The day city Republicans died

Almost everyone agrees that single-party Democratic rule, like the Republican rule that preceded it, is bad for democracy, is bad for Philadelphia, and is bad for the party itself.

Democratic reformers Joe Clark (left) and Richardson Dilworth

Britain’s Lord Acton said it best: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Long decades of Republican excesses starting in 1884 were followed by decades of Democratic excesses. The brilliance of Joe Clark, elected as a Democratic reformer in 1952, followed by the patrician noblesse oblige of Richardson Dilworth, then yielded to party lug nut Jim Tate and the divisive Frank Rizzo.

With Democratic hegemony approaching 70 years, this is an appropriate moment to examine the flash of starlight when the city seemed poised to move out from the penumbra of the Democratic Party machine.

It was the Year of Our Lord 2003 — and filmmaker Tigre Hill was on the scene with his camera, and later produced his great 90-minute documentary, The Shame of a City.

It is all cinematography, with no narrator other than interviews with the people involved. It is an engrossing tragi-comedy and I recommend it.

                                         —-

It was a new century. The city had survived Y2K (remember that?) and still was floating on giddy optimism lofted by Mayor Ed Rendell. 

After losing by half a whisker — 49.52% to 49.12%  — to Democratic Councilman John F. Street four years earlier, Republican businessman Sam Katz saw a path to victory against Street, immortably tagged as “prickly” by Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Tom Ferrick.

Street understood city government and just what the hell is hidden in the budget like nobody else, but he didn’t suffer fools gladly.

He was unpopular. Even though Katz was a Republican, he was popular (because he was a Democrat at heart).

Adopting a false flag is not unknown in Philadelphia politics. One-time Republican Tom Foglietta became a Democratic congressman and eventually U.S. ambassador to Italy. Democrat Frank Rizzo turned Republican to run for mayor (after having been a two-term mayor as a Democrat). U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter turned from the GOP to run unsuccessfully as a Democrat. State legislator Joe Rocks was a weathervane, switching from Republican to Democrat and back again while serving in the Pennsylvania House and Senate. 

As the 2003 campaign developed, polls showed Katz nursing a small lead over Street, both of whom were centrists, Street was the last winning Democrat to occupy the middle lane. After 2003, the city lurched left, leaving Republicans a majority only in part of the Northeast. 

Katz promised clean government and an end to “pay to play.”

Many observers talked about the campaign being played against the backdrop of race, which always figures into Philadelphia politics. It had been a truism that if two blacks ran against a white, the white would win and if two whites ran again a black, the black would win. Simple vote-splitting racial mathematics. 

The mayoral race plodded along until a month before Election Day.

That’s when a listening device was discovered, or perhaps revealed, in the ceiling of the mayor’s office above his desk. It had been there for a year and a half, planted by the feds first probing drugs, then expanding into corruption.

OMG! The Feds! Memories of Abscam! Street is doomed! So said the kneejerk pundits.

City Democratic chief Bob Brady believed this could be “positively damaging” to Street, I reported he said. 

I thought the opposite.

I saw it as a rally ‘round the flag moment: The black community and liberals would close ranks to protect “their mayor” from “The Man.”

Democrats rushed in Big Guns from Al Gore to Jesse Jackson to James Carville to say it was the George W. Bush administration “going after” Philadelphia’s black mayor.

They played the race card and lied their asses off.

And it worked. Street won by a larger margin than in 1999.

Epilogue

  • After that election, 27 Philadelphians went to jail for corruption and other charges — but not Street, even though the federal prosecutor said he enabled the “pay to play” culture around him.
  • In 2007, City Councilman Michael Nutter ran for mayor as a reformer using The Shame of a City as a fund-raising tool and beat two white and two black candidates with less than 40% of the primary vote. In the general election, he crucified Republican doormat Al Taubenberger.
  • In the 2015, Councilman Jim Kenney broke the mayoral racial math. Running as a progressive against three black candidates, a white woman and an Hispanic male, Kenney collected 55% of the vote, more than his competitors combined. His victory yanked Philly further left, opening the door to the 2017 election of anti-cop progressive defense lawyer(!) Larry Krasner as D.A.
  • In 2016, chief Street defender Democratic Congressman Chaka Fattah went to federal prison on corruption charges. He was followed into the slammer by Democratic D. A.  Seth Williams for extortion. They joined a host of others convicted in earlier years.
  • In 2019, Republicans lost one of the two At-Large City Council seats they had held. 
  • Philadelphia had a 4-1 Democratic registration advantage in 2003. It is 7-1 today. Philadelphia is arguably the bluest city in the nation and not even The Shame of a City slowed that. 

