Editor's note: Dana Spain is currently a registered Democrat, but says if she runs she will do so as a Republican.
Hold your horses! While all the talk’s been about which Democrat will be the next mayor of Philadelphia, there’s something brewing in the previously pulseless, but now rejuvenated local GOP - including the possible candidacy of a surprising dark horse.
In the party’s worst-kept secret, the power brokers from the divided factions in the city’s Republican Party have been quietly meeting over the past few months, and there are signs that the party may be ending its civil war and rallying behind a new leadership team as early as this week. This would be welcome news for party activists that have spent more time fighting each other than defeating Democrats.
Of course, with Republicans representing only 11.73 percent of all registered voters in Philadelphia, the party’s got its work cut out. (The registration numbers, as of this morning, were 805,518 Democrats, 120,206 Republicans, and 98,870 others (non-partisan/independent, as well as third parties) for a total of 1.024,594 voters, according to the City Commissioners’ office.)
Yet despite the daunting registration numbers, the prospect of a unified party – along with the existence of an open mayoral seat with Mayor Nutter term-limited by the City Charter - has led to a handful of GOP candidates loosely testing the waters to gauge voter interest. And it’s led to a roughly equal number of others who are having their names tossed around by prominent ward leaders and political operatives.
Possible candidates that have expressed some kind of interest include State Rep. John Taylor, 1999 and 2003 GOP mayoral nominee Sam Katz, 2011 GOP mayoral nominee Karen Brown, and 2011 City Council candidates Joseph McColgan and Elmer Money.
Candidates that have had their name thrown around but have not publicly declared any interest include City Commissioner Al Schmidt, City Councilman David Oh and City Councilman Dennis O’Brien.
More on both groups shortly.
But the big story is the emergence of a dark horse candidate who is well-known and liked among the business and philanthropic communities in Philadelphia and who comes from a prominent family here.
Dana Spain, 43, the daughter of native Philadelphians Joan and Bernard Spain (who, along with his brother Murray, founded Spain’s Card and Gift and Dollar Express stores), is aggressively coming out of the gate and is not shy about talking about her vision for the fifth largest city in America.
Spain, who runs DLG Communications, a branding and marketing communication company, was a former owner and chief operating officer at Philadelphia Style Magazine, a luxury lifestyle publication. She also founded PAWS, the Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society – a privately funded, non-profit, no-kill shelter/clinic. With all this on her plate and more, why would she consider running as a Republican against what many pundits believe are insurmountable odds?
"I'm a cheerleader, and I build things from scratch. And I want to be a cheerleader for our city because we need that right now," Spain told me, adding, “People are still looking at us as a backwards city.”
Spain, who is brand new to the political scene, said, “I am an outsider. The only thing that I have in mind here is to fix the city that I love.”
One supporter willing to publicly go on the record was Ben Haney, owner-operator of Mac’s Tavern in Old City and a GOP political consultant.
“I think in a time where our city is facing serious financial crises on several fronts, Dana is a breath of fresh air," he said. "Her experience as a lifelong Philadelphia and successful businesswoman who is engaged in the city but not beholden to politics will allow her to make the tough decisions necessary to transform Philadelphia into the city Philadelphians truly deserve.”
When identity politics were brought into the equation, Spain was enthusiastic to respond. “Philadelphia is ready for a female mayor. Women in industry are ready for it, too. A fresh set of ideas is welcome, and we are ready for it.”
Of course, that’s a theme that GOP mayoral nominee Brown, 52, unsuccessfully played in 2011. Brown, when contacted for this story, told me that she’s planning to run either for City Council or mayor in 2015. She said her mistake the last time around was not building a strong enough political organization, which she said she’s in the process of doing.
Other candidates that have expressed either interest in running or are open to the idea include Taylor, Katz, McColgan and Money – all of whom are well-known to party leaders and activists.
Taylor, 58, who has represented Kensington in the 177th Legislative District since 1984, has never been defeated in any election and is the only remaining GOP state representative in Philadelphia. To many in the party, he is regarded as the peacemaker and the spiritual leader of the Republican City Committee.
“Getting all sides together - we're making some progress on that," he said. "We all got off track in trying to fight each. Fighting doesn't make any sense."
Taylor, who as a state rep would not be subject to the City Charter requirement to resign his seat in order to run for mayor, clearly is aware of his party popularity.
“I've had discussions over the years -- 1999, 2003 -- the situation has to match the candidate, so possibly. I wouldn't dismiss it as not being possible, but I’m so busy doing what I'm doing, with all that's going on in Harrisburg,” adding, “If the situation is right, I would consider for the party and the city.
Taylor, who was one of two Republicans statewide to vote against Corbett’s budget (then state rep, now City Councilman Dennis O’Brien was the other) and who earlier this month introduced stiffer penalties for those illegally carrying firearms, takes pride in showing his independence to do what he believes is best for Philadelphia.
