Is it crazy time? Could Sam Katz, a three-time loser in past Philadelphia mayoral bids as a Republican, win this year as an independent?
In 2006, as Barack Obama was considering the somewhat preposterous notion of running for president, when he’d been in the U.S. Senate for all of two years and a state senator just four years earlier, he told a friend something about political timing.
“It may not be exactly the time I would pick,” he said, “but sometimes the times pick you.”
Has the year 2015 picked Sam Katz?
He isn’t saying much publicly, but it’s clear Katz sees opportunity in a field of Democratic candidates widely viewed as uninspiring. And he sees a Philadelphia that’s changing in ways that suggest more independent voting.
Many are clearly disenchanted with the major parties, and the city has more immigrants, empty-nesters and millennials who are presumably less wedded to traditional voting patterns.
It’s true there are about 5,000 more people registered as independent than there were five years ago, but 89.5 percent of the city’s voters are still registered as either Republican or Democrat.
Katz doesn’t have to make up his mind about running until after the Democratic primary, and the idea only makes sense if the Democratic nominee is a weak candidate, someone who barely wins a low-turnout primary and is viewed with distaste by many Democratic voters.
Attorney Tom Leonard is the last candidate to run a serious independent mayoral bid, way back in 1983. He resigned his post as city controller to run for mayor, and ended up with about 10 percent of the vote. (Wilson Goode Sr. was elected over Republican Frank Rizzo that year.)
Leonard told me it wouldn’t be easy for Katz, but if voters are unhappy with the Democrat and hungry for something different, he could have some appeal.
“If Sam were the anointed candidate, if he were sort of the Inquirer editorial page candidate, and given the city needs financial expertise and the kind of background he has, he would have a fighting shot,” Leonard said.
Grand Old Spoilers
A big problem in the Katz scenario is Philadelphia’s Republican Party.
In the past, Katz ran as a Republican and started with the party’s base of more than a hundred thousand registered voters, then tried to woo independents and dissatisfied Democrats.
I checked in with Neil Oxman, the veteran political consultant who did the media for Katz’s 1999 mayoral run, when he almost beat Democrat John Street. Oxman said it will be tough for Katz if he’s trying to beat the Democrat and there’s also a Republican on the ballot.
“The problem for the independent is, if the Republican for mayor gets 10 or 12 or 14 percent of the vote, that vote is much more likely to come from whoever the independent is, Sam Katz for instance, than from the Democrat,” Oxman said.
The obvious solution to that problem, Leonard noted, would be for Katz to somehow convince the Republicans to refrain from running a candidate and endorse Katz, or endorse no one, and let their voters take their pick.
That doesn’t seem likely. The Republican Party has some new blood and energy, if not a lot of registered voters, and they aren’t likely to lie down for Katz.
Republican city committee chairman, state Rep. John Taylor, told me he hasn’t spoken with Katz in years.
“You know, if Sam wanted to be a Republican, he would have been a Republican. He’d have been helping us for years, and that’s not the case,” Taylor said.
Further, he said GOP leaders are now reviewing potential candidates eager to carry the party’s banner in the fall. They aren’t well-known, but they are enthusiastic.
“I have people who are interested, and we are full steam ahead, and my interest as chairman of the party is to have a Republican run for mayor, and a Republican win for mayor, not an independent or a Democrat,” he said.
Show us the money
There’s another challenge for Katz. He hasn’t yet formed a political committee and isn’t yet raising money. And since Katz last ran for mayor in 2003, the city has imposed limits on contributions to political candidates: $2,900 for individual donations, $11,500 for political committees.
Oxman said that will make it hard for Katz to raise money in a hurry, the way he did back in the day.
“Sam went and raised an awful lot of money from a few people,” Oxman said. “I mean, Sidney Kimmel gave him $300,000. Dodo Hamilton gave him a six-figure check. I mean he got a lot of money from a relatively few people.”
So fundraising would be a challenge.
On the other hand, in three previous campaigns Katz has banked substantial name recognition and a generally positive public profile.
And the campaign finance rules could pinch the Democrat in a different way.
It’s a strange quirk of the city’s campaign finance law that the contribution limits are applied not per election cycle, but per calendar year.
Thus, contributors to the Democratic nominee who max out their donations to help with a tough primary can’t legally donate again for the general election. That could be a problem, but the party might well find other donors to help, including supporters of losing candidates anxious to stay in the good graces of the winner.
A lot could happen in such a race — Democrats would no doubt attack Katz as a Republican in disguise, and they’d bring up a damaging 2004 court verdict against him arising from an old business dispute.
Lightning does strike
So there’s plenty of conventional wisdom that says this is a steep climb for Katz.
But I’ve learned over the years that you just can’t predict how these things will go.
I remember when the Philadelphia Democratic Party nominated a little-known judge named Bobby Williams for the office of district attorney in 1985.
He was a terrible candidate, but he had the full backing of the party. The Republicans picked an equally unknown prosecutor named Ron Castille. He’d lost a leg in Vietnam, and, while he wasn’t what you’d call a polished candidate, he had a solid record, sounded believable, and worked hard.
The campaign happened when both newspapers were on strike, so there was relatively little coverage and little paid media in the race.
But voters somehow figured the thing out; Castille won, and it wasn’t close.
“You can’t sell bad fish at the top of the ticket,” a veteran of Philadelphia politics told me as the results came in, adding, “at the bottom of the ticket, you can sell botulism.”
In other words, a dominant party like the Philadelphia Democratic machine can get a stiff elected for an obscure office, but for a prominent position, such as mayor or DA, they need an appealing candidate.
Oxman said Katz’s chances will come down to “how acceptable or unacceptable the Democratic candidate is.”
Katz declined a detailed interview, but said he plans to offer some new thinking on some critical policy questions facing the city in the coming months, and see what develops. And he likes to tell the story of another Philadelphia candidate: Rudolph Blankenburg, a businessman who stunned the city’s political machine and won election to the mayor’s office — in 1911. You just never know.