Billy Meehan Clambake gets Philly's GOP in the mood

Republicans gathered Sunday afternoon in Northeast Philadelphia for the 31st Annual Billy Meehan Clambake, named for the late party chairman. Philadelphia City Council at-large candidate Terry Tracy at Cannstatter spoke to people as they passed his booth at Volkfest Verein on Academy Road. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Republicans gathered Sunday afternoon in Northeast Philadelphia for the 31st Annual Billy Meehan Clambake, named for the late party chairman. Philadelphia City Council at-large candidate Terry Tracy at Cannstatter spoke to people as they passed his booth at Volkfest Verein on Academy Road. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)

Everyone knows the odds in Philadelphia elections: Democrats hold a seven-to-one edge over Republicans, who last elected a member of their party as mayor in 1947.

Republicans gathered Sunday afternoon in Northeast Philadelphia for the 31st Annual Billy Meehan Clambake, named for the late party chairman. Philadelphia City Council at-large candidate Terry Tracy at Cannstatter spoke to people as they passed his booth at Volkfest Verein on Academy Road. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer) Gallery: Billy Meehan Clambake gets Philly's GOP in the mood

But for one glorious summer day in late August, when the call of the beach starts to fade and the fall campaign season is just ready to start popping, Republicans rule the town.

That's the feeling each year at the Billy Meehan Clambake, an open-air festival of cold beer, steamed clams, and brief political speeches at Cannstatter Volksfest-Verein in Northeast Philadelphia.

The Grand Old Party gathered Sunday for the 31st annual clambake, named for William Austin Meehan, the chairman who led the local Republican Party for four decades until his death in 1994.

Melissa Murray Bailey, the Republican nominee for mayor, did her best to rouse the crowd in a brief stump speech. She vowed to "put an end to the status quo" of Democratic rule for six decades.

"For sixty years, we have put up with people taking advantage of us, raising our taxes and beating our schools into the ground," she said, receiving polite applause.

Bailey, who didn't mention by name her Democratic opponent, former City Councilman Jim Kenney, did make note of the other party's advantage.

"We're going to be knocking on doors," she said. "We're going to be telling our friends that it doesn't have to be this way. We're going to take Philadelphia by storm and get the Democrats thinking again that they can run away with this."

The first clambake was held in 1984 on the grounds of the Bavarian Club in Northeast Philadelphia.

Michael Meehan, son of Billy and the party's general counsel, said it was a revival of a party his grandfather, Philadelphia sheriff and Republican Party boss Austin Meehan, had held at the old Willow Grove Park.

"It's more casual," Meehan said of the event. "You're going to see a lot of nonpolitical people. You may even see a Democrat or two. We can't fight 365 days a year."

A few Democrats, along with some labor union leaders, did attend Sunday's clambake.

State Rep. John Taylor, the GOP's current chairman, lamented that fewer Democrats attend each year. He chalks that up to a "less cordial" relationship these days between the Republican and Democratic party members.

Not that everyone always gets along. Taylor recalls a donnybrook that broke out at the second clambake in 1985.

"We had some funny times, brawls, and people fighting in the mud," he said. "It was great."

Meehan shrugged off the fisticuffs as "ward leaders and their own committee people having issues."

He said the party still sells more than 1,000 of the $100 tickets for the event, though only about 600 people turn up.

Still, the clambake for decades has marked the end of summer and the start of the political season for the November general election.

Former Chief Justice Ron Castille, who retired in January, said the clambake is more fun than more traditional fund-raisers where attendees can be asked to shell out $5,000. And he got to catch up with some of the people who helped run his first campaign for district attorney in 1985.

Former Gov. Mark Schweiker called the clambake a "home game" in politics, even though he hails from Bucks County. The event helps stir excitement about the political process as people meet candidates and, over the years, make friends.

"I think the hardworking, field-level committee people get a sense of their importance as foot soldiers in the everyday political effort," he said.


brennac@phillynews.com

215-854-5973@ByChrisBrennan