miller, the St. Joseph’s professor said. “The city charter guarantees the minority party at least two council seats. So, a party can become lazy. The Republicans are guaranteed a ticket on the ballot, unlike a third party candidate.”

So, while in vying for the seven at-large City Council bids in the November 2007 election just one Republican managed even half of the lowest Democrat total – Rizzo’s 7.4 percent to Blondell Reynolds Brown’s 14.3 percent – two, Rizzo and Kelly, were reelected as at-large members (WHYY 2007).

The city GOP committee doesn’t appear motivated to reach out to the other three groups of Philadelphia voters: working class union members, reform-minded progressives or blacks. Instead, guaranteed representation assures they will have a small number of city jobs and contracts to in-power Republicans can depend on the relatively small number of registered party members.

“Northeast Republicans are keeping it a patronage game,” said Goldsmith, the former managing director. Still, some do debate Miller’s take on the clause’s merit.

“If anything, guaranteed representation has slowed down the inevitable elimination of the party,” said Voigt, the former longtime executive director of Philadelphia’s century-old political oversight group.

The only pure victory the Republicans had in a city election in 2007 was Brian O’Neill, City Council’s minority leader, capturing an eighth term representing Philadelphia’s tenth councilmanic district in the far Northeast. Even still, O’Neill’s competition – Sean McAleer – won 42 percent of the vote against the entrenched incumbent (Committee of Seventy). As Katz noted, demographics and time are plotting against the aging councilman, who is nearly 60.

V. The Republican lineage: ‘The Meehans have always wanted to win when they can.’

The Philadelphia Republican City Committee is chaired by Vito F. Canuso Jr., but most seem to agree that Meehan, from one of the oldest political families in the city, is more influential.

In 2007, the lawyer moved from Reed Smith to Wolf Block Schorr & Solis-Cohen as counsel of its real estate group. The primary reason for his move was his interest in local issues, to benefit from Wolf Block’s clients like the Philadelphia Parking Authority and the Regional Port Authority, he said. He has a fine office on the 22nd floor with a window for a wall that overlooks much of the city.

He is friendly with ruddy cheeks and a broad smile. He has a practiced air of innocence and seems at least occasionally paranoid. He is a politician. He is leading a dying brand. He is the great question in the puzzle of the city’s Republican Party.

“I think one myth that has been out there for a long time is that the Meehan family is fine with losing,” said Davies of the Daily News. “That just isn’t true…the Meehans have always wanted to win when they can.”

One doesn’t need Meehans permission to run, of course. But understanding why his approval so often coincides with the party’s endorsement is a lesson in the type of machine politics that has been dying for decades.

The blessing of the Republican city committee comes with a guaranteed spot on the ballot and the avoidance of the far more competitive Democratic field. In the small pond of the Republican Party, Meehan has influence over some city jobs, which keeps some registered with the party and in good graces with him. This means, of course, that Meehan has some ability to sway votes – though how much is debated and certainly thought to be lessening with time. So, naturally, city ward leaders and committeemen, who have direct access to and natural influence over voters, rarely deviate from Meehan’s endorsements, particularly considering that some of these lesser party leaders themselves benefit from the general counsel’s minor largesse.

The process can briefly encapsulated thusly: the Republican Party selection committee – which Meehan leads – chooses a candidate and the city’s 66 ward leaders – one of whom is Meehan, in the 65th ward – ratify that decision. Meehan’s control over the committee and influence over many of the ward leaders makes him as powerful as an unelected Republican can be in Philadelphia (Infield 1998). This is machine politics in historic viability.

This is machine politics, the likes of which 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 (Judd 66).

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 have 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…

They continue.

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 services 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, as I saw during a Thursday night meeting in the conference room of the Fishtown office of his design firm Silica.

One of the most cited examples of recent patronage in Philadelphia is the city’s Parking Authority. In mid-2001, Perzel, then state House Majority Leader, led a Republican takeover of the city’s agency, saying it had become corrupt and bloated by its Democratic leadership.

“The machine is still so strong here,” said Mayes, the political reporter for the Tribune. “But machine politics aren’t supposed to exist anymore.”

Some say they shouldn’t.

“I think Rep. 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 a report by the Philadelphia Daily News (Warner 2008).

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.

Skeptics 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?”

