Interview: Matthew Wolfe’s Uphill Battle for City Council

Can a Republican candidate win election in this Democratic town?

Matthew Wolfe and his wife, Denise Furey.

Matthew Wolfe and his wife, Denise Furey.

Matt Wolfe, a Philadelphia attorney and Republican, on Thursday announced his candidacy for the City Council seat recently vacated by Bill Green. He has almost no chance of winning the May 20 election: In a town where Democrats vastly outnumber Republicans, Dem candidate Ed Neilson would have a hard time losing.

That doesn’t deter Wolfe, who wants to “shake up “ City Hall on issues ranging from taxes to city services to the relationship between the city and Harrisburg. After his announcement, he spoke to Philly Mag about his candidacy this week. Some excerpts:

You announced today as the Republican candidate for the special election to replace Bill Green. You’ve seen the headlines, pretty much everybody is already giving this election to the Democrats because this is a very largely Democratic town. You have an uphill battle to fight.

I have an uphill battle and if I don’t campaign you’re right, I’m not going to win. But I think that I can convey a good message. I think I have a clear idea of what I think the city needs to do to go in the right direction. I think that, as I pointed out, the Democratic candidate not because they felt he was the best candidate. If they were looking at that, they might have looked at some of the people that ran and came close three years ago in the Democratic primary. He was purely selected for self-preservation of the machine.

We’re going to have to try and predict exactly which voters are going to come out and vote, and we’re going to have to try to determine how best to micro-target that. I think that we may be able to do that. I have some geeks who are somewhat adept at that, who have done it before. I think that the vast expansion of the Internet and social networking affords us some opportunities that have not really been played out in Philadelphia before, and this might be the ideal election to do it. You have a primary election, which always has a low turnout. While there are a lot of Democrats running for governor, my sense of it is that not many people are enthusiastic about any of them. Tom Wolfe’s rapid rise in the polls has more to do with name recognition than enthusiasm. And in addition to that, many of those people are going to come vote for governor and not care about anything else. We need to educate them to find me on the other side of the ballot.

Let me ask a little bit about where you’re at philosophically. In recent years, the Republican Party in Philadelphia has kind of been known as having two factions, one more aligned with the older establishment and maybe a newer guard that is maybe identifying with Al Schmidt.

I was the attorney representing Kevin Kelly who had Vito Canuso’s so-called election as chairman of city committee overturned. So I was with the reform group. But that’s yesterday’s news. John Taylor was here today, we have come together, we have compromised. Nobody won that brawl and that’s fine. We’re moving together generally forward. And hey, it’s not like it’s all lovey-dovey. It’s not. But we are focused on beating Democrats rather than beating up on ourselves.

You talked about taxes during your speech. Philadelphia’s known as having perhaps the second-highest tax burden of any big city in the nation.

Sure, there are, and not surprisingly we’re known as one of the poorest big cities in America. There are different ways to calculate that, but suffice it to say that we have a heavy tax burden here and the cause and effect of a decimated tax base is obvious.

Well on the flipside, you also have a lot of services, a lot of programs that do have their constituencies. If you’re going to reduce taxes you’d probably have to reduce services. Which taxes do you reduce, which services do you reduce?

I wish I could say “Let’s eliminate the wage tax.” You can’t do it overnight. And I get that. I think that we should do it quicker than they were doing in the Rendell and Street administrations, but we absolutely, positively need to lower the wage tax. There’s nothing that’s been more destructive to Philadelphia’s tax base than that wage tax. It used to be, you know, five percent, 4.91 percent, something like that. You can’t do that. I actually don’t have a philosophical problem with a wage tax, if it’s like a percent, percent and a half. I mean that’s what it was originally. This was supposed to be temporary, much like our temporary sales tax. But we need to restructure taxes and we need to lower them, and to do that we’re going to need to change our priorities. And like I said, I have absolutely no problem spending more money on some things, but we’re going to have to cut. And we can’t have programs that help people that aren’t municipal responsibilities.

Can you name some specific programs?

Let me give you a perspective. A long time ago, people lived in tents and moved from place to place, so when they ate their fried chicken and threw their chicken bones out the window they picked up and moved and it was no big deal. Once they started living in cities, when they threw their chicken bones out the window and they stayed there, that was a problem. So we had to pick up the trash. And when people lived in cities, houses caught fire and it was a big problem. People got mad at each other because they were in proximity to each other and they beat themselves up, so we needed a police and fire. In America we’ve always thought of public education as a local responsibility, and I certainly agree with Bill Green that the terms “public education” and “public schools” are not synonymous. We should be concerned about educating our children and not who’s providing the education. And traditionally, the government has always subsidized transportation because it’s important to commerce. Local highways, local roads have always been local responsibilities. That’s what I think of as core municipal responsibilities.

An anti-smoking program doesn’t make the cut. The city of Philadelphia spends $40 million a year on services to the homeless. I view health and welfare as a state or federal responsibility. It’s not a municipal responsibility. And I also talked about economic development programs. I just see that as an incredible waste. Let’s spur development by lowering taxes. People will come. It’s a little slower, but how many times have we seen them spend a bundle to attract some company and then the company leaves in a few years. It happens all the time.

You talk about federal and state responsibilities. A lot of times people from City Hall tend to go hat in hand to Harrisburg and there they face a Republican state legislature that seems, from a Philadelphia perspective, to have a bit of contempt for both the city life and for the fact that this is a largely Democratic town.

Maybe it’s for what they see is the city squandering money that they send them.

Is that something where a more Republican government might be able to bridge the gap?

Certainly there are synergies with having stronger Republican representation in Harrisburg. John Perzel got a lot done for Philadelphia when he was there. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out very well for John. And John Taylor fights like a lion for Philadelphia, and has a lot of respect in the Republican caucus.

No matter who is running the show in Harrisburg, there’s going to be Republicans there, and frankly, when there’s an issue in Philadelphia, there are very few advantages of being old. But one of the advantages is that you get to know people and there are Republican and Democratic legislators who will all take my call when I call. So when they were trying to get what was at the time the 100 percent increase in our sales tax, the local Philadelphia portion of the sales tax that was going to be temporary, they just made it permanent, I was dialing people up and trying to get them to fight it. And I have some credibility there, as a city councilman I’d have more. And I view that as fighting for Philadelphia.

The same day that the election is held, there’s also going to be another one on the city charter and end the “resign to run” provision. You are very much against removing that provision.

There’s a good reason it’s there. A city councilman should be voting in the best interest of the people who elected them into office, not in the best interest of the people who are going to vote as to whether they get the next office they’d rather have. Why in God’s name should the taxpayers basically pay them to not do the job they were elected to? Pay them so they can run full-time for a job they’d rather have. It’s just wrong on many levels. I don’t know how much organized opposition I can create, but I’m going to do my best. I just think it’s bad public policy.

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