Politics: Poor Al

The Republicans, out of power in Philadelphia for half a century, have no shot in this election, either. So why is mayoral wannabe Al Taubenberger smiling?

ONCE UPON A time, there was a mayor in Philadelphia who was crude and insensitive. He frequently used the N-word, and when a reporter asked him why he was giving all the city jobs to his friends, he responded, “You don’t expect me to give them to my enemies, do you?” Once, when he was being hounded by the press about a complex corruption issue, he volunteered to take a polygraph test to finally put the matter to rest. He failed it.

He was a Democrat. He got reelected.

Then there was a mayor whose judgment was so bad that he thought it would be a good idea to drop an incendiary device on a house full of civilians. After the whole city block burned down, they counted 11 dead people, five of them children.

He was a Democrat. He got reelected.

Then there was a mayor whose administration was so rife with corruption that the FBI was bugging his office, in an investigation that eventually netted several multi-year jail terms for his close associates. When news of the bugging device became common knowledge, his poll numbers inexplicably shot up, and he got reelected.

I think you know what party he belonged to.

After 14 consecutive butt-whuppings, the Republican Party in Philadelphia seems to have had enough. It was just eight years ago that Sam Katz led the Republicans to within 9,000 votes of City Hall, four years since he was ahead in the polls just a few weeks before Election Day. But with this upcoming mayoral election, it’s as if the cumulative effect of so much losing has taken its toll. Limping along with a virtually unfunded and little-known candidate named Al Taubenberger, in a city where only one in four voters calls himself a Republican, the party is poised to take beating number 15 with barely a whimper.

And that could be bad news for everybody.

a great guy,” Sam Katz tells me. “Al’s a great guy,” agrees Zack Stalberg, head of the watchdog group Committee of Seventy. “It’s impossible not to like Al Taubenberger,” says Republican City Committee deputy director Al Schmidt. And there you have it: The best the Republicans can do is field a pleasant candidate.

Not true, claims State Rep John Perzel, from Northeast Philly. “Al Taubenberger is a viable candidate. Everybody thought Sam Katz was a joke at first. No one had heard of him at this point in his campaign.” While that may be largely true, by May of his campaign Sam Katz had $4 million to tell them who he was. Taubenberger was stuck with about $20,000.

Though they are right — Al Taubenberger, 54 years old, is a nice guy, and he, in turn, is fond of his opponent. “Michael Nutter is a great guy,” says Al Taubenberger. “I sat down with him, and we agreed to run a clean campaign.” The unspoken truth hangs heavy in the air, because this campaign is going to be as dirty as Michael Nutter needs it to be, which, so far, is not very. In fact, the result is such a foregone conclusion that Taubenberger and Nutter got up onstage together at Stu Bykofsky’s 17th Annual Candidates Comedy Night, a charity showcase at Finnegan’s Wake in mid-August, and the running joke was what bosom pals the two candidates are.

“The press keeps asking, ‘Where’s the mud?’” Taubenberger said.

“Where is it?” Nutter returned comically. “I can’t find it.”

It was all downhill from there. Taubenberger and Nutter broke into song with “Together, Wherever We Go” and “Side By Side,” their arms around each other. Welcome to the mayor’s race, folks.

Silly as it all seems, Taubenberger looks like he enjoys being the butt of the joke. Early in his campaign, sitting in a big comfy chair at the Starbucks at 16th and Arch, he appeared relaxed, happy to talk to the press. “Money is important, but getting the message out is important,” he said, downplaying the lack of funds. “You’ve got to go door-to-door, meet people.” It’s all about old-school campaigning. His plan has been to work the ground game. The fact is, there really isn’t much choice, because walking around and talking to people is about the only thing his campaign can afford to do.

But what possesses someone to take this role, be the lead actor in a stage play that’s sure to close on opening night? “I like a challenge,” Taubenberger said. “I’m competitive.” As proof, he mentioned his love of soccer. When he retires from politics, Taubenberger says, he wants to be a soccer coach. I can see him in that role. In fact, when you chat with him, his heart doesn’t really seem to be in politics. The conversation keeps drifting to soccer, to family, to … Germany.

