THIS IS THE story of the biggest group of losers in the city and their struggle not to be such losers anymore, and it begins with the story of the biggest loser of all. His talent for losing was epic. He worked at it. He was good at it. He built an empire on top of losing, and by doing so, he distorted the city’s politics for decades and continues to distort our politics today, even in death.
His name was William Austin Meehan, but everybody called him Billy. He was a lawyer by trade. He lived at the very edge of the city limits, at the northernmost tip of Northeast Philadelphia, surrounded by farms. He loved food and beer and golf. He was short and round-bellied and jowly, with a cartoonish, high-pitched voice. It was the kind of voice people loved to imitate, like Brando’s in The Godfather as overdubbed by Bugs Bunny.
For more than three decades, from 1961 to 1994, Meehan was the top Republican in the city. Technically, he wasn’t the party’s chairman; he was just its “counsel.” It didn’t matter. He and he alone decided which candidates would run for office on the Republican ticket. He was the boss.
And invariably, when Boss Meehan chose a candidate, the candidate lost.
It wasn’t his fault, at first. He took over a losing party from his father, Sheriff Austin Meehan, the last in a hundred-year line of GOP bosses to “run things” in Philadelphia. In 1951, the Sheriff and his fellow Republicans were swept out of office by a wave of Democratic reformers led by the handsome war hero Richardson Dilworth, who drubbed the sweaty, crimson-cheeked Sheriff in a famous public debate. The Republicans had owned the city for a century; now the Democrats did. They quickly assembled their own formidable political machine. Their voter rolls swelled, fed by the vast mid-century influx of African-Americans into the city. By the time the Sheriff died, a decade later, in 1961, the party he bequeathed to his son Billy was a shadow of its former self.
But the son didn’t seem to mind. In fact, running a losing party suited Billy Meehan’s particular gifts. He was intelligent and easygoing and utterly non-ideological, a completely frictionless surface. One day per week, he worked at General Asphalt Paving Co., the family contracting business once owned by his father. Other days, he held court at various bars in the Northeast — the Torresdale Country Club, the Bavarian Club. He was a creature of habit who did one thing but did it amazingly well: He survived. In other cities dominated by strong Democratic machines — Chicago, New York — the Republican Party had shriveled up and died. But Meehan preserved at least a mirage of a party, and he did it primarily by cutting deals with the Democrats. The saying went that if you gave Billy Meehan an orange, he would create a boxcar full of orange juice for the party. The orange juice was jobs. “I don’t want any big jobs,” he used to say. “Just give me all the little ones so I can hand them out to my people.” He traded big campaigns for little fiefdoms: a judge here, a Council member there. He would remove his own candidates from the ballot in return for accommodations from the Democratic machine. He performed endless small favors to earn loyalty: “Everything from fixing a traffic ticket,” he once said, “to getting a son out of the Army.” He rarely consulted anyone else in his party. “Meehan would go into his meditation, what have you, and do some incantations, and maybe disembowel a squirrel, and pick a candidate, for God’s sakes,” says Randall Miller, a professor of history at St. Joseph’s University. “And people tolerated that.”