"A house divided against itself cannot stand."
That’s what one Republican said upon accepting his party’s nomination for U.S. Senate. That Republican went on to lose his senatorial campaign to his Democratic opponent by a margin of 46 percent to 54 percent.
I’ll be back to that Republican later.
Nonetheless, that quote resonates when thinking of the civil war that the Philadelphia GOP has gone through the past four years - one that pitted the long-term party bosses against the young turks.
That civil war is now over. Not just a cease fire. Not just a truce. But, and I use the term quite literally, “formally” over.
On Tuesday night, in a packed room at Port Richmond’s United Republican Club – the formal gathering place of the Republican City Committee (RCC) – the city’s GOP ward leaders voted unanimously (though a group voice “aye” vote – we’ll come back to that, too) to elect State Rep. John Taylor as their new chairman. Taylor, 58, who represents the adjacent Kensington in Pennsylvania’s 177th Legislative District, succeeds Vito F. Canuso Jr., who led the RCC for 18 years.
The succession didn’t happen overnight. It was the result of four months of intense and sometimes tense negotiations between less than a dozen ward leaders – more or less equally divided among the two factions.
“There’s no substitute for hard work and persistence,” said Kevin Kelly, who is the founder of the Loyal Opposition. Kelly was instrumental in helping broker the power-sharing deal between his faction and the “old guard.”
With citywide committeeperson elections scheduled for this time next year, the goal was to elect or appoint a consensus candidate who could serve out the remaining year of Canuso’s term.
Taylor was that consensus candidate.
Steve Nasevich, the 14th Ward leader from East Poplar, voiced support for Taylor’s chairmanship. “John is a very capable leader who can bring the party together,” he said.
James T. Dintino, the 26th and 48th Ward leader from South Philadelphia, officially nominated Taylor to the position. “We have a lot of energy in this room,” Dintino told the ward leaders. “We are at a crossroads right now," he added later. "We need people with purpose.”
Joseph J. DeFelice, who was appointed by Taylor as the RCC’s new executive director, was equally supportive of Taylor, telling me, “First and foremost, John can accomplish unity within the party. He can take a pragmatic approach to politics that sometimes is lacking.”
DeFelice, 35, who was recognized by PoliticsPA as one of Pennsylvania’s top political operatives, is viewed by party activists as a no-nonsense workhorse. An attorney, DeFelice is known for getting in the trenches and running a vicious street operation, with the assistance of Annie Havey, deputy director of Philadelphia for the State Republican Party.
While Canuso bowed out, Michael Meehan, whose father William Austin Meehan and whose grandfather Sheriff Austin Meehan were legendary GOP party bosses in Philadelphia for more than half a century, has stayed on as RCC General Counsel.
On the topic of Meehan, Zach Stalberg, the president and CEO of the Committee of Seventy – a non-partisan, government watchdog group – had this to say: “The issue is who’s really in control – Mike Meehan or John Taylor? If Meehan can give Taylor a little bit of room, Taylor can really make a difference.”
I posed Stalberg’s question to Meehan, who responded quite candidly. “John Taylor is going to be the chairman. I hope he would take my counsel when appropriate,” adding, “He’s a fine, urban, conservative politician. I think he brings a winning tradition to the office.”
To Meehan’s point, Taylor – in office since 1984 - has never been defeated in any election and is the only remaining GOP state representative in Philadelphia.
After Taylor became chairman, Canuso shared with me his opinion of the new GOP leader: “He is a great individual. I wish him well. He has his work cut out for him. He’s been successful in a lot of challenges. He will succeed.”
Jimmy Tayoun, who publishes the Philadelphia Public Record and was covering the event, felt that Taylor’s election will bring about positive change in the RCC. “It means that pragmatism has returned to the GOP," he said. "The work ethic that John uses to hold on to his office will now be the order of the day for Republican committeepeople and ward leaders.”
Taylor, who is planning a major fundraiser at the Phoenix at 16th and Arch Streets in Center City on June 13th, told me he wants the RCC on “sound financial footing – beginning immediately.” In his acceptance speech, he told the ward leaders he expected them to bring contributors who planned to write checks with at least 4 digits.
That move would make West Philadelphia’s 27th Ward Leader Matt Wolfe happy. Wolfe, who fully supports Taylor’s election, said, “Job number one is to put us on sound financial footing, because we’re not there right now. He needs to recruit stronger candidates for next year's elections. He needs to recruit committeemen. He needs to lead an RCC that understands that you win elections and build a stronger party by taking strong stands on issues that mean something to Philadelphians."
What does Taylor have to say?
“We can't continue to tax our way out of problems,” he told me earlier in the day, adding, “We have to talk about how we spend money as much as how we raise it. We don't talk about how we spend money. We need to change the entire tone.”
Taylor’s certainly got his work cut out for him. Republicans currently represent only 11.73 percent of all registered voters in Philadelphia – a modern-day low. And the formerly divided factions each have their own recognized ward leaders. Will Taylor recognize both sets of leaders, or will he make the hard, but proper call of who was lawfully elected as ward chair? Will he address the issue, or choose to kick the can down the road to whomever becomes chair in 2014? These decisions will very much define the Taylor’s legacy.
DeFelice, already in high gear and planning a stump speech in front of some supporters in Society Hill tonight, told me that he expects “John to act with a great supporting staff of old and new, as well as with young and seasoned members. I expect John to be the head of the party with input from many others -- various walks of life and many sections of the city.”
Joseph McColgan, who ran unsuccessfully for City Council in 2011, released this statement about Taylor: "John Taylor is the logical choice to become Chairman of the Republican Party in Philadelphia, whether it is interim or permanent. There was talk about John becoming chairman in 1991 after Bill Meehan passed-away and I was very much in favor of that. His appointment as chairman would have brought a new era of young republican leadership in Philadelphia; Taylor, Perzel, Kenney, Wogan and O’Brien in the House, O’Neill in Council."
McColgan, who is strongly considering running for chairman in 2014, added, “Regarding 2014, if John chooses to remain chairman then that would be wise choice on the part of the ward leaders. If he chooses to vacate the position, then yes I would be very interested in following him, continuing down the path he will lay out over the next few months."
Taylor, whose name has also been mentioned as a potential mayoral candidate in 2015, wouldn’t be the first party boss to wear several hats.
Democratic City Committee Chairman Bob Brady, who is also the 34th Ward Leader as well as the U.S. Representative from the First Congressional District, had nothing but kind words to say about Taylor when I spoke with him yesterday. Brady told me he’s had a great relationship with Taylor over the years and that the only day when they oppose each other is once a year (election day). “John’s a class individual. An excellent choice. He’s got high integrity, and we can work together for the benefit of all Philadelphians.”
Back to the "house divided against itself cannot stand."
That Republican – who lost his U.S. Senate race – turned out to win his next election and became the President of the United States. His name? Abraham Lincoln.
Will the formerly-divided RCC house come together to allow its candidates to win some local elections? John Taylor’s next year may provide some clues.