22 thoughts on “The day city Republicans died”

  1. HAPPY SUNDAY !!!
    pallie,
    Dd the night owl in you knock this out at 2:00 a.m.?
    As always, a well written piece. You just gave us the 70 plus year history of filthy Philadelphia, in 500 words or less . I’ld still be writing, and obviously, most of it would be drabble compared to you.
    So, how do you explain the fall of the republican party ? Working class ideology vs handouts and freeloading?
    Tony

    1. Hey, Tony, you forgot the “you are a victim” card in your reply. That’s a big item in the Dumbocratic Strategy System of Vote Gathering. While the first 10 of my 70 years were spent in Phila (I went to the John Wister School in Germantown), the rest of my growing-up life was spent in Camden and surrounds, one couldn’t escape the going’s-on in Phila., And, having gone to college, as well as working nearly my entire life in Phila., you almost couldn’t help be a part of the politic, even if I couldn’t vote. I fully agree with Stu’s quote from Lord Acton, not to mention the quote most associated with Tip O’Neill: “All politics is local.”

  2. You’re on point with the exception that Michael Nutter was the last mayor to play the middle lane. I feel like Mike is the closest you get to Sam Katz, plus the councilmanic background.

  3. One major reason for the GOP decline / death in Philadelphia: Those of us who were fed up with being over-taxed and under served by the City “voted with our feet” and moved out. Cops and firefighters can also do that now and many do exactly that. Leave the City to live and work in the suburbs? Instant pay raise = NO more city wage tax, cheaper car insurance, better schools. No more (or certainly less) being victimized by the virtue signaling Leftists who run Philadelphia.

  4. Stu,
    The Republican party in Philadelphia died when we’re given the PPA. They lose their edge, with a few exceptions like Matt Wolf and Albert Schmidt.
    I am hopeful with the election of Martina White as Chairman of the party it will appeal to a younger and more moderate voter and breath life in the city politics
    Thanks again,

  5. From 1990 to 2010, a mere 20 years, Northeast Philadelphia went from 92% white to 58% white. That amount of ‘white flight’ is dismaying, but all too much a part of what ails the City. People vote with their feet, which is why Philadelphia’s population went from 2,100,000 to 1,585,000 in a mere 50 years. Again, most of the loss was from the white race. Why? High taxes and horrible schools. Whites had the money to move out and they did. The black population was stuck. How to get whites to move back to the city should be a question the pols should be asking themselves. As I see it, those who run the City have NEVER had vision to make the City a real tourist destination. Take the Navy Yard or the waterfront. Both should be developed into world-class centers to draw people in. Yes, Philadelphia’s population grew in the last census, but a piddling amount – not enough to mean much, but enough to make the pols think they’re doing something right, which they’re not. When I left KYW Radio at 1619 Walnut Street and moved to CBS on the other side of City Avenue (the Montgomery County side), I no longer paid the city wage tax. I got an immediate raise of (then) around 4%. I repeat what I wrote earlier: people vote with their feet. I should have added “and with their pocketbooks.”

    1. Not for nothing, but there has been reporting that work-at-home will harm growth of cities. Some people fear city’s density. That probably won’t be noted in the 2020 census.

      1. Without meaning to (I think), you raise an interesting point: work at home means no wage tax, as the tax is charged for those who live or work — full or part time — in the city. When I was a sales rep at CBS (outside the city) I had to go into the city to meet with the ad agencies. Each time I went into the city I was charged the wage tax for that day. Question: if someone is an employee of a city-located company but works from home outside the city, will they have to pay the full wage tax? The Law of Unintended Consequences comes into play.

