Ward leader Mike Cibik is harsher: “We have, like, sat around, with our thumbs up our ass, and not done anything.”
But the perennial weakness of the Philly GOP isn’t just a Republican problem. It’s a problem for Democrats and Independents, too — for anyone who cares about the city and wants it to be better. Politics is supposed to be adversarial. In America’s two-party system, the assumption is that both parties try to win. If that assumption breaks down — if one party unilaterally disarms, as it has in Philadelphia — strange things start to happen. You end up with a Jurassic power structure, populated by large, lazy creatures incapable of adapting to new climates, like diseased stegosauruses whaling at each other in the hot sun. You end up with a broken city. A broke city. And if things get bad enough, like they’ve gotten in Philadelphia in 2009, you end up rooting for some very strange heroes. Heroes who, in any other time, you’d probably walk away from, backward, slowly.
“PHILADELPHIA IS A lot like The Communist Manifesto,” Kevin Kelly’s telling me. “Great in theory, but it sucks.” Kelly dips his chin toward his soup bowl and hoovers a large spoonful. “This chicken noodle soup is incredible,” he says.
On the phone, Kelly told me to look for a “goofy-looking guy.” He turns out to be a muscular, ruddy man of 42, with narrow blue eyes and a pair of dark sunglasses tucked into his short-sleeve shirt. He looks like he just crawled out of the cockpit of a plane.
We’re at a diner in Northern Liberties, part of Bart Blatstein’s new “Piazza at Schmidts” development. Kelly admires Blatstein, which is why he invited me here — to make a point about capitalism: “The government doesn’t create. Guys like Blatstein create.” He talks with confidence and speed, reeling off his life story and his political theories, apologizing for being in “transmit-only mode.”
Kelly grew up in Sharon Hill, in an Irish Catholic family — there were pictures of the pope and JFK on the mantel — and went to college at Villanova. One day, a “really hot girl” walked into his class and told him that the Navy was offering him a full four-year scholarship. He followed her out of his class. He ended up in the Navy, flying A-6E Intruders — attack jets. From 1989 to 2006, he completed eight deployments to the Middle East. Then he returned to the city.