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Gov. Tom Corbett quietly appointed Republican City Commissioner Al Schmidt to the Philadelphia Parking Authority board on Friday, delivering a boost to insurgents taking on the Republican Party establishment led by Michael Meehan. The PPA has been known as a hotbed of Republican patronage since then-state Rep. and now-prison-inmate John Perzel orchestrated a state takeover in 2001.
“On the list of people Michael Meehan would not like to see on the Parking Authority Board, Al Schmidt would be on the top,” says Matthew Wolfe, the Republican 47th Ward leader and a lead dissident. “There was an agreement between the Republicans and the Democrats for some sharing of that patronage. ... Over time, the Democrats took it over. And then John Perzel got a bill passed and basically put it under his control. And then the Republicans' began to share again in that patronage.”
Republican politics in Philadelphia are defined by a split between reformers, who complain about party decline and patronage, and the party establishment led by Michael Meehan (technically the party's “legal counsel,” he is the third generation of Meehans to run the city party). Vito Canuso Jr., an attorney and establishment candidate, was voted party chairman in 2010 in an election later overturned by the state party. In May, the insurgents elected Rick Hellberg chairman. But Meehan supporters boycotted the meeting. Both men claim to be chairman.
Canuso didn't want to talk to City Paper.
“Sometimes you write articles about us and you don't ask us as to what our position is. And now you want our position, and I appreciate you wanting it. And I'm not going to give it,” Canuso told CP. “This is an article that has nothing to do with me. I'm not involved with that appointment or that determination by Mr. Corbett.”
No one answered the phone at the Republican City Committee.
Though the state party has refrained from deciding the dispute over control of the city party, Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Rob Gleason is known to back the insurgent faction. The city party has allowed the Democratic Party's voter registration advantage to explode in recent decades. While the GOP will never deliver the Philadelphia vote for Corbett or Romney, they could work harder to diminish the blue tide that sweeps out of Philadelphia every election day. The appointment of Schmidt is another indication that Corbett and Gleason are lining up against the Meehan establishment.
"Governor Corbett has been consistent in aiming to appoint reformers who will focus on what is best for our citizens and, with that standard as a guide, Al Schmidt was an excellent choice for the PPA,” said state party spokesperson Valerie Caras in a statement e-mailed to CP.
Gov. Corbett's office has not yet responded to a request for comment.
For now, Schmidt may be a lonely voice for reform at the PPA. Parking Authority executive director Vincent Fenerty Jr. is a Republican ward leader, and executive deputy director Carl Ciglar is Republican state Rep. John Taylor's campaign treasurer. But Schmidt could make noise about PPA practices, like the contract awarded to politically connected former Republican City Committee executive director Jim Dintino to teach employees remedial English.
What does control of Philadelphia's GOP mean for the majority of Philadelphians who are not Republicans? It's complicated. Many progressives who cheered for Al Schmidt's good-government campaign were upset when he released a widely criticized report on voter fraud in the city ― a report the state Republican party quickly moved to distort in an effort to promote the voter ID law (see WHYY's Dave Davies' criticism here). Schmidt and reformers rail against the quid-pro-quo patronage of old Philly politics. But it's worth noting that, in the case of the “voter fraud” report and Corbett's subsequent appointment of Schmidt to the PPA board, each did the other in a big favor. That's the kind of political calculus that no party plans to reform.