VI. The many parties of the city: ‘Philadelphia Democrats are like the B’ath Party in Iraq’

Nearly 60 years of mayoral and City Council control can be viewed in two broad ways, either a Republican failure or a Democratic success. One put squarely in the hands of Meehan and his family, and the latter a victory for U.S. Congressman Bob Brady, the former union carpenter who led the city’s Democratic Party since 1986, and his predecessors.

Much like the notion of a single, unified ruling Republican Party in the first half of the 20th century, it may be misguided to think of a single Democratic Party rules today.

“Bobby Brady rules over this flea market anarchy,” said Voigt, Seventy‘s former executive director. “The idea that there is this monolith is inaccurate.”

The 2007 Democratic mayoral primary is a singular example. Michael Nutter ran to City Hall as the reform candidate, a Democratic 52nd ward leader since 1990 and a 15-year veteran of City Council.

“I think everyone agrees that Philadelphians are ready for a change,” said Mayes, the Tribune writer. “But Michael Nutter is still a Democrat.”

A reform candidate within the party that has ruled for more than a half century.

“Philadelphia Democrats are like the B’ath Party in Iraq,” said Brett Mandel, executive director of Philadelphia Forward, a nonprofit advocating tax reform in Philadelphia, and a former employee in the city’s tax and budget office.

Nutter’s Democratic competition included Brady, outgoing Mayor Street’s candidate U.S. Congressman Chakah Fattah, powerful state Rep. Dwight Evans, and a self-labeled outsider Tom Knox, among others.

“I think there is more of a two-party system within the Democratic Party here,” said Goldsmith, the former city managing director. “There is more change going on now than if Brady or Fattah had gotten in.”

VII. Reformers among Brady Democrats: ‘I expected Nutter to be a cold and nerdy dude’

In December 2007, then Mayor-elect Michael Nutter wrote an op-ed for the Inquirer defending Brady, heralding his in sustaining the city’s Democratic Party – a reformer defending the machine.

“Michael Nutter isn’t a reformer,” Marc D. Collazzo said. Collazzo is active in Kelly’s movement to revive the city’s Republican Party. The West Chester lawyer was one of a handful of registered Republicans who echoed the same charge at a meeting of Kelly’s group in April. Without a Republican voice in the city, though, Nutter can fill that role, Collazzo said. Nutter’s reform mantra, though, allows him to court and retain the liberal progressives of Philadelphia, and being a black community leader affords him some attraction in those communities, while partnering with Brady – a former union carpenter who never went to college – helps attract ethnic Democrats.

Those who expect two-parties from the Democrats and are led to believe that Nutter and Brady are from two very different camps were therefore surprised at Nutter’s defense of Brady. Inquirer City Hall reporter Patrick Kerkstra asked Nutter what reforms of the party he wanted (Kerkstra 2007).

Asked what specific reforms he’d like to see, Nutter said the party ought to have an open process for choosing which candidates to support. He also proposed training for would-be candidates, stepped-up recruiting of candidates and committee members, and a guest speaker program. Asked about the shakedown that judicial candidates are subjected to by some ward leaders, Nutter said he’d prefer that judges not be elected. “These are the kinds of issues I intend to have discussions with the chairman about,” Nutter said.

It’s part of making a reformer out of a party man.

Nutter ran his mayoral campaign against incumbent John Street, even though term limits precluded Street from running at all. But Street was a man who lost portions of the ethnic Democrat and sizable portions of the liberal progressive vote in 1999 to Sam Katz. Street was exactly who Nutter could beat. So he ran commercials and stumped on how he served City Council as a check to Street, reminding voters of the smoking ban legislation he wrote and got passed, though it was suspected Street pressured it not to pass because of their rivalry.

In January 2007, Philadelphia magazine featured a story on Nutter, months removed from his leaving City Council in pursuit of the mayor’s office. It, too, portrayed Nutter as a reformer and – as a magazine with a city readership that likely includes mostly liberal progressives – made frequent and direct mention of his notably “un-Street style.”

From reading the papers, I expected Nutter to be a cold and nerdy dude. He’s our local good-government warrior. He’s the guy, after all, who fought John Street and his own Council-mates to pass ethics reform, wage-tax cuts, same-sex partner benefits and the smoking ban, and he did all of this in a proudly un-Street style: Where Street is a pedantic preacher, Nutter is precise, thoughtful (Fagan 2007).

“The Democratic Party at least as much as Republicans has been reform minded,” said Richardson Dilworth, a professor of political science at Drexel University and grandson of the former Philadelphia mayor with the same name. “You have to think maybe Philadelphia doesn’t have the ability to sustain a two party system.”