Meet Joe DeFelice, Donald Trump’s Hype Man in Philly

We talked to the leader of the city’s GOP about the media's failure to predict a Trump victory, the president-elect's conflicts of interest, Carrier and more.
Joe DeFelice Donald Trump

L: Joe DeFelice (photo via DeFelice’s Facebook), left, and Donald Trump (photo via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s been a fantastic year for Joe DeFelice, leader of the Philadelphia GOP. He helped Republican state Rep. Martina White fend off a Barack Obama-endorsed opponent in her Northeast district, where Democrats outnumber Republicans two-to-one. He made sure John Taylor, a Philly Republican who has served in the state House of Representatives for 31 years, held onto his seat. And, most significant, he helped turn out the vote for president-elect Donald Trump: Trump outperformed Mitt Romney in the city by almost 2 points. (And when you drill into Philadelphia’s predominantly black voting precincts, his surge was more impressive. “Among the city’s wards that are more than 75 percent African American,” the Washington Post reported, “Trump got about 1,300 — or 31 percent — more votes than Romney.”)

We talked to DeFelice about the media’s failure to predict a Trump victory, the president-elect’s conflicts of interest, Trump strategist Steve Bannon and more. At times, it got pretty heated, but along with his Trump cheerleading, DeFelice staked out a couple positions that surprised us — like saying the Republican Party should “review” its policies “against” working-class Americans. This interview was largely conducted on November 15th, though we asked a few follow-up questions last week. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Parts of Northeast Philly went pretty big for Trump. So did parts of South Philly. As someone from Northeast, why do you think a lot of that area voted for Trump?
Because they felt disaffected from the political class. And, plus, Hillary Clinton couldn’t connect. Donald Trump was talking to people out of work. And to be honest with you, people saw this as an opportunity. There’s a lot of Democrats that came over. Granted, were the numbers bigger in Northeast Philly and South Philly and the River Wards? Yes. But if you look at the citywide map, Donald Trump is better in like 50 wards in the city. Fifty. You have Republicans that went for Clinton and then came back and voted for Toomey, and voted for the rest of the Republicans down ticket. But in the blue-collar areas, working-class people voted for Donald Trump because they’re not working and they feel their life is not better off now than it was four years ago.

Why do you think the media, polls and the political establishment didn’t predict this?
I think people kept quiet. I think there’s a strong distrust of media, of polling firms, of what people would see as the establishment. There was a show I watched, they were in the bakery, and the guy says, “We got a lot of ‘leaners’ here.” And the reporter asks, “What are leaners?” “People that lean in and whisper to you, ‘Yeah, I’m voting for Trump.'” You know why? Because people don’t want to be called stupid, they don’t want to be called racist, they don’t want to be called uneducated for saying they’re voting for Trump, and that’s where I think the narrative comes from. They were tight-lipped about who they were supporting because they didn’t want to be talked down to. You know, people don’t like being talked down to.

Neither do journalists. [pause] That’s a joke …
Yeah, that’s something. I feel it.

What do you think of Trump picking Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, for his chief of staff?
I think Reince Priebus, from my dealings with him, has been an excellent choice. I think he’s probably going to go down as the most successful RNC chair in recent history. We were able to win in states where we haven’t won before. In Pennsylvania right now, because of the support Reince Priebus has given the state party, we now have a supermajority in the state Senate. We have the largest majority since, I think, the Korean War in the state House. We control 13 of 18 congressional seats, and a U.S. senator. And that’s just Pennsylvania. You start looking at Wisconsin and some other states, I mean, I think we’re up … we control 37 out of 50 state legislatures in the country right now. [Editor’s note: Republicans are in charge of both chambers of the legislature in 32 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.]

He has the insider contacts needed to reach out. I mean, 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. Reince has been on every one of their radar screens. So it’s easy for Reince to pick up the phone and call.

I’m seeing some conservatives say they don’t like the Priebus appointment because it’s an insider choice. 
You can view it as an insider choice. You can also view it as someone who understands the game. But on the flip side, he’s not … your typical Washington establishment. He’s outside the beltway. So I’d look at it that way. And look, he’s not going to please everybody, as we’ve seen so far. And a lot of people who voted for Donald Trump, it wasn’t their first, second, third, or fourth choice. But they ended up voting for him in the end because he presented something a little bit different, and they were willing to take the chance.

What about Trump’s choice of Steve Bannon as chief strategist?
I mean, look, Steve Bannon had a career at Breitbart. Breitbart’s job was essentially to be, you know, clickbait. A lot of stuff on the internet anymore, it’s clickbait. I don’t know, to be honest with you though … I don’t have a relationship with Steve Bannon. 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.

A former spokesman for Breitbart said that the website under Trump “will be as close as we are ever going to have hopefully to a state-run media enterprise.” Does that change your view at all on Steve Bannon as a choice?
Did Steve Bannon say that? Or did the spokesman for Breitbart?

