Five-way Republican rumble for Philly Council seats

    Listen
     (From left) Incumbent Dennis O'Brien; Al Taubenberger; Dan Tinney; incumbent David Oh; and Terry Tracy.(Photos by Emma Lee/WHYY; MavsFan28/WikiMediaCommons; Image via dantinney.com; Emma Lee/WHYY; and Emma Lee/WHYY)

    (From left) Incumbent Dennis O'Brien; Al Taubenberger; Dan Tinney; incumbent David Oh; and Terry Tracy.(Photos by Emma Lee/WHYY; MavsFan28/WikiMediaCommons; Image via dantinney.com; Emma Lee/WHYY; and Emma Lee/WHYY)

    Municipal primaries in Philadelphia can be donnybrooks. General elections are more often a snooze in a town where Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one. But this fall, the five-way battle among Republicans for a couple of City Council seats is kind of interesting.

    There are seven at-large seats on Council, and the city charter effectively limits the majority party to five, which usually means the Republicans get two seats. What normally happens is that the party nominates five candidates who run against each other, and the two incumbents win. But this year, it doesn’t look like a cake walk for anybody.

    In fact you can make a case that any of the five Republicans running for those two slots has a shot.

    Counting on his brandThe incumbents, Dennis O’Brien and David Oh have opposition among city Republican leaders. That’s partly because of positions they’ve taken, such as refusing to insist on hearings on the proposed sale of the city-owned utility Philadelphia Gas Works. And it’s partly because they’re perceived as failing to tend to political relationships. O’Brien told me he’s heard this before.

    “Four years ago I wasn’t endorsed [by the party]. I wasn’t endorsed this time,” O’Brien said. “But I believe I have a political brain and I’ve demonstrated I know how to use it. I also have a political brand that’s connected to that, and I would hope that instead of the Republican party walking away from it, they’ll embrace it.”

    O’Brien was the Republicans’ lead vote-getter four years ago, and his 30 years in the Pennsylvania Legislature and name recognition in Northeast Philadelphia put him in a relatively strong position.

    That darn Ethics BoardDavid Oh, who was elected four years ago, has hit some bumps. Earlier this year, the city Ethics Board fined Oh $2,000 after he instructed a political donor to route a large contribution through another political committee to evade the city’s contribution limits.

    Oh says it was only a technical violation and that he thought what he was doing was a legal way around the city’s campaign finance law.

    “I’m clear about what the law is,” Oh said in a recent interview. “I think the issue is that, by my understanding of the law is, that’s proper. The Ethics Board has a different opinion, but I’m not going to argue about it.”

    Oh won election four years ago with support from good-government Democrats. He says he’s remained independent, tried to work on connecting the city to the world economy and hopes to be re-elected.

    An upstartThe three Republicans challenging O’Brien and Oh are all in their own way formidable.

    Terry Tracy is a well-spoken policy wonk and a graduate of Penn’s Fels School of government. He was the party’s nominee for city controller four years ago.He likes to say we’re at an inflection point in the city’s history, at which important problems must be confronted, like the city’s unfunded pension liability.

    He’s a fan of the Sweeney-Levy proposal to change how city property taxes are allocated among business and residential taxpayers, and he says the city has to think creatively about the schools’ financial crisis.

    “The reality is that we’re spending $3 billion a year almost on public education, and we’ve raised taxes four times to the tune of $400 million, and we’re not seeing the necessary improvements in educational outcomes,” Tracy said at a debate Tuesday. “We all sort of know where the money is going, but the reality is that it’s not going to the children.”

    Big Al is backThen there’s Al Taubenberger — again.

    He’s run for Congress and City Council. In 2007 he was the party’s candidate for mayor against Michael Nutter. So his name has been around for a while.

    He’s likable and familiar, sort of like your favorite sandwich. In fact, visit the Dining Car on Frankford Avenue near Academy, and you can order a Taubenberger.

    “It’s a wonderful thing,” Taubenberger said, when I asked him to describe it. “It’s a hundred percent sirloin burger, which sits on top of a German potato pancake, topped with Swiss cheese and sauerkraut, on a kaiser roll.”

    Taubenberger is a longtime head of the Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce who says he wants to bring jobs to the city. He says he’ll give his cell phone number to constituents, and will never change it. The police and firefighter unions among many others have endorsed him.

    Unions like Dan

    The fifth candidate, Dan Tinney, isn’t well-known, but he’s backed by several construction unions who’ve supported him generously. This week he’s running full-page newspaper ads attacking the incumbents, O’Brien and Oh in the Inquirer and Daily News.

    While the five Republicans run against each other, they may be glancing over their shoulders at independent candidate Andrew Stober. Mayor Nutter and former Gov. Ed Rendell have endorsed him, making his candidacy more formidable than most independents.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.