Philadelphia’s Republican civil war is over – why it matters

    Did you even know that for years now an insurgent group of Republicans has waged pitched battles to overthrow the leadership of the Philadelphia party?

    No, you say, and why should I care?

    All right, given that Republicans represent less than 12 percent of Philadelphia voters, this battle may seem like two drunks arguing over who gets the last soggy pretzels in the bowl on the bar.

    But I remember when the Philadelphia Republican party wasn’t a joke. When there were competitive Republican mayoral primaries, and Republicans waged real campaigns for mayor (okay, they were always ex-Democrats, but still).

    I remember when the City Council seat now held by Maria Quinones-Sanchez was held by a Republican, and the GOP held a state senate seat in the northeast.

    As recently as 2008, there were four Republican state legislators from Philadelphia. Now, only one is left–John Taylor, the man who will soon become chairman of the Republican party on kind of a unity ticket.

    Tuesday night longtime chairman Vito Canuso announced he would soon resign his post, so the warring factions of the party could be unified.

    So what were they fighting about anyway?

    Some of the insurgent Republicans, known as the Loyal Opposition, were tea party conservatives. Others were people who wanted a piece of the modest patronage the party controls.

    But the unifying principle was that the party’s leadership, exemplified by Canuso and party counsel Michael Meehan, were lazy and passive, more interested in cutting deals with Democrats for patronage crumbs than recruiting bright young candidates to challenge Democrats at the polls.

    There were ward battles and legal battles that went on forever. For the past year, the opposition had their own party chairman, Rick Hellberg, whom they claimed was the rightful leader of the party.

    The Republican state committee has backed the insurgents for years, paying for an office and a staff guy, Joe DeFelice, to do field work and undo the established leadership.

    And now, finally, a truce. Canuso will resign. Taylor becomes chair, and DeFelice becomes executive director of the party. The disputed ward battles get worked out, and everyone sets out to revitalize the Philadelphia GOP.

    A kinder, gentler, GOP?

    When I spoke to Taylor yesterday about what he envisions for the party (Taylor, by the way, is a smart, reasonable man whom Ed Rendell once tried to make a Democrat). He told me he wants to get the workers from both factions to pitch in and make something of the enterprise. He said Republicans need “a more concise message” to take to voters.

    What’s the message, I asked?

    “Well, that we’re a moderate alternative to what’s going on,” he said. “We’re not a liberal party, but I think most Philadelphia Republicans aren’t arch-conservatives either. We’re not the party of the rich, certainly in Philadelphia. We can be the party for small business, the party for job creation, and we’re not anti-union in that thrust.”

    Taylor said it’s important that the party recruit candidates and compete for local offices and register new voters.

    “There was a time not that long ago when we could get a hundred fifty registrations in a night, and that’s not so easy now,” he said. “A lot of that’s from the image of the national party, and we’re not all like that.”

    Taylor said it’s discouraging when his troops read in political stories that Democrats outnumber Republicans in the city six to one, and he said the sorry performance of the Philadelphia party has diminished its standing among state and national Republicans.

    “If we’re seen as insignificant here in the city, candidates don’t come here,” he said. “As a result, we do poorly, so as a result, candidates don’t come here; and then we have this negative cycle that occurs, so we want to reverse that.”

    Matthew Wolfe, a West Philadelphia Republican ward leader and leader of the opposition group, made another interesting point: it’s in the interest of reform Democrats to have a competitive Republican party in the city.

    “If there’s no serious Republican in a race, then the Democrats can just run anybody,” Wolfe said.

    Hmmm. I’ve seen that before.






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