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.”
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.
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.
Kelly intended to start his own business. (He’s the entrepreneurial brains behind Dakota Blu, a soon-to-be-opened “medical aesthetic center” in Old City that will offer, among other treatments, “smart lipo” — “You come in on a Monday, Tuesday you’re back in the gym.”) He also wanted to further “the competition of ideas” in the city regarding “civic stuff,” and this desire led him to the Republican Party. He met with the party’s leaders, including Michael Meehan, and told them how he thought things stood: “‘Look, I understand we’re a seven-to-one underdog, but we need to revitalize things, so there’s competition. What’s the plan?’ And they looked at me like I had six heads. That’s the status quo. ‘We’re never going to win again. And that’s it. That’s the plan.’ I said, ‘Look, you can believe that’s the plan. But you don’t get to be in charge if that’s the plan.’”
Pilots tend to develop “a pathological aversion to dysfunction,” Kelly says. They wake up worrying about every switch, gear, cable and gauge on their planes; the tiniest malfunction can mean death. And here was a machine that wasn’t really a machine — not because it had eroded, but because it had never been built in the first place. It was a scrap yard of mangled parts and missing gears, good for one thing only: patronage. The Philly Republicans couldn’t wrangle votes to save their lives — only one ward went for John McCain in the 2008 presidential election — but hey, they could get somebody’s daughter a job at the Parking Authority. The GOP controls about 500 jobs at the Authority, another 15 to 20 at the Board of Revision of Taxes (this according to the Inquirer — by contrast, Bob Brady and the Democrats control about 60 jobs there), plus another dozen or so at the Board of Elections and several more in the courts and on City Council. One Republican insider estimates that Republicans control 600 to 700, max, of all city jobs — about three percent — and close to 10 percent of the jobs that are filled by patronage. It’s not dominance by any means, but it’s not nothing, either; thanks to tacit power-sharing agreements with the Democrats, today’s GOP controls more jobs than are justified by the party’s electoral performance, and more jobs than the Democrats enjoyed back when Republicans used to run the city and controlled damn near everything.
But Kevin Kelly isn’t impressed. “It’s all bullshit,” he says at lunch. “How many votes does that get me?” Kelly didn’t want to haggle over scraps. He wanted to take on the Democrats directly, by going after the “low-hanging fruit” that voters care about: crime, potholes, the schools. “We’re for the kid in North Philly who’s got to walk to school in the middle of gunfire,” he says.
In 2006, Kelly had a Jerry Maguire moment. In the heat of frustration and inspiration, he wrote a 36-page manifesto called “Rebuilding a Majority: Painting a Successful Future Picture for the Philadelphia GOP.” It read more like a war plan than a political memo, full of military lingo and quotes from Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. (A representative sentence: “Concepts such as Objectives, Offensive, Simplicity, Unity of Command, Economy of Force, Maneuver, Surprise, and Security are principles most common to the idea of Strategy.”) But for all its strangeness, the manifesto’s main insights were remarkably clear-eyed. The centerpiece was a bullet-pointed “debrief” of the party’s past failures. For the first time in 60 years, someone dared to lay out the GOP’s dysfunction in writing. “In a manner of speaking,” Kelly wrote, “Politics is Combat. [bold in original] We either learn from our past mistakes and fix them, or we fail.”
Kelly e-mailed the manifesto to everyone he knew, and he gave a copy to Michael Meehan in person. He figured that Meehan would implement at least a few of his suggestions, especially after Kelly had an encouraging meeting with Senator Arlen Specter. Specter was still a Republican then. Kelly says Specter pointed at him and said, “You’re the message.” Kelly waited and waited for Meehan to act. Then he got sick of waiting, so he started the Loyal Opposition.
THEY CLUSTER AROUND me, welcoming me, vetting me, offering me wine, venting to me:
“Are your editors allowing you to write about Republicans?”
“I’m not a child molester. I’m a conservative.”
“The problem is, we don’t have a message. George Bush killed us.”
“They think we’re zealots. We’re not.”
The evening of my lunch with Kelly, I get to meet the Loyal Oppositionists, Kelly’s comrades in arms. The Loyal Opposition, according to its website, is a Republican “policy” group advancing “the free flow of ideas … through vigorous, loyal and public-spirited opposition to the status quo.” But really it’s just a handful of people who get together every couple of weeks and talk about how to stop losing, and sometimes show up en masse at GOP events like tonight’s. We’re at a Center City steakhouse for a Pat Toomey fund-raiser. Toomey is the small, sour-faced man who, by force of his sway with hard-core conservatives, convinced Arlen Specter to tuck tail to the Democratic Party, and now Toomey will probably be running against him next year for the U.S. Senate. Toomey is more Kelly’s speed, anyway. They’re both insurgents, both bomb-throwers by temperament, and both still learning how to play nice with the establishment in order to more effectively subvert it. Kelly was here for a few minutes, in ratty jeans and an untucked shirt, but after he shook hands with Toomey, he bolted, and now I’m face-to-face with the core of the movement he started.
