What Philly Republicans Think of Steve Bannon, Trump’s Alt-Right-Hand Man

Some city conservatives say he is a “disgrace.” Others are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Steve Bannon, campaign CEO for Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, right, looks on during a national security meeting with advisors at Trump Tower, Friday, Oct. 7, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Steve Bannon, chief strategist and former campaign CEO for Donald Trump. | Photo by Evan Vucci/AP

Sam Katz is a well-known businessman in Philadelphia who ran three unsuccessful campaigns for mayor as a Republican. He came within 8,000 votes of winning in 1999, an extraordinary feat in a city where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans seven to one.

He says Steve Bannon, whom president-elect Donald Trump has just selected as his chief strategist, “is a disgrace.”

During the presidential election, Bannon served as CEO of Trump’s campaign. He was previously an investment banker at Goldman Sachs, a Harvard Business School graduate, a U.S. Navy officer and, until he joined the Trump team, chairman of the website Breitbart. Bannon told Mother Jones this summer that Breitbart is “the platform of the alt-right.” Richard Spencer, the man who coined the phrase “alt-right,” wants to build an ethno-state for just white people. He says Jewish people would not be welcome, and that people of different races hate each other and ought to live separately.

Around the country, both Democrats and Republicans have raised major concerns about Bannon. Glenn Beck said he has a “clear tie to white nationalists.” Bernie Sanders said he is a “racist” whose appointment “must be rescinded.” Ben Shapiro, a conservative who once worked for Breitbart but quit in protest, shared his article from August that said “Breitbart openly embraced the white supremacist alt-right” and “Bannon turned Breitbart into Trump Pravda for his own personal gain.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center says 270,000 people have signed the group’s petition stating that “Stephen Bannon has no place in the White House.” Other Americans are calling and writing their elected officials to urge them to tell Trump to fire him.

Katz says that, under Bannon, Breitbart has become a “hate platform … [and] I don’t understand why any president would be compelled to sustain a hate platform.” The site has run such headlines as “Bill Kristol: Republican Spoiler, Renegade Jew,” “The Solution to Online ‘Harassment’ Is Simple: Women Should Log Off,” “Data: Young Muslims in the West Are a Ticking Time Bomb, Increasingly Sympathising With Radicals, Terror,” and “There’s No Hiring Bias Against Women in Tech, They Just Suck at Interviews.”

Along with Bannon, Trump selected Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, to be his chief of staff. Trump’s transition team said Priebus and Bannon will work as “equal partners to transform the federal government.” Some Republicans in Philadelphia, such as Katz, expressed disgust at Trump’s appointment of Bannon while lauding his choice of Priebus. Others said they were not all that familiar with Breitbart or Bannon, and would take a “wait-and-see” approach to the latter.

Joe DeFelice is the leader of Philadelphia’s Republican Party and an outspoken supporter of Trump. He says Preibus is an “excellent choice” who can get things done in Washington because of his political contacts: “When Trump has to deal with Congress, he doesn’t necessarily have relationships with those people. He doesn’t have relationships in the Senate. Reince does.” Katz, likewise, says Preibus is a “great selection” who “threaded the needle between the Republican Party and the Trump campaign, while retaining respect of members of Congress.” Not all city conservatives agreed, with some online calling Preibus an “insider” pick, in contrast to Trump’s stated campaign against the Republican establishment.

On Bannon, DeFelice professed ignorance: “I’ve never met Steve Bannon, I don’t know enough about Steve Bannon. What I think we should do with Steve Bannon is, before we start casting stones, let’s let the ink dry, and see what happens.”

Asked if he was familiar with Bannon’s comments on the alt-right or his ex-wife’s allegation that he didn’t want his daughters to go to school with Jewish children, DeFelice said, “My dealings have been with Reince, so I can speak to that. I mean, look, I think there’s going to be … people aren’t going to be happy with all the picks. You know, I’m not happy with those types of things, but our candidates aren’t perfect and sure enough, we’ve dealt with a lot of staffers over time that haven’t been perfect. Right now, I can just be hopeful.”

Breitbart announced that Bannon was taking a “leave of absence” from the site in August, saying that he would “resume work with Breitbart the evening of November 8th, 2016.” It is unclear what his role there is now. Kurt Bardella, a former spokesman for Breitbart, said this week that the site was a de facto “super PAC” for Trump during the presidential campaign, and that it would now “be as close as we are ever going to have — hopefully — to a state-run media enterprise.” Bannon gave an interview to Breitbart the day after the election, with the website writing as an introduction, “‘I officially want to go on the record: This is not an interview. This is not a conversation. It’s just a couple of old friends catching up,’ Bannon announced, so any resemblance between what follows and a radio interview is purely coincidental.”

DeFelice, when asked about Bardella’s claim that Breitbart would become akin to a state-run media organ under Trump, “I’m not going to comment on somebody else’s opinion of what they think is going to occur.”

A spokesman for Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, who expressed strong reservations about Trump during the election but eventually cast a ballot for him, said, “I do not expect Toomey to comment” on the selection of Priebus or Bannon. He did not respond to a question about whether the office had received calls about Bannon, but people on social media said they were phoning him and sometimes getting a busy signal. State Rep. John Taylor, one of only two Republicans from Philadelphia in the Pennsylvania General Assembly, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter.

Some city Republicans accused Democrats of hypocrisy for condemning Bannon but not speaking out against President Barack Obama due to the fact that his former pastor was Reverend Jeremiah Wright. Wright said in the days after 9/11 that “America’s chickens are coming home to roost,” and also stated that “them Jews” kept him from talking to Obama. Obama condemned Wright’s words, calling them “inflammatory and appalling.” Meanwhile, other conservatives in Philadelphia said they are not Breitbart readers and know very little about Bannon.

Terry Tracy, a millennial Republican who ran for City Controller and City Council, said, “I’m not a Breitbart guy, I’ve never been to the website in my life.” While stressing that, he said that Americans on both sides of the political spectrum need to start talking to each other again. Matt Wolfe, a longtime Republican ward leader in West Philadelphia, said Priebus is a “great pick, but that he is “not as familiar” with Bannon and has never read Breitbart. Asked about Bannon’s statements on the alt-right as well as white nationalists like Spencer praising him, Wolfe said, “The white nationalist movement is frankly something that was and is invisible to me. I can’t remember anyone speaking of the white nationalist movement until the last few days, until Bannon’s name has been discussed.” He added, “I don’t think we need a U.S. version of Pravda.” Pravda was the newspaper of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. “You can say things like [what Bardella said], but it’s just not realistic under our form of government.”

Larry West, a 31-year-old African-American who has run for mayor and who calls himself a “concerned” Republican, expressed outrage over Trump’s choice of Bannon. “Bannon is a disgrace. It’s incredibly shocking that [Trump] would pick him for any reason whatsoever. It’s a very good question as to whether or not he actually does background checks on these people. He picked someone who has been managing Breitbart for a very long time, and who actually was very proud to say it was alt-right. The guy is actually on the record saying he doesn’t want his kids to go to school with Jews. That’s a disqualifier right there.”

Not all black conservatives in Philadelphia feel like West. Republican ward leader and financial services contractor Calvin Tucker, who is African-American, said he doesn’t “personally” know Bannon, but called him “a well-educated man,” “a veteran,” and “a visionary.” He said Priebus, whom he does know, will keep the White House “directed toward the things that we need to do organizationally and policy-wise, especially as it relates to the urban communities.” He dismissed the former Breitbart spokesman’s claim that the website would be similar to a state-run media operation, saying, “As I watched this election, I thought that the majority of media was state-run or Democrat-run.”

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