“Did you know that Poland has seats that belong to the German-speaking population?” he asked rhetorically, almost breathlessly. Before I can admit that my knowledge of the Polish parliament is pretty thin, Taubenberger started talking excitedly about his German heritage, his fluency in German, and his family’s struggles during the postwar years.

“I’m a bilingual candidate,” Taubenberger said. “I think understanding other cultures is important.” He has been the general chairperson of the German-American Steuben Parade Committee for over 10 years, and in campaign appearances he frequently tries to marry this interest with his political aspirations. But the German-American voting bloc isn’t large enough to make this effective. If only he were Hispanic! If only there were more Germans!

Taubenberger does have political experience. He ran twice in the Republican primaries for the U.S. House, in 2002 and 2004, and was Councilman Jack Kelly’s chief of staff. A graduate of Northeast High School and Penn State, Taubenberger has a résumé that reads like a manual of political connectedness. An alternate delegate to the 2000 Republican Convention, he is also the chairman of the Taxi and Limousine Committee, the vice chair of the Philadelphia Tax Reform Commission, and, perhaps most important, a board member of the Philadelphia Parking Authority.

Republicans got control of the PPA six years ago in a lightning strike, when John Perzel, then House Speaker, pushed through a bill giving Governor Tom Ridge, a Republican, power to appoint Parking Authority members to 10-year terms. Presto! Control of the lucrative Authority. Some 500 political appointees work at the PPA, where revenues could exceed $40 million a year. Lucrative indeed, and the party is content to just keep gnawing away at the bones and then have a nice long nap in the sun. Or, as frustrated 40-year-old Fifth Ward chairman Kevin Kelly puts it: “I just don’t think they’re interested in winning.”

And in case everyone didn’t get the point that this is a patronage candidate, Taubenberger getting plucked from the Authority (he’s secretary and vice chairman of the PPA) — how much more in-your-face can you get? Take that, people who want reform! This is politics old-school-style.

HOW DID this happen? How did a once-proud Republican Party that dominated Philadelphia politics for 90 years suddenly find itself on a 55-year losing streak?

The party has been controlled for well over half a century by the Meehan family. Billy Meehan ran it like his own private fiefdom for four decades, until he dropped dead of a heart attack in 1994. The party had been passed to him by his father, and  Billy’s son Mike would inherit it, and therein lies the problem: While Boss Billy was not without some victories over the years — such as getting Tom Gola elected Controller and helping convince Arlen Specter to change parties and then get elected D.A. — the Republicans remained mostly old-school and ward-bound, better at finding jobs than fielding candidates, and deaf to younger members who wanted a modern party adept at polling, direct mail and TV advertising. But that wasn’t Billy Meehan’s way. In the mid-’80s, when the Republicans were discussing whom to field for a Senate seat, Meehan acted like he barely cared. “How many jobs does a senator have?” he said to the Inquirer. “Maybe 10? Maybe 12? … Why get so excited?” So while other big cities with a majority of Democratic voters have managed to elect Republican mayors — hello, New York — Philadelphia Republicans seem stuck and defeated.

As Jeff Jubelirer, a media consultant, sees it, the problem these days is simple entropy. “There are no minor leagues for the Republican Party,” he says. “They’ve ignored the development process. They’re like the New York Yankees, just poaching the talent from the other teams.” Without, however, the Yankees’ winning record.

Indeed, prior to Sam Katz, the Republican Party’s closest brush with success came in 1991, as former mayor, and former Democrat, Frank Rizzo seemed like he might have a shot against Ed Rendell. Alas, Rizzo died of a heart attack before the election, but lights switched on in the heads of the Republican City Committee. Instead of wasting a lot of time working on developing new candidates, the new thinking went, perhaps the best way to win might be simply to wait for a popular and disgruntled Democrat to defect.

