Does the fate of Philadelphia's Republican Party hang on the race for the crucial but somewhat obscure City Commissioners Office?
The party's fortunes have been slowly decaying since 1951, when Democratic reformers Richardson Dilworth and Joseph Clark drove out the Republican regime that had ruled the city for 67 years.
Today, Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 6-1; the GOP doesn't have much left to lose.
But with key offices on the line this year, the local Republican Party, led by Michael Meehan, can't afford to slide further, said Randall Miller, a St. Joseph's University history professor.
"Part of it is perception," he said. "If people perceive you as weak, they don't come to you, not just for favors, but they don't come to you to make deals, either."
Republicans hold only four high-level elected positions in Philadelphia. Three of those officials owe their jobs not to electoral prowess but to a City Charter guarantee of minority party representation.
As though potential irrelevance weren't a big enough problem, Meehan, the third generation of his family to act as GOP boss, also has been trying to fend off an attempted coup.
Rebel Republicans believe he cooperates with Democrats in exchange for patronage jobs and contracts. Meehan argues that he has competed as best he could in an overwhelmingly Democratic city.
This year, the party could lose one of its four positions if 10th District GOP Councilman Brian O'Neill does not beat back a threat from Democrat Bill Rubin.
The charter reserves two at-large Council seats for the minority party - the Republicans in this case. But with incumbent Jack Kelly not running again, Meehan loses a reliable backer, along with a few patronage jobs.
Frank Rizzo had been the other at-large Republican councilman, but he switched to independent recently after a party spat. Rizzo has largely operated on his own, anyway.
State Rep. Dennis O'Brien and lawyer David Oh are favorites to win the two GOP at-large seats as the number one and two finishers in the primary. They generally work independently of both the local party and the rebels.
Neither won endorsement earlier this year from the Republican City Committee selection panel, overseen by Meehan and party chairman Vito Canuso.
O'Brien and Oh fought back, eventually won the ward leaders' endorsement, and now have party backing.
Oh said he had not given much thought to how the Council elections would affect the GOP establishment. O'Brien said little about local party leadership beyond, "I am going to be involved in the definition of where this party goes in the future."
Of the three other contenders - Joseph McColgan, Al Taubenberger, and Michael Untermeyer - Taubenberger has the strongest Meehan ties.
But the intrigue about what Council elections herald for Republicans is minor compared with the speculation about the city commissioners race.
Al Schmidt is vying with incumbent Joseph Duda for the GOP spot in that office. Democrats Stephanie Singer and Anthony Clark are expected to win the two other commissioners' jobs.
Schmidt and Duda were once Meehan loyalists. Schmidt was executive director of the Republican City Committee under Meehan from 2008 to 2010. But after Meehan discouraged Schmidt from running for city controller in 2009, the two parted ways, and Schmidt began working for state Republicans who opposed Meehan.
Duda, who has held the commissioner job since 1996, rose through the party ranks under Meehan's father, Billy, and remains close to the son.
Duda declined to comment for this article.
Schmidt has left his position with the state party, and, since winning the primary, has backed away from criticizing Meehan.
"We've had our attention focused on our opponent and not necessarily on the wider impact," Schmidt said.
If he wins the commissioners' post, Schmidt has vowed to step down as a Republican ward leader and will not hold any party position to avoid conflicts. That pledge raises the question of who might replace him in leading the charge against Meehan.
Meehan swears he's not taking sides in the Council or commissioners' races. He finds all the talk about the symbolism of the commissioners' race just that - talk.
"I don't know what is going to change if either of them win," Meehan said. "There are some who think that the world will end if Al Schmidt wins, and I don't believe that's true. . . . We'll continue to function as an organization and support candidates."
He pointed out that in 1991, Ron Castille, the party-backed candidate for mayor, lost the primary to Frank Rizzo.
"City Committee has lost elections before," Meehan said.
In the May primary, John Featherman, who belongs to the rebel GOP group, nearly beat Meehan's candidate, Karen Brown, which some observers saw as a sign that the City Committee was losing power.
With so few Republican voters in Philadelphia, Duda and Schmidt are courting Democrats.
Republican Matt Wolfe, a West Philadelphia ward leader and Meehan foe, said he had been scouting out Democrats to get them to vote for Schmidt.
Schmidt's election would embolden those unhappy with Meehan, Wolfe said, but the opposition could survive a defeat.
"If Al Schmidt gets elected, it makes a big difference," Wolfe said. But, he added, "our goal is not to beat up on Mike Meehan and throw him out of office. Our goal is to rebuild the Republican Party in Philadelphia."
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