Philadelphia has a lesson for national Republicans this year: Even a feuding, sometimes dysfunctional party can pull together a broad-based coalition behind a candidate and win.
Case in point is Al Schmidt, Philadelphia’s new Republican city commissioner.
Schmidt, a 40-year-old former federal auditor, had to fight his own party to capture one of three seats on the commission, which oversees elections and voter registration. Yet his call for honest and efficient government resonated with libertarians and progressives, Tea Party Republicans and Greens.
“He was willing to sit down and talk about third parties and equal access,” said Hugh Giordano, a union organizer and Green party member who was frustrated at the way previous city commissioners treated his party. “That’s credibility.”
Endorsements for Schmidt ranged from former governor Edward G. Rendell, a Democrat, to U.S. Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican; from Americans for Democratic Action to the Eagle Forum. Schmidt’s message was hard to resist.
“This was a municipal race focused on corruption and efficiency and effectiveness and transparency,” he says. “Who disagrees with that? Other than the people who are invested in the system not working?”
In Philadelphia, there are plenty such people, and they understand the problems that Schmidt’s victory presents. Here’s how a fellow reformer, Democrat Brett Mandel, summed it up in Philadelphia Magazine shortly after the election:
“Al is a threat to the status quo.”
Schmidt himself sees a shifting landscape, but argues that it’s not about him.
“Something big is going on. It’s just hard to identify what that is,” he says. “Is that something the death throes of a party wildly grasping for scraps, or is it something productive, where you have more qualified people interested in running?”
The answer is a little of both.
Republicans ran Philadelphia from the Civil War to the early 1950s. The Union League may still stand, but the party itself is in ruins. The decline began with the rise of Democratic reformers Richardson Dilworth and Joseph Clark in the 1940s. Like Schmidt, they preached the gospel of good government and the need for a viable two-party system. They worked their way up—sometimes winning, sometimes losing—in races for city treasurer, controller, and district attorney, before Clark became mayor in 1952.
There hasn’t been a Republican mayor since. Only two Republicans have been district attorney in that time, and one of them, Arlen Specter, was actually a registered Democrat when he first ran on the GOP ticket. The party holds 2 of about 30 state house and senate seats from the city. The de facto leader of the party, general counsel Michael Meehan, who inherited his post from his father and grandfather, anointed a lifelong Democrat as his sacrificial mayoral candidate last year.
True, it’s tough to recruit candidates when Democrats have a six-to-one edge in voter registration. But New York and Los Angeles have the same problem, and they’ve elected GOP mayors in recent years.
Is Schmidt’s election a sign of the GOP’s own Dilworth and Clark moment? The state party thinks so.
“This is the beginning of a resurgence,” says state GOP chair Rob Gleason. “It’s microscopic and under the radar, but I think people will look back at the election of 2011 as a turning point for the Republican party in Philadelphia.”
If there is a resurgence, Gleason will deserve part of the credit. Gleason watched as Barack Obama used his 475,000-vote edge from Philadelphia to steamroll the rest of the commonwealth. It’s a perennial problem. Keystone State Republicans not only have to win their districts, they also have to amass enough votes to help offset Philly’s huge Democratic wave.
After 2008, Gleason decided it was time to do more than urge the city GOP to try harder. He raised money to put his own people on the ground, including Schmidt. They registered voters and recruited committee people, the folks who make up the ground game on Election Days. When the new push began, almost two-thirds of 3,000 GOP committee posts were vacant. Some had been empty for years.
Finally inspired, the city Republican bosses geared up for battle—against Gleason. Too many new committee people could threaten the boss’s hold on power.
Thus, in 2010, Philadelphians were treated to the spectacle of the city GOP establishment fighting efforts to expand the Republican party, even going out of its way to kick young African Americans off ballots.
The party was embarrassed further when many of the signatures on its challenges to the new committee people appeared to be forged. (It’s Philadelphia, so, yes, one signature was that of a woman who had been dead almost a year.) Meehan withdrew the challenges, blaming unnamed ward leaders. Hoping for more details, the district attorney’s office has been investigating.
It was no surprise, then, that the party refused to back Schmidt for city commissioner the next year. The real shocker came in November, when Schmidt beat GOP incumbent Joe Duda, whose campaign epitomized the way the city’s GOP leadership and Democrats often work together to fight reformers.
“I spent Election Day driving from polling place to polling place, preparing to concede because every Democratic committeeman outside Center City and Chestnut Hill had a ballot with Duda on it,” Schmidt says. “I don’t know what factor we were outnumbered by, but it was a lot.”
Two months later, and now sworn into office, Schmidt is encouraged but realistic. “It’s not like the city is going to turn into a Republican majority city,” he says. “There’s no race that’s going to be easy for Republicans.”
Schmidt hopes, however, that new leadership and a more united party can focus not just on the presidential election, but also on races for the state legislature, on recruitment of competent candidates, and on the long-neglected basics of party building.
“I don’t think the solution is a grand-slam home run,” he says, reminding supporters that the mayor’s race isn’t the only game in town. “I think the solution is to hit a single. That will help get a lot of people beyond the defeatism that’s there right now.”
Republicans have to be prepared for the long haul, Schmidt says. He points to Dilworth and Clark—the last century’s threat to the status quo—as a reminder of both the challenges and the potential the GOP faces.
“They lost and lost and lost and lost—until they won.”
Kevin Ferris is a columnist and Sunday Currents editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.