“The party chases candidates, not the other way around,” says St. Joseph’s University history professor and political analyst Randall Miller. “They just haven’t done the kind of labor to establish their own identity. There is no fire in the belly.”

Kevin Kelly thinks the problem is widespread and indigenous. He thinks his party is lazy. He says Republicans are content with the “crumbs” thrown their way by the Democrats. “Crumbs” is a word that keeps coming up. Everyone from Sam Katz to political science professors to media consultants uses it, when they talk about what the Republicans are content with. Kelly was moved to write an op-ed piece in the Inquirer last August expressing frustration with his party’s local leadership. “How about a vision?” Kelly asked in print. “In order to be walked on, you have to be lying down.”

Kelly feels that nothing has changed since then. “I wrote a 50-page strategy paper about how we can get more aggressive, and I had lunch with Michael Meehan. Before he even looked at the paper, he began explaining why my ideas were impossible,” Kelly says. “These guys should lead or get out of the way.” (Meehan was so uninterested in weighing in on the mayor’s race, he refused to comment for this article.)

Kelly thinks the party should go after the First District State Senate seat of Democrat Vince Fumo, who intends to run again in 2008 despite being under indictment on corruption charges. “I guarantee that’s an attainable seat, and they’re not putting anybody up for it,” Kelly says. “They’ve traded away everything for patronage here and contracts there. ”

I check, and Kelly is right. No Republican has yet declared any intention of running for Fumo’s seat in 2008. I’m not a qualified campaign manager, but wouldn’t now be a good time to get started, what with all the fund-raising and so forth?

“The Meehans didn’t like me,” Sam Katz remembers. It wasn’t until he had  proven his fund-raising ability in the 1991 primaries that the Meehans reluctantly approved him as a candidate eight years later. He went on to run the two closest elections this city has seen in five decades.

And don’t expect to see Kevin Kelly as a mayoral candidate anytime soon. Though Kelly is a veteran of the Iraq war, a fighter pilot and an eloquent speaker, and possesses the energy to effect real change, Michael Meehan doesn’t care for him, either. “I’m not the most popular person with the leadership,” Kelly explains.

This election cycle, that honor goes to Philadelphia Parking Authority board member Al Taubenberger.

THE DEEP QUESTION you have to ask yourself when you’re running a pretend race for mayor is, “How much effort should I put into this?” Is it necessary, for instance, to draw up policy papers, with your proposed tax plan and budget? Or do you just put up a one-page website with a link to Taubenberger’s “campaign literature,” which consists of his photo and a 100-word nod to jobs, crime and taxes?

“When I’m mayor,” Taubenberger says, “we’re going to get more cops on the streets.” So he does have policy points, albeit generic ones. He rattles off a few more ideas, mostly about attracting business from overseas. He is, to quote a Monty Python sketch, pro-humanity and anti-bad-things. Then he tells me, “I’m running to make Michael Nutter a better mayor.”

Hey, wait a minute! Doesn’t that mean he knows he’s not going to be mayor? It has to be tough, getting this act down. On the one hand, Taubenberger doesn’t want to be considered delusional by continually declaring that he’s going to win, and on the other hand, he has to keep up appearances. This is a real election, dammit! This is democracy in action.

Meaning, for Al Taubenberger, that it’s close and personal.

“My family, they’re all involved,” he says, excited now that we’re done with the candidate’s boilerplate. “I’ve got a son who’s seven, he’s involved.” And his son Matthew, 30, “will be pretty involved in my candidacy,” Taubenberger says. Having “Republican Campaign Coordinator for the Philadelphia 2007 Mayoral Election” on your résumé has to be impressive — that is, to anyone who doesn’t live near Philadelphia. And his daughter Sarah, who turned 18 this past year, will be his strongest supporter — she’ll be voting for her father in her first city election. Though breeding your voter base is a slow way to build support.

