Philadelphia’s Republican party: insurgents close in

    For a few years now, Tea Partiers across the country have staged revolts that have given establishment Republicans fits.

    In Philadelphia, an different kind of insurgency has challenged city GOP leaders, driven not by ideological purity, but by a desire to make the party more competitive with Democrats.

    To the extent there’s a policy agenda, the Loyal Opposition in Philadelphia stands for honest government, in contrast to the corrupt pragmatism they see among establishment Republicans and Democrats alike.

    For a long time, it seemed the opposition would be hopelessly outgunned.

    They had passion and commitment. But party counsel Michael Meehan and chairman Vito Canuso had the ward leaders in the few parts of the city where registered Republicans cluster. And they had the patronage of the Philadelphia Parking Authority.

    But the insurgents have picked up momentum over the past year, fueled in part by the Republican State Committee, which has rented office space in the city and paid operatives to organize against the existing leadership. Which was, and is pretty weird.

    While attending the Pennsylvania Society events over the weekend, I talked to a lot of people who are convinced the opposition will soon capture a power-sharing arrangement with the Republican establishment, if not outright control of the party.

    A big test was the November election, when opposition candidate Al Schmidt overwhelmed veteran ward leader Joe Duda for the Republican spot on the three-member city commission, which runs elections.

    And I’ve been hearing from some conventional party leaders that the opposition has a point, and the guys at the top have to get them involved or get out of the way.

    I asked chairman Vito Canuso about this a couple of times in New York, and he didn’t have much to say. But he didn’t deny there were conversations about change afoot.

    I got Meehan on the phone earlier this week.

    If you don’t know Philly Republican politics, Michael Meehan is the son of former party leader Billy Meehan, who was the son of former party leader Austin Meehan.

    In other words, he’s prince of a rare political dynasty – an urban Republican one.

    Austin Meehan was before my time, but I knew Billy Meehan, and I agree with Thacher Longstreth’s description of his style: “After you finished talking to him, you felt like he was your friend.”

    Michael has a similar affability, but the insurgents say he’s been too accommodating, too willing to negotiate for Democratic patronage crumbs, and not willing enough to recruit young, aggressive candidates and compete for offices, even when you can’t win.

    I’m sure there’s something to the criticism, though it seemed to me over the years that the Meehans tried to compete with Democrats when they thought they had a shot at winning. They managed to win the DA’s office in 1985 and ’89, and come pretty close in a few mayoral races.

    Anyway, when I spoke to Michael Meehan he acknowledged he’s having conversations with the insurgents, but said he doesn’t see a resolution in sight.

    “They have no plan,” Meehan told me. “Or their plan is that we just turn everything over to them.”

    Meehan didn’t rule out the idea of a new chairman taking Canuso’s place, but he didn’t see anyone at the moment capable of uniting the party.

    One ward leader I spoke to said that he’s come to regard the opposition as a force that deserves recognition, and said there has to be an accommodation. The party just isn’t big enough to sustain two factions at war with one another, he said.

    So what happens next?

    Any time the Republican City Committee, the assembly of party ward leaders gathers, there could be a motion for a new chairman.

    There’s no date set for a meeting, but most expect it will have to happen in January, because the party needs to endorse candidates for coming legislative and judicial elections.

    Somehow I think change is coming, sooner rather than later.

    If they do take over, it will be interesting to see if the insurgents can make headway in this overwhelmingly Democratic town.

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