This summer, state chairman Rob Gleason made a push for a leadership change. According to GOP sources, he demanded that the city’s official party chairman, Vito Canuso, step down. Canuso refused. “I’m urging the current leadership to take the necessary actions to rebuild this base,” Gleason told me. “And you know, I have ways to, ah, motivate them if they don’t want to do it.” He really doesn’t, though. The state chairman doesn’t have any direct say in the leadership of the Philly party. The Philly ward leaders elect the party chairman, who in turn appoints the counsel (i.e., Meehan).
It takes the support of 35 ward leaders to elect a chairman. Kevin Kelly and the Loyal Opposition could, in theory, launch a grass-roots insurgency, convert 35 ward leaders to their way of thinking, and install their own chairman. (Kelly will never get the title himself; the establishment sees him as “toxic,” according to ward leader Mike Cibik.) Theoretically, it’s a straightforward process. But the bonds of loyalty stretch deep into the roots of the party structure. Past attempts at reform have failed miserably. In 1962, a group of idealistic operatives called “The Alliance” ran a slate of 29 reform candidates against the GOP establishment. Essentially, The Alliance went 0 for 29. Billy Meehan crushed them — and he held onto the grudge. A few years later, when a bright young Alliance leader asked the GOP for a job, a Meehan deputy told him to report to an address in South Philly to collect his sanitation uniform. The young man would be working on the back of a garbage truck.
I called several of the most effective Republican ward leaders to see if there was any appetite for new leadership. No dice. One ward leader, Bill Pettigrew, a Parking Authority deputy director, said he’d like to see the Loyal Opposition “knocking on more doors” instead of having “wine-and-cheese parties.” He added that Michael is “a very open guy. If he gives you his word, it’s his bond.” The simple truth is that the Meehans have done a lot of favors for a lot of people for a lot of years. When Al Schmidt needed a job, Michael Meehan gave him one, working for the party; to this day, Schmidt calls Meehan “one of the most genuinely decent human beings.” And even the Loyal Opposition’s Marc Collazzo admits he owes his first job in law to a helpful call from Billy Meehan, whose son he’s now hoping to depose.
“You’d be amazed at how many people say they’re loyal to ‘The Meehans,’” says one Loyal Opposition member. “Billy Meehan has been dead for 15 years. And still, it’s ‘The Meehans.’”
As this story was going to press, the party held a meeting. It was, in part, about judges. There are 10 judicial seats up for grabs this November. At the meeting, Vito Canuso told the assembled Republican ward leaders that the party had made a decision. Four of the GOP’s nominees for judicial seats had also been nominated by the Democrats. Six had not. The GOP, then, would essentially drop its support for those six nominees — and would support six of the Democrats’ nominees instead. This way, “Each party’s ticket will have the exact same 10 candidates,” wrote J. Matthew Wolfe, a ward leader in West Philadelphia, in his e-mail newsletter, The University City Trumpet.