“My entire record, I’m a moderate Republican," Taylor said. "We're all Philadelphians first."
That kind of record could resonate in the voting booth. But is that record enough in a city so blue that the only red seen is from gun violence rather than from a Republican insurgence? Can the message trump the registration odds?
“The voters must have an issue that the Republican candidate can embrace and presents the answer, that the citizens of Philadelphia can accept, determine is to their benefit and are willing to support with their vote,” said Vito F. Canuso Jr., chairman of the Republican City Committee.
That message was echoed by RCC General Counsel Michael Meehan. “The GOP should be looking for a Philadelphian who’s looking to make a difference for the city,” he said.
Yet, former Philadelphia news anchor Larry Mendte, who is now a commentator for Tribune Broadcasting, said he feels the current GOP machine should not handpick a candidate.
"The Republican candidate should be well-funded and appeal to the Republican base and the Democratic base, as the Republican base is not big enough... Most important, the person should not be hand selected by the current RCC.”
Although not mentioned specifically by Mendte, one such person I believe could be Councilman O’Brien. Since his 1982 election to the House of Representatives, he - like Taylor - has not lost an election either. O’Brien, 60, who did not respond to multiple inquiries for this story, has a very strong following in Northeast Philadelphia and is generally well-liked by Democrats and Republicans alike.
McColgan, 50, who has expressed interest previously in seeking the mayoral seat, is passionate about bringing change to Philadelphia.
“This is a great city with great people. But what we have not had is great leadership. In order for Philadelphia to thrive again, we need REFORMERS who have NEW ideas, NEW perspectives, and are from OUTSIDE the system,” McColgan told me in an emailed response. “It is the career politicians who got us where we are today; our great city can't rely on them to fix our problems. Too many elected officials make decisions that have their next election in mind, not the families and communities they represent. Philadelphia simply can't afford the failed leadership - and lack of vision - we have seen over the past 60 years.”
McColgan has a secret weapon, too – his wife, Dr. Maria McColgan, whom U-Turn has featured before. She is the director of the Child Protection Program at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children, is politically astute and is viewed by others – including me – as an up-and-coming political candidate – perhaps on City Council. A City Hall combo of Joe and Maria McColgan would deliver a powerful 1-2 knockout punch to Philadelphia’s listless economy.
Money, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2011, is regarded by many Republican activists as a true and compassionate conservative. He has worked in the healthcare field, and acknowledges that he currently suffers from a lack of name recognition but is exploring the possibility of running.
“Although I am not as 'famous' as some candidates, the importance of building momentum for an interesting and rigorous campaign will be paved with sincere enthusiasm of fresh ideas and solutions,” Money said. “The challenge should focus on sincerity, ability, and most importantly humility, placing the needs of others above our own.”
But what about three-time mayoral candidate Sam Katz, who arguably knows the nuts and bolts of the city's $4 billion budget better than every other politician combined and who oversees the finances in his role as chairman of PICA (Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority), sent this statement regarding his political future:
“As the chair of PICA, I am taking my responsibilities seriously and working hard on the serious fiscal issues confronting the city. I am doing so in what I hope is an aggressive but non-partisan fashion. I am also producing a documentary film series on the history of Philadelphia. It is important to me that my motives and interpretive choices not be seen in any light other than objectivity. Finally, I am working with a group promoting the idea that Greater Philadelphia could host the celebration of the nation's 250th anniversary in 2026. All of these activities together with other civic and community activities are taking up all of my time.”
“I have a long history of running for mayor and I would be less than candid if I suggested that the thought of running again does not cross my mind. But that is very different than planning or preparing for a race.”
“I think it is essential that I leave that to the future and keep my focus on these activities which I hope will benefit the city and the region," he continued."So, I am going to pass on responding to these questions. To do otherwise would, in my view, undermine the objectivity and non-partisanship of my numerous projects and responsibilities. If my thinking changes about playing a different role in the future, I hope that my thoughts in these and other matters might still be of interest.”
Finally, Schmidt, 41, and Oh, 53, both subject to the City Charter’s resign to run provision, made these brief statements:
Schmidt: “My attention right now is entirely focused on doing the best job I can as City Commissioner.”
Oh: “I have no intention to run for a different office. I am very focused on my work as a Councilman At-Large and Chairman of Council's Committee on Global Opportunities and Creative/Innovative Economy. There are a great many important issues that must be dealt with in Council and I am thankful that I am able to keep advocating for more jobs, better schools, lower taxes, public safety and better quality of life in our neighborhoods. I am committed to doing the best job I can as a Councilman.”
With the primary two years away, expect some exciting things to happen in the meanwhile, as the RCC is on the cusp of reunification.