The Republicans deferred to their boss, who ran the party — officially, it’s called the “Republican City Committee” — like a private club. As a result, they didn’t do any of the things that parties do. They didn’t embark on voter registration drives. They barely wrote platforms. They didn’t reach out to black people or Hispanic people or Asian people. They didn’t recruit election workers in a third of the city’s voting precincts, and as of 1962, according to an article in Time magazine, at least 400 of their committeemen were “ghosts,” unreachable via the U.S. mail.
They just lost. Over and over and over. Until, in 1994, on the 10th hole of a golf course in Royersford, Billy Meehan slumped over dead.
And when the party faithful looked around for a new leader, a man to rejuvenate the party, their eyes came to rest on … yet another Meehan. And Michael Meehan, the son of Billy Meehan, who was the son of Austin Meehan, accepted the burden that was his birthright. At which point the party, under the leadership of its third straight Meehan, promptly resumed losing.
THE WEBSITE OF the modern-day Republican City Committee is at Phillygop.com, where you begin to get a sense of how little the basic mentality of the party has changed since the days of Billy Meehan. I checked the site in July, in the middle of a crazy political summer. For the first time since Barack Obama was elected, his poll numbers were dropping precipitously, and Republicans smelled blood. All across the land, the GOP “base” was packing town halls on health-care reform and spreading the word about Obama’s long-planned socialist takeover of the USA. They were energized. They were mad. They were even carrying loaded handguns, some of them. But not the Philly contingent. Here, the party was, if not actually dead, dozing a deep, deep sleep. The website featured a cheesy graphic of a waving American flag and a “latest news” section whose most recent item had been updated all the way back in December. There was no issues page, no platform statement, no lacerating text about Democratic corruption — or whatever. No partisan content at all. To be fair, the Philly Democrats don’t have a website at all, but then again, they don’t need one. As the only real party in town, why bother?
The last Republican to win a competitive citywide election was Ron Castille, for D.A. in 1989. Sure, finance guru Sam Katz almost beat John Street in 1999, but only because Katz took every opportunity to distance himself from other GOP politicians. Meehan did support Katz, but to little effect. Katz lost by less than 9,500 votes; if the party had drummed up just six more votes in every precinct, Katz would have been the mayor. In terms of boots on the ground, “They didn’t have very much,” Katz says. “And on a citywide basis, it amounted to very little.” Today, there are zero Republican state senators with districts in the city, and only four Republican state representatives out of a possible 28 — four pale, aging men clinging to dying strongholds in the Northeast and the “river wards.” Republicans now make up just 13 percent of the city’s voters, down from 25 percent in 1988. That’s a seven-to-one disadvantage, an all-time low. It wasn’t long ago that it was three-to-one. This is a “huge problem,” in the words of Rob Gleason, chairman of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, one of a growing chorus of local and state Republican voices fed up with Philly’s losing ways. “You almost have to try to do that badly,” says Marc Collazzo, a GOP committeeman.