And it looks different from Kelly in several ways. These folks are all dressed in nice suits and ties and blouses, for one thing. They stuff business cards into my hand. They tell me they’re lawyers, committeemen, ward leaders — i.e., they’re not fighter pilots penning manifestos. They’re cogs in the existing party structure.
But they’re still plenty pissed off. For instance, Al Schmidt is here. Schmidt is a hell of a story. There may be no better story for illustrating just how broken his party is right now. Schmidt is a baby-faced 38, a proud nerd with agate glasses and a navy pinstripe suit and an earnest gaze. He looks like one of the Agents from The Matrix minus about 40 pounds of muscle. From January 2008 to January 2009, he worked as the executive director for the Republican City Committee. He was on the inside. He got to see the party’s dysfunction up close, especially when he began to attempt to recruit candidates for important races.
Recruitment has long been the bane of the Philly GOP. “When a minority party is weak,” Schmidt says, “you’re not attracting quality candidates.” Case in point: Al Taubenberger, the hapless Northeast Philadelphia chamber-of-commerce drone who ran for mayor in 2007 and earned just 17 percent of the vote to Michael Nutter’s 83 percent, and whose campaign mainly consisted of praising his opponent. To paraphrase the old Groucho Marx joke: You wouldn’t want to be part of any club that would have Al Taubenberger as a member. “Your party gets weaker, and then registration begins to plummet, and all sorts of dominoes begin to fall,” Schmidt says. “You can’t let yourself get pulled into the death spiral.”
So Schmidt decided to quit his job and run for office himself — for City Controller, the city’s top auditor — this November. He was more than qualified. From 1999 to 2001, he’d worked on Bill Clinton’s Holocaust commission, helping to track down Nazi cash streams and returning ill-gotten gains to Holocaust survivors. He went on to join the nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office, auditing several federal agencies involved in counterterrorism and intelligence gathering. Schmidt had served his country with distinction. And now, as a candidate for City Controller, he’d be running against incumbent Alan Butkovitz, a Democratic ward leader who, Schmidt says, failed to audit his fellow Democrats who ran city agencies, as he was required to do by law. It was a textbook case of a one-party system producing a perverse result, and a golden opportunity for the Republicans. But when Schmidt set up a meeting with Michael Meehan and asked for his support, Meehan said, essentially: Don’t run.
It will be hard, Meehan told him. It will be tough on your young family. You’ll probably lose. So you should think very, very hard.
“It was,” Schmidt tells me, sucking in a huge breath, “interesting.”
“Interesting” isn’t the word the Loyal Opposition’s president, Marc Collazzo, would use. “You know, we finally have a candidate who excites the base, who excites our members, and is made for the job he’s running for,” Collazzo says. “And we actually get resistance from the party leadership.” This year’s election is an off-year election. Off-year elections are low-turnout, giving an edge to the minority party. As Schmidt puts it: “Lightning is never going to strike unless you’ve climbed onto the roof to get struck.” Says Collazzo, “If we get a high Republican turnout, we can win.”
But a high turnout requires money, workers and organization. And you only need to take one look at the way Al Schmidt is campaigning — by begging his family and friends for donations, by crashing Democratic rallies and holding up his lonely signs (“A CONTROLLER WHO WON’T BE AFRAID TO POKE AROUND”) — to know he isn’t getting any of that.
IN HIS LAW office on the 22nd floor of Two Liberty Place, Michael Meehan radiates a surprising warmth — the Meehans have never liked the press. We make small talk for a few minutes, then Meehan brings up the Loyal Opposition without my even asking. “There’s a group out there, the Loyal Opposition, that thinks we should be calling people to the carpet on things,” he says. Meehan has a vague, tentative way of speaking: “people” (i.e., Democrats); “things” (i.e., corruption). In his opinion, calling Democrats to the carpet is easier said than done; “The natural people to speak up are the elected officials.” But as we’ve seen, Republican elected officials barely exist, and the ones who do exist probably don’t “speak often enough.”