        1. still HAPPY SUNDAY !!!
          okay you old timers. Who remembers when the city government went after federal employees ? It was late ’50s, I believe. The only thing that I remember, in addition to the kicking, screaming and crying, was that several of my Uncles and a few neighbors had to pay back taxes, because Uncle Sam never took out Philly’s city wage tax ! Everybody had to refinance their house, if they had a mortgage, or get a mortgage loan. I know, like you Vince, when working in the city, I payed. Out of the city, not. Then everybody came up with “reciprocal”. That solved that problem. From the city web site:
          Who pays the tax
          The City Wage Tax is a tax on salaries, wages, commissions, and other compensation. The tax applies to payments that a person receives from an employer in return for work or services. All Philadelphia residents owe the City Wage Tax, regardless of where they work. Non-residents who work in Philadelphia must also pay the Wage Tax.
          stay well,
          Tony

          1. Vince, Tony – it gets worse. My long-deceased grandmother lived in Phila most of her life, and, as she aged, most of her additional income came from investments, which normally produce some unearned income. Even though she had long ago stopped paying the infamous Wage Tax, she was now burdened with the Phila “School Tax.” This tax, as you guys probably already know, is a tax on unearned income, which just happens to be the same rate as the wage tax. Gee, how convenient. This particular tax rattled her to the day she died.

          2. As Woody Allen cracked, “The only sure things are death and taxes. But only taxes get worse.”

          3. But if you are a non-resident working outside the city, you do not pay. That’s my understanding. Of course, I don’t really care because I neither live nor work in Philadelphia. Let Philadelphians fight Philadelphia’s onerous taxes.

        2. I think you will NOT be charged, on days working outside city, relying on what I believe was true with sportswriters. They paid no wage tax on days they traveled with the team. I never deducted the days I worked outside the city because it was too much bother.

  6. Stu,
    A POI and an aside, since I was a Floridian from 92 until 08:
    Do you recall the name Tillie Fowler? She was Florida’s 4th Congressional district Rep. from ’93 until ’01…my rep. She was big on the military, like me, but never took a penny from the NRA, moderately pro choice, unlike me (pro-life). I voted for her 3 times. She was Republican, like me, granted, but she made a promise and kept it…..(sound familiar) 8 years and I’m out of here. She was popular, and was going to run again, but she retired as promised, yet undoubtedly would have been reelected.
    Someone to admire. We need more like Tillie.
    Thanks Stu…you filled in 17 yrs of Philly pols.
    Tom

  7. Dear Stu & readers,

    Speaking of corruption in out fine town, I wonder if people might be interested is some of the background. I just published a scholarly edition of Lincoln Steffens, The Shame of the Cities, which includes detailed accounts of the Gilded Age corruption in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania.

    See the publisher’s description of the book:

    https://www.cambridgescholars.com/lincoln-steffenss-the-shame-of-the-cities-and-the-philosophy-of-corruption-and-reform

    I have some promotional copies on hand, which I can let you have at a considerable discount. (Drop me a note at HG1Callaway(at)gmail(.)com, if you are interested.

    Journalist Steffens had been enlisted in Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully pulpit” at the time when Roosevelt was Commissioner of Police in NYC. In consequence, Steffens was connected to a national reform movement, which Roosevelt helped to lead. As he went around to various cities, Steffens was put in touch with the journalists in the town, who knew the ins and outs what was going on. Having checked on much of what he had to say on the score of corruption, I can tell you that Steffens was almost always correct in his reports or corruption in New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Louis and Minneapolis.

    I’ve identified the people and events which Steffens talks about in the book, provided a Chronology of the Gilded Age-Progressive Era story of corruption and reform and I also have something to say about the social and political sources of corruption.