A former Breitbart spokesman said that.
Well, that’s just getting into somebody else. I’m not going to comment on somebody else’s opinion of what they think is going to occur. Look, I’m optimistic about the new presidency. I think there’s a lot of bridges that need to be built, and I’m optimistic that we’ll build them.

What are the top three or four things you hope Trump will do for Philly?
I think he needs to hold our city government accountable on things if they’re going to constantly be asking for federal funding. [Mayor Jim] Kenney needs to realize that. I remember having a Twitter battle with him, and he said, ‘It must be lonely being a Republican in Philly.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but there’s plenty of us in Harrisburg.’ Compromise is a two-way street. Democrats are dealing with an electorate that elected a large Republican majority in Harrisburg, a Republican majority in Washington, and a Republican president. So he needs to hold them accountable for policies, for sanctuary cities.

Appealing to working-class voters, infrastructure projects would be huge for Philadelphia. Let’s face it: Our infrastructure needs a huge upgrade in the city. And I know that sounds like a government program, but investments do need to be made to infrastructure. It’ll put people back to work.

Also, just lowering the basic business taxes. I hope the city will follow suit, though I doubt they will. To lure people back into the city, we talk about more taxes, but what we need are more taxpayers. If there are more jobs in Philadelphia, more people will relocate to Philadelphia. And another thing I think will be really good is really pushing the issue of school choice. Whether it’s vouchers or charter schools, I think with his selection [of Betsy DeVos] for education, we can really start looking at the way public education is run. …

I think we’re seeing a shifting electorate, where former traditional Republicans in the 1 percent are shifting to the Democratic side, and what we’re getting is more blue-collar Democrats shifting to our side. We want to retain the traditional Republicans, but I think there is an opportunity to create a new base that includes Reagan Democrats or Rizzocrats or whatever you want to call them, and we should review some of the policies we had against blue-collar workers from a national standpoint.

What are some of those policies?
First and foremost, we need to start talking about infrastructure and jobs in general. We can’t be against those things that provide opportunities to work. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing to workers, that they have a paycheck. My dad was a Teamster, he drove a truck for 30 years. This is the family I grew up in. He worried about whether he had work.

And we need to look at business taxes. Normally, people say that’s not a blue-collar thing, but it is. You just saw with Carrier … I don’t know what Trump offered them, but it’s a good thing that now those jobs are staying, and they aren’t taking those jobs to Mexico. We’re not talking about trickle-down economics here. Look at the former Nabisco plant. These are job creators. And once they leave, we’re not getting those jobs back. We need to keep those jobs here and be conscious of the taxes, and the taxes we’re putting on the middle class not just at the federal level, but the state and even more the city level. You’re paying high taxes and not even getting a quality education, and you’re lucky if your trash gets picked up on time.

And some of the social issues, we need to pull away from to a certain extent. We’re a diverse party. … The less fights we get in on the social issues, the more we can focus on the fiscal issues, on the issues that affect people’s pocketbooks.

Does the Philly GOP support the Muslim ban that had been proposed by Trump at one point, and then kind of amended?
A ban on Muslims? No. I can elaborate, but I don’t think I can elaborate any more on “no.” Do I think that the Syrian refugee situation is a problem? Yeah, I do. When I see our City Council people asking for a million more city refugees — a million more Syrian refugees in the city of Philadelphia — I think that’s problematic. [Editor’s note: Council adopted a non-binding resolution in September that called for the U.S. to “show leadership on the humanitarian crisis in Syria by resettling a greater number of Syrian refugees” and said “Philadelphia is ready, willing and able to play its part in the crucial work of welcoming some of the millions of refugees displaced by violence.”] I think that we have a lot of our own problems here. We need to take care of Philadelphians first. And should there be a vetting system of Syrian refugees that come into this country? Sure.

The Obama administration says that it already has a vetting process for Syrian refugees. Are there parts of it that you think should be better? And in what way?
No, I think we should continue vetting going forward. … I’m a local county chairman. I don’t know enough about what the process is. I can only tell you what I think, and I think I’ve already established that I don’t think we should ban all Muslims.

There has been an uptick in reported hate crimes and hate speech across the country since the election [according to the Southern Poverty Law Center]. We’ve also seen, in 2015, an increase in alleged hate crimes against Muslims. But, since Election Day, we’ve seen a rash of them, including in Philadelphia. Why do you think that is?
Look, I think there’s been issues all across the city. Our 26th Ward leader had her tires slashed the other day. Do I think that had to do with the election? It could have. I mean, we’re tying all of this to a presidential candidate. So we don’t necessarily know — and this has nothing to do with the candidate, this has nothing to do with the campaign. It has nothing to do with the party. Once we’ve realized what went on [at Penn, where black freshman were added to an online group that called for a “daily lynching” days after the election, allegedly by Oklahoma residents], we quickly came out against that. Look, we have a ton of African-American ward leaders. We opened three campaign offices in African-American neighborhoods this year. We’re never going to grow the party in the city of Philadelphia if we don’t cater to a diverse class. African-American, women, Hispanics, LGBT. I mean, two out of my four staffers are LGBT. I guess I feel like, this is where I feel like we’re getting pigeonholed. Are these same questions being asked of the Democratic City Committee? Are they being asked to [Bob] Brady? And they’re not. And you know that they’re not.