Meehan has narrow eyes and a kind, broad face. He’s a big guy in a paisley tie, his shirt stretched tautly across his stomach. He has age spots on his wrist. He looks utterly harmless. I ask him about Al Schmidt. “The guy is brilliant. Okay? We tried to talk him out of running.” Meehan throws up his hands. “But he, and a group of 10 or 12 people, said he wanted to run, because he wanted to stand up and say that what these people are doing is wrong.”
Isn’t that, ah, a good thing? Why would you try to talk a “brilliant” candidate out of running?
Meehan sticks his tongue out, pulls it back in. “First, I thought it was an uphill battle. Although he’s qualified.” He shakes his head. “But I didn’t want him to get frustrated over the campaign, and become disinterested in being involved. … You’d probably need $5 million to run it, but I don’t think either candidate’s going to raise $600,000, because who is really interested in the City Controller’s position? It’s not like there’s contracts, okay? It’s not like there’s — ”
He stops himself. This is a candid answer. Meehan is saying that because the City Controller doesn’t have very many contracts to hand out to cronies, it’s hard to raise money from contract-seekers to fund a campaign. There’s no pay-to-play, so there’s no pay. Who is really interested in the City Controller’s position? Not businessmen looking for contracts. And Meehan would understand the mentality of people who do business with the city, because he’s related to some; his cousin now owns his father’s old paving company, which has received city contracts, including one to maintain the cooling unit in City Hall and one at the airport. (General Asphalt once hired Milton Street, the ex-mayor’s wacky brother, as a “consultant.”)
Meehan is a pragmatist. He’s saying: You won’t get the money to win this City Controller’s race, so why even try? And that’s a legitimate opinion. But this attitude makes Meehan a poor watchdog at a time when we really need one. As a city, we’re hemorrhaging watchdogs. The two daily newspapers are in bankruptcy, less and less able to perform their oversight role. The current City Controller, the city’s own paid watchdog, is a ward leader. We are depending to a terrifying degree on the ambition and cutthroat instincts of the opposition party leaders — of Michael Meehan himself — to keep us safe and solvent. But Meehan seems to exist out of time, in a private happy place untouched by all the politicking and arguing swirling around him. And he isn’t going anywhere.
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.
According to Wolfe, the ward leaders weren’t even allowed to vote on whether they wished to throw six of their own candidates under the bus. The decision was simply announced.
Kevin Kelly forwarded me Wolfe’s dispatch with the note, “This is what I’m talking about. Unbelievable.”
FROM THE STANDPOINT of sheer human endurance, it’s impossible not to respect the Meehans. Still, I can’t help thinking back to something Kevin Kelly told me at our lunch. “People are resistant to change, right?” he said, then pushed aside his pulled-pork sandwich and made his hands into fists. “Imagine I have a pencil right here. You apply a little pressure, it bends.” He pretended to bend an imaginary pencil, slightly, then bend it back. “It’s called the ‘historisis effect.’” His point was that if you want to break the pencil in half, to make it into “the new thing you want it to be,” you have to apply the right amount of pressure.
Kelly knows how to play this game. In 2006, he publicly criticized a Democratic candidate for Congress, Patrick Murphy, who had served in Iraq as a JAG lawyer. Kelly stood up at a press conference organized by Murphy’s opponent and said that Murphy had never been “a front-line guy.” It was a vile smear, but potentially effective; similar “swift-boat” tactics sank John Kerry. (Patrick Murphy won anyway, by a razor-thin margin. Kelly claims he was set up by Democratic operatives and never intended to swift-boat Murphy; he was only responding to reporters’ “leading questions.”) Kelly continues to be a freelance combatant in our nation’s political wars. On August 2nd, Kelly told a friend to film Arlen Specter’s town hall on health-care reform, and the camera was running when the rowdy, conservative crowd heckled and jeered Specter until he stammered to a stop. Within 20 minutes, at Kelly’s behest, the Loyal Opposition cameraman had edited the outburst into a YouTube clip, and later that night, it was at the top of the conservative website Drudge Report , and within a day, it had gone viral and was being played on every major news network, over and over and over, as evidence of a populist upswelling against health-care reform.
This stuff can get ugly. But better ugliness than stagnant pleasantness. Better two actual political parties fighting for what they believe in, out in the open, than this polite fiction of a two-party system that serves nobody except the nice people who set it up and sustain it and will continue to benefit from it for another 20 years, until they die. “The stuff they do can’t stand the light of day,” Kelly says, talking about the leaders of his own party. “And what I want to do is shine the light of day, and let the chips fall where they may.” For all of the party’s losses, year in and year out, it’s still shaped by a pathological fear of losing — losing its jobs, its deals, its carefully carved-out niches. But Kelly isn’t afraid of losing everything. And that’s why he will, eventually, inevitably, win.