    The book seems to have a good deal of local interest, and this is partly because I’ve gone into details on how the corrupt Gilded Age, political system in Pennsylvania worked. Some of this goes back even before the Civil War, and there was a long series of U.S. Senators (then elected by the legislature in Harrisburg) who ran the corrupt machine politics–this persisted well into the 20th century. (Think Boise Penrose.)

    Both the Republicans and the Democrats ran corrupt political systems in the various cities, and the PA machine was definitely in the hands of the Gilded Age Republicans. (As I recall, there was only one Democrat elected Governor between the Civil War and the Great Depression. Consult your South Philadelphia Street maps.)

    Still reform actually came to the fore with Roosevelt –our “accidental” Republican president. National reform was politically rooted in New York, partly because the corrupt NYC Democrats of Tammany Hall could never quite control Wall Street –or the state government in Albany. That is part of the explanation of Roosevelt’s rise to power. The end of the Gilded Age and the start of the Progressive Era is usually dated from 1901 when Roosevelt came into office on the death of McKinley.

    H.G. Callaway

  8. HAPPY MONDAY !!!
    Yea, when I worked, I actually did like Mondays. There is nothing in the world so gratifying, as to be a part of something much bigger than you, that will last a lifetime. Bridge, high rise, etc.
    TAXATION WITH REPRESENTATION !
    This is all sarcasm.
    Guys,
    I guess it was a million years ago,(1950s, & ’60s ) when Philly was rolling in money. Everything that said “made in America” ( although that slogan had no need to exist ) came from the Delaware Valley. You walked to work or took the PTC. You had a choice of jobs in manufacturing where you could learn a trade ( machine operator, plant maintenance, etc ). You were not taxed out of existence. AND, you actually got services in return for your tax dollar. Street repair, street cleaning, infrastructure upgrades, corporate spending, etc. Then the light bulb clicked on in some politicians’ brain. A.K.A. GREED and CORRUPTION ! ( sound familiar ) . And it got worse, or as I like to say, worser and worser.
    Then the decades came and went and so did the work. First, it went south, then it went out of the country. As we all know, it costs money to maintain your house, never mind improvements. It’s the same way with any city or state. Big money is needed to provide for the residents. If there is no tax rateable ( business ), the money comes out of your pocket. Multiply the negatives, e.g. illegals, fraud of all types, dead beats. Same services ( or less ) for more money . I don’t think that this is the “American Dream”!
    Consequently, every form of government came up with a new tax. The taxes break the back of the “working man”. Your take home pay keeps going to the “less side”, rather than the “plus side”. It just plain costs more to do less !
    Now, the reality and truth.
    Donald Trump sought the job of President of the United States of America, because he was tired of “all of the above”. Never mind all of the lies and accusations about Trump, the business man. If they were remotely true, he would have been found out a long time ago. Mr. Trump, in spite of the negatives, is trying his best to clean up a system that is so corrupt, that we see it all as normal and business as usual. Most of us gave up a long time ago, and that is what the swamp wants of you. Beat you down till you collapse. Give you a trinket and the rest stays at the top. All of the dirt is coming out, possibly for the first time ever. It’s only going to get uglier as the politicians fall. The poor people that worshiped these evil “gods” are going to be lost and floundering, until they realize that for all of these years, “they’ve been duped “.
    Tony

      1. pallie,
        Never Trumper that you are. You are well aware of the fraud and corruption that exists today. Get rid of the back stabbing politics ( both sides ) and things will happen at an incredible speed .
        While we are waiting for that to happen – HA !, Try looking up the fraud and corruption sectio of the Attorney General’s office, for starters. After you read that, try the FBI’s International Corruption Unit. For added fodder, there the D.C. Attorney General who created the Public Corruption Unit which deals with campaign finance.
        That’s just a small sampling that is/was encouraged by a President that doesn’t take bull #@*^ none too well. We all know that the republicans in Congress – with the dead pan dimicrats blocking the way- are going after everything dirty .
        What else are you looking for, in your amusement, Stu ?
        Tony
        BTW
        If you read the Philly Tax Code, you, sports people musicians and everybody else owes taxes because. Whether or not the tax code is fully enforced is another issue.

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