City’s GOP Goes To (Civil) War

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BY JOE SHAHEELI/  Activists in the Republican Party in Philadelphia refuse to understand the reason for their existence. Rather than provide city leadership, attract voters, pick winnable candidates, raise election-day money and get their candidates elected, they are instead engaged in a civil war.

Don’t blame the rank and file of the existing Republican City Committee, most of whom would rather see peace at this point.

War was declared on May 24, after a faction which had long been seeking to negotiate the retirement of third-generation RCC Counsel Mike Meehan and his ally Vito Canuso, who chaired City Committee, gave up on arriving at a peaceful resolution. They called a meeting of all ward leaders at St. Michael’s Russian Orthodox Church in Northern Liberties. There, 20 ward leaders or chairs elected Rick Hellberg, an outgoing financial planner who challenged Congressman Chaka Fattah (D-Phila.) in the 2010 election.

According to the reckoning of the meeting’s organizers, this constituted a quorum of the 36 Republican wards in the city (out of 66) which are organized and entitled to vote.

The long-time leadership of Canuso and Meehan did not initiate the revolution within the ranks. They have, however, been blamed for the inability of the Republican City Committee to do more than hold onto its hard-core 120,000 registrations in a city long dominated by Congressman Bob Brady’s Democrat City Committee, which at times has been able to evangelize and gather into the fold as many as 800,000 Democrats, most of them loyal to a fault. Year after year, the State Republican Party has seen the majorities amassed by their statewide candidates disappear as the Brady-led Democrat machine continually rolls up anywhere from 350,000 to 450,000 majorities. Those tallies often were enough to sink their candidates.

Several years back, a group of unhappy city GOP members began trying to effect changes they felt could bring a resurgence to the party. These included Ward Leaders Joe DeFelice, Kevin Kelly, now-Commissioner Al Schmidt, Mike Cibik and Matt Wolfe among a handful of others.

At the party reorganization meeting in June of 2010, Canuso and Meehan found themselves inundated with a flood of new ward leaders, some who had gotten elected in wards which had as few as three or as many as a dozen Republican committeepersons, recruited by the dissidents, who had been elected that primary. These were wards long absent any Republican activity, demographically dominated by 90% or more traditionally Democrat African American voters. You didn’t need 10 fingers to count the number of Republicans in any one division. The dissidents had figured out they could go into long-ignored Black dominated wards, where token leaders had been handpicked by the party leadership, and reach out to the handful of Republicans, who were happy to oblige, to get their own ward leaders elected.

At that contentious 2010 meeting, held at the century-old United Republican Club in Kensington, the day was rainy. The crowd huddled under a tent erected on the sidewalk was not of the traditional rank and file awaiting the outcome of the reorganization election. It included many of the new ward leaders who were kicked out of the reorganization meeting after they presented their credentials to Meehan and Canuso. In hindsight, as both sides came to recognize, had the new ward leaders been allowed to vote, they would not have able to overcome the ward-leader vote loyal to the incumbent City Committee leadership.

A delegation of the dissidents, led by Schmidt and DeFelice among others, met with State Republican Party Chair Rob Gleason and appealed for his support to help them maintain and grow the opposition to the City Committee leadership. He was happy to fund money and patronage, with Joe DeFelice becoming the newly created Philadelphia Republican State Committee chapter head.

They were also successful in having Vito Canuso no longer recognized as the Republican Philadelphia County Chair. Meehan’s faction had given them the opening the dissidents needed by submitting numerous clumsy petitions and petition challenges, many of which showed evidences of fraud. The old guard also staged ward-committee elections with shaky procedures in an effort to shut out the opposition. The evidence was enough to disqualify Canuso’s election as RCC chair; so Philadelphia, in the eyes of the State Party, has had no chair since 2011.

PHILA.’s Republican City Committee incumbents flexed their muscles as many ward leaders joined Republican Counsel Michael Meehan (center, pink shirt) at State Rep. John Taylor’s fundraiser at Quaker City Yacht Club, same evening as State Committee-sponsored Republicans voted in a new RCC chair to fill office once held by Vito Canuso. Meehan denied that election's validity.

A look at the sides remains basically the same as it was when Gleason sanctioned the Civil War. Long-time ward leaders loyal to Canuso and Meehan still lead some wards with sizeable Republican registrants. They are for the most part located in the Kensington and Northeast sections of the city, with exceptions being the 22nd in Roxborough and the 26th in South Philadelphia. Center City, West and North Philadelphia are strongholds of the State-aligned group. For the rival factions, hardcore ward-committee backing may add up to about 20 each.

In the middle are influential ward leaders like Councilman Denny O’Brien in the Northeast and David Oh in the Southwest, as well as countless ordinary voters who don’t follow the leadership disputes but would simply like to see their party pull together as one, and try to win elections against Democrats instead of fellow Republicans.

Ward leaders of both factions have not improved the total Republican registration picture in this city. It remains at 128,970. Registration reports show, since last November until this week, only 1,615 voters have registered Republican. Divide that figure into 69 wards and you can see little or no progress has been made in getting Republican registrations, though both sides are talking up a good game.

In the meantime, Philadelphia now has two separate leaderships for its RCC.  The state-affiliated leaders won their vote by a close reading of party bylaws. They had challenged the elections of 16 ward leaders, among them such old-guard stalwarts as Skip Hendrie (9th), Walt Vogler, Jr. (21st), Joe Samuel (24th), State Rep. John Taylor (25th), Jim Dintino (26th), Agnes Tilley (35th), Nick Marrandino (39th), Len Amodei (53rd), Al Taubenberger (56th) and Bill Ivers (61st). Until these contests have been adjudicated, Wolfe, an attorney, said these leaders were ineligible to vote.

Neutral observers indicate these challenges were based on the fact the elections might have disregarded normal protocols, since committees would normally wave the need to go through them for these long time leaders. Eleven wards do not have duly elected leaders, say the State Party loyalists. These are the 7th, 13th, 33rd, 36th, 38th, 44th, 47th, 49th, 60th and 64th. In addition, they assert, three wards have no organization at all: the 10th, 19th and 37th.

In three wards, the state faction recognizes different ward leaders than does the Meehan faction. It seated Kelly as leader of the 22nd Ward in the Northwest, where the Meehan faction recognizes Calvin Tucker. It also allowed Pete Wirs to vote as leader of Germantown’s 59th Ward where the Meehan organization recognizes Joe Messa. For the Far Northeast’s 58th Ward, Phil Innamorato was allowed to vote for Hellberg; the Meehan faction recognizes Tom Matkowski as that ward’s leader.

If peace is not brokered between these dueling leaderships, steps will proceed in court to determine control of RCC’s assets (such as they are) and legal privileges. The outcome may depend on which legal venue the case winds up in – Philadelphia Common Pleas Court or Commonwealth Court. How fast the wheels of justice spin is another crucial factor. With the fall campaign not far off, it’s hard to see how Republicans can run an effective voter-turnout program effort in this city if its leaders are concentrating on a game of musical chairs instead.


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