“Would they like to see me more?” he says of his children during this busy time. “Sure. But I’m running for mayor of this great city, and they’re going to get a chance to see things they wouldn’t normally see.” And there it is, Taubenberger’s most likely motive for putting himself through all this: He wants his kids to be proud of him.

Al Taubenberger isn’t going to be the mayor. He is the ultimate good neighbor, the guy you want living on your street. He’ll roll your car window up when it rains, and he’ll watch your house when you go away. He’s a family guy. And the mayoral race is a cool distraction that will soon be over.

OTHERS HAVE a different idea of Taubenberger’s motives. “If they don’t field a candidate, the party will definitely lose status,” says St. Joe’s prof Miller. In running his pretend candidacy, Taubenberger is, essentially, “falling on his sword” for the party elders: “He’s doing them a service.”

And, of course, taking a hit for the party could help him down the road.

“He’s building up goodwill,” says Kevin Scott, founder of the Philadelphia Fair and Clean Elections Pledge. “Think of what it’s going to do for his name recognition.  It would be a smart move if he’s going to run for an at-large Council seat later.”

To be fair, this is a tough time to be running for anything as a GOP candidate. Not only is the national Republican Party getting pounded in the polls, but Taubenberger also has to contend with new local campaign financing laws that have hamstrung whatever hope he had of fund-raising. The new laws were meant to put an end to City Hall’s pay-to-play scandals; now, no corporation that makes a political donation of $10,000 or more is eligible for a city contract worth more than $25,000. And the maximum private donation for this election term is only $5,000.

“In the past, it wasn’t unusual to see $50,000, even $100,000 donations,” says Scott. “Now lawyers are advising clients not to make any donations, because it will cut them out of the bidding process.”

Even so, advocates of reform in the city’s Republican Party think that more than ever, this is the year they could have made a difference. An unpopular Democratic administration is on its way out, with a boatload of baggage and a history of corruption.

“All politics is local,” says Republican committeeman Joe DeFelice. “George Bush isn’t going to walk down your street. We should be out there, getting in touch with the minority communities, the Hispanic communities, a Brazilian community waiting to be tapped.” When I ask why this isn’t happening, DeFelice sighs and says, “Laziness.”

“With all this corruption,” DeFelice continues, “do you think it’s going to change with Nutter if there isn’t a strong Republican Party? He’s talking about cleaning up, about reform. There’s a guy running for Traffic Court judge, Willie Singletary. He’s a Democrat. There was a bench warrant out for his arrest, he owed more than $11,000 in parking tickets, and his license was suspended. He’s probably going to win. That’s your reform.”

“IN ORDER FOR democracy to work,” says Republican City Committee deputy director Al Schmidt, “you have to have a vigorous debate, a battleground of ideas.” The battleground in Philadelphia politics has become a pleasant country meadow, where everyone is … content.

At Michael Nutter’s 50th birthday party back in June, at Patou, Nutter noticed Al Taubenberger enter the room with his posse of two. He invited Taubenberger over to say a few words. Standing on a blue staircase, Taubenberger congratulated Nutter, stressing how clean and polite the campaign was going to be. Avoiding acrimony appears to be Taubenberger’s primary talking point, his one attainable goal — in fact, it felt as if Taubenberger was delivering his concession speech early. Perhaps it was meant to be Nutter’s birthday present.

It was all very … nice. But since when are Philadelphia politics nice, and since when are voters better served by civility among elected officials?

And what does Al Taubenberger really get out of all this, for falling on his sword, for walking into the buzz saw, for having to be pleasant? I ask him if after the election he’s going to go off and coach soccer.

“Oh, no, not yet,” Taubenberger says. “I’m going to be a player in this town whether I win or lose.” Trying to imagine the backroom deal that inspired that comment, I ask if there are other elections, like an at-large seat, that he might be considering. He is, understandably, coy.

But Al Taubenberger looks at me and says, “I’m going to be around.”