Who Speaks for Philadelphia Republicans?

Why Philly is still a one-party town.

Last month, for the first time in recent memory, the chairman of the Philadelphia GOP issued a press release on a pressing public policy question: the citywide property reassessment known as the Actual Value Initiative.

That might not seem like such a big deal. But given the timid, low-profile tradition of the city’s Republican Party, the move was heralded by some as signaling the arrival of a reinvented minority party, one that actually intends to challenge the city’s Democrats on the issues.

Or, possibly, it was just a case of some random guy mouthing off.

The confusion owes to the fact that nobody really knows who the city’s Republican chairman is right now. Longtime chairman Vito Canuso is no longer recognized by the state party. And renegade chairman Rick Hellberg—the one who issued the press release—isn’t either.

Hellberg was elected, after a fashion, by a small group of 20 like-minded GOP ward leaders in May. This group, which has called itself the Loyal Opposition, is fed up with the party’s long tradition of deference to dominant Democrats.

The problem, of course, is that there are 66 wards in Philadelphia. And those wards led by the old guard—i.e. those loyal to Canuso or to long-time GOP power broker Michael Meehan—either boycotted the meeting or were not invited, depending on who you ask.

So where do things stand? Is Canuso the chair? Is it Hellberg? Who will resolve the question? The courts? The state party?

Remarkably, nobody knows.

“You need a crystal ball to figure it out,” said Vincent Fenerty, executive director of the Philadelphia Parking Authority and the leader of the 18th ward since 1984. “We’re like piranhas eating each other.”

It all started in 2010, when the Loyal Opposition figured it could make an end-run around the Meehan-led old guard by recruiting new committee people (who would in turn elect new ward leaders) in heavily Democratic wards that the GOP had all but ignored for decades.

The old guard barred many of those new members from voting in the 2010 party chairman election, which pitted Canuso against Al Schmidt (who was later elected City Commissioner). The voting irregularities were so glaring that the state Republican Party’s credential committee stripped Canuso of his chairmanship later that year.

After that, nothing much happened. The two sides spent much of 2011 and the first few months of 2012 in negotiations, at least some of which were brokered by Rob Gleason, chairman of the state GOP. Fenerty took the lead on representing the old guard, while Hellberg represented the Loyal Opposition.

And, for a while, it looked like a deal was in place. Both Fenerty and Hellberg said the plan was for Hellberg to become chairman, for Meehan to remain as general counsel, and for Joe DeFelice (the state party’s Philadelphia director, aligned with the Loyal Opposition) to become executive director of the city committee.

But that all fell apart around Easter, Hellberg said.

“Suddenly it became apparent we weren’t doing any real negotiating. We were just doing a lot of useless talking,” Hellberg said. “Our patience ran out.”

Why does any of this matter? After all, registered Republicans in Philadelphia are outnumbered by Democrats by a margin of more than six to one.

Well, there’s always patronage. The big complaint about the Meehan GOP dynasty is that the party played nice with Democrats in order to preserve its cut of the patronage. It remains to be seen what will happen with those patronage positions if the Loyal Opposition eventually runs the party.

And while nobody expects Philadelphia to vote Romney, it doesn’t help the GOP presidential candidate to have a city party in such a disarray that it doesn’t even really know who its leader is.

Most important, in Hellberg’s view at least, is that the GOP civil war had the potential to forge a local minority party that challenges conventional Democratic thinking on matters of pressing local interest.

“There is a need for our message. We have not spoken out or delivered a good conservative message to the people of Philadelphia,” Hellberg said. “The city of Philadelphia suffers because of one-party rule. We want to be more of a thorn in the side of the establishment.”