Why Philly’s GOP Doesn’t Support Its Own Council Incumbents

Some GOP ward leaders are none too pleased with Councilmen David Oh and Dennis O'Brien.

Photo Credit: City Council's Flickr

From L to R: Council members David Oh and Dennis O’Brien | Photo Credit: City Council’s Flickr

Philadelphia’s Republican Party voted last week to not endorse any candidates yet for City Council At-Large in the May 19th primary.

Joe DeFelice, executive director of the Republican City Committee, explains, “We felt that there are a lot of good candidates running out there, seven solid candidates with diversities of opinions and backgrounds.” He says the party may revisit the issue in March or April.

“We’re going to see what happens after petitions are filed,” says DeFelice. “If you can’t get on the ballot, you probably shouldn’t be running for citywide office.”

There may be more to it than that: It’s no secret that some GOP ward leaders are unhappy with incumbent Republican City Council At-Large members Dennis O’Brien and David Oh. The party did not endorse O’Brien for Council in 2011, despite the fact that he was a longtime state lawmaker before running for the seat, and the Republican City Committee opposed Oh’s proposal last year to ditch Philadelphia’s “resign-to-run” rule. Many Republicans are also upset that Oh and O’Brien didn’t introduce a bill to sell Philadelphia Gas Works.

“They don’t even seem to be behaving as a watchdog,” says Mike Cibik, the Republican 5th Ward leader, of Oh and O’Brien. “There have been too many unanimous votes in City Council. One of the complaints I hear is that this isn’t a two-party town, and they don’t help matters when they go along unanimously.”

If the Republican City Committee decides to stick with its non-endorsement, how would it affect the City Council race? And perhaps more interestingly, what would it say about the state of the city GOP?

According to DeFelice, seven Republicans are running for City Council At-Large: O’Brien, Oh, attorney and former Council candidate Matthew Wolfe, former mayoral candidate Al Taubenberger, former City Controller candidate Terry Tracy, steamfitter Dan Tinney and Cheyney University track-and-field coach James Williams.

It seems as if the Republican City Committee isn’t supporting anyone yet at least partly because some ward leaders are dissatisfied with the incumbents. And yet Oh and O’Brien probably will be the least harmed of the candidates if the GOP doesn’t ultimately endorse.

O’Brien has already demonstrated that he can win a Council seat without the backing of the Republican Party (see: 2011 primary and general elections).

“I think my brand — supporting cops, nurses, health care, kids with disabilities — has served me well,” says O’Brien.

Oh, meanwhile, says he has the support of enough ward leaders to win a party endorsement if an official vote is taken. Even if that doesn’t happen, he expects those individual ward leaders will help him turn out the vote on May 19th.

“I’m comfortable,” says Oh. “I’m going to run hard and I’m going to run to win.”

Those who stand to lose the most if the GOP doesn’t endorse, ironically, are the challengers.

Often, the Republican Party endorses five at-large candidates in the primary election. That’s because the top five vote-getters in the primary will move onto the general election in November (where only two Republican at-large candidates are expected to prevail because of the Democrats’ overwhelming voter-registration edge in Philadelphia).

Wolfe, Tracy and Taubenberger have been endorsed by the city GOP in past elections, so they likely would have a good shot at getting the nod again. And Tinney, who has proven to be a decent fundraiser with almost $42,000 in the bank at the end of 2014, is positioned to make a solid pitch to the Republican City Committee. Without a party endorsement, the challengers will have to fend for themselves, building their own get-out-the-vote operation and making the rounds to each individual ward leader to gain support.

That’s not a bad thing, says DeFelice: “To have [seven] candidates running around the city, spreading the message, and putting forward our brand of Republicanism is good for the party.”

Is that true, though? Until recently, the city’s Republican Party was in a civil war that dragged on for years. Insurgents argued that then-GOP-leaders Michael Meehan and Vito Canuso should be overthrown because they weren’t recruiting or supporting viable candidates. In 2013, a truce was called and state Rep. John Taylor was elected chairman of the party. Finally unified, the Republican Party was supposed to quickly get to the business of putting forward bright, credible candidates — something that even some diehard Democrats wanted to see in this one-party town.

Almost two years later, though, it looks like the GOP might not endorse anyone for City Council At-Large. Isn’t that the opposite of running good candidates? And the possibility of a non-endorsement makes it look like the Republican City Committee still has a unity problem (though, to be fair, not nearly as badly as before).

DeFelice is adamant that last week’s vote doesn’t hurt the party. By not endorsing anyone yet, he says, “we’re giving people a reason to get involved in the party.”

Cibik, too, says it’s not a sign that the party is divided: “I don’t think there’s a clamoring for the two incumbents. So with that in mind, I don’t think it’d be disunity” if the party didn’t eventually endorse anyone.

Plus, DeFelice says, “Just the fact that you’re calling me about this shows that there’s interest in the Republican party.”