Yes, they’re being asked of Jim Kenney and other people, and he’s put out statements about the hate crimes. So I’m asking you — I want your opinion — why are hate crimes going up across the country?
I don’t know that hate crimes are going up across the country. That’s what you’re telling me.

The Southern Poverty Law Center says that there have been hundreds of incidents of hateful intimidation and harassment since the election. Do you disagree with that? 
I don’t know about it. I don’t … you’re telling me. I haven’t researched it myself yet.

Some people might think it’s bothersome that you haven’t researched it, since there have been hate crimes reported in Philly.
Yes, and I’ve researched what happened at the University of Pennsylvania. Some whack job in Oklahoma, who’s clearly mentally ill or challenged, put something out to University of Penn students and, somehow, this is now Philly GOP’s job to apologize for that.

I’m asking you why it happened. 
You’re telling me it’s my job to research. It’s my job to research the hate crimes that have happened in the city of Philadelphia. I mean, did you guys cover the flash mob that beat … those people in Center City the other day?

Did they tie it to the Democrats?

What does that have to do with anything? I’m not tying it to you, I’m asking you.
Exactly. Then what do these other hate crimes have to do with the Philadelphia Republican Party?

I’m asking you, “Why are the hate crimes happening?” And you’re saying, “What does this have to do with us?”
To be honest with you, all I’m telling you is yes, obviously, you have reported on a bunch of hate crimes, and I think they’re reprehensible and we don’t support them. Why they’re happening? I don’t know.

Do you lay any of [the hate crimes] at Trump’s feet? Some say that he has encouraged this kind of behavior because of what he’s said about immigrants, what he said about Muslims.
No. I think the media has encouraged that behavior.

By constantly writing that Trump’s a racist and a bigot, a misogynist, and constantly retweeting, and things like that. You know, it’s one thing after another, and to be honest with you, and frankly I … feel like that’s why people don’t trust the media anymore. They don’t. What about this WikiLeaks stuff? If I wanted to find anything on WikiLeaks, I had to go to some conservative blog that somebody shared on Facebook. I couldn’t find it on CNN.

I saw it on CNN and the New York Times
Okay. Well, the level of the Trump video? No. It never reached that level. Anything Trump was front-page story, New York Times.

I would argue that, before the election, Trump’s conflicts of interest, like the fact that he apparently owes millions of dollars to the bank of China, weren’t covered as much as they should have been.
Trump wasn’t a politician before. Hillary Clinton’s been running for president for 30 years. So everything she thought has been staged for that moment [on Election Day]. Unfortunately for her, she totally misjudged the public. And she thought that condescending and talking to people … calling them ‘deplorable’ and uneducated, and things like that, it wasn’t going to matter because they were gonna pull her through. They were shocked. They were shocked that they dropped 40,000 votes in the city of Philadelphia. You know, the Democrats say, “Oh, we did our part.” Yeah, you did. You did do your part. You know, you were 40,000 votes less than Obama was four years ago.

Trump has conflicts of interest that are pretty major: He’s talking about his children being on his transition team, he owns tons of businesses all around the world for which world leaders could cut his taxes and ease his regulations. Are you worried about those things?
Right now I’m optimistic about the Trump presidency, and I think we need to take a wait-and-see attitude, and I think we’ll be pleased with the outcome.

Do you want him to do anything to avoid those conflicts of interest?
I want him to do just the best job that he can as the president of the United States. And let’s hope that reaches the city of Philadelphia.

One thing he could do is not have his children manage his assets. He could take steps.
I’m going to be honest with you: I’m going to trust his judgment. I think his children are bright people. I think they can stand on their own two feet. I don’t think this is nepotism. At this point I think we just need to give the guy a chance and let’s see how he does.

Can you imagine if Hillary owned businesses all around the world and said, “Don’t worry, Chelsea’s gonna handle it for the next four years”?
Unfortunately, or fortunately for us, we don’t have to talk about that.

But wouldn’t you have been upset? Wouldn’t you have thought that was a conflict of interest?
Yeah, but I’m not dealing with woulda-shoulda-coulda. We’re not there. Right now we have a president.

Right now we’re dealing with the Trump children who are now going to manage his assets. You don’t think that poses a potential conflict of interest when he owns businesses around the world?
Potentially. But I’m still going to wait-and-see attitude the whole thing.

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