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The Philly GOP’s youth movement: ‘You have to turn people into Republicans… It can be done.’

Yes, Virginia, there is a Republican Party in Philadelphia. And the members of the Grand Old Party in the City of Brotherly Love say they’re looking to the past for their future.

As the Republicans try to recover from more than 60 years of near-irrelevance in representative government, the local party’s executive director, Joe DeFelice, sees legendary Democratic mayors Joseph Clark and Richardson Dilworth as reverse models for success.

“Even though they’re the guys that eventually defeated the Republican party,” DeFelice says, “they also give us hope that people will eventually get fed up with one party’s stranglehold on the city.”

In the last few years the Republicans have been as far away as ever from holding the mayor’s office, let alone most measures of significance in local politics. But as Philadelphia changes, growing younger and filling up with outsiders, the Republicans want to gain support by running candidates who DeFelice says are similar: Young outsiders.

Two of three Republican mayoral candidates and four City Council candidates age 40 or under plan to run for election this year, and a 26-year-old woman is running as a Republican in the March special election for the 170th District state house seat in Northeast Philly. Only one of six Democratic mayoral candidates is under 50, Doug Oliver, and three of 10 new at-large Council candidates are 40 or under. Whether this youth movement is another sign of weakness or the start of something good for the Republicans is yet to be seen, but political observers would likely agree Philadelphia needs a strong Republican party.

“I say this as a Democrat,” says Larry Ceisler, a longtime political strategist and principal of Ceisler Media. “The city is worse for not having a viable and credible opposition party.”

Right now local Republicans are practically invisible. They have the mandated two at-large positions on Council in David Oh and Dennis O’Brien, and longtime councilman Brian O’Neill in the Northeast’s 10th District and haven’t had more than three Council members since the 1991 election. They have Al Schmidt as City Commissioner, and John Taylor as the lone Philadelphia Republican in the PA House.

Philly Democrats have the Mayor, 14 City Council positions, two City Commissioners and 23 members of the state house and all of Philadelphia’s state senators.

This current Republican state is a low for the city. Republicans put together competitive mayoral candidates like Frank Rizzo in 1987, and Sam Katz in 1999 and 2003, and had four PA House members as recently as 2008. In the 80s and early 90s, Ron Castille was a Republican district attorney. And in the 90s, even when the Republican Party was unpopular, about 200,000 people were registered Republicans. There are now about 120,000.

Blame the shift from weak to dead on the national Republican Party’s increased lean to the right, scaring away urban conservatives, and the local party itself. From 2009 until about 2012, Philly Republicans couldn’t even unite. Disagreements over the party’s direction led to ward battles and that were finally put to rest with Taylor rising to chair of the local party and DeFelice to executive director. The party decided to promote a more moderate theme that contrasted with many national Republicans and enter the 21st century technologically, finally using social media and email to spread their message.

DeFelice says the situation is better now and if unity translates to strength in the next few years, then it’s coming at a good time. Philadelphia could use a Republican or two because of the GOP’s ownership of the state house and senate. The city has one person, Taylor, to represent the House majority and none on the Senate at a time when area schools could use more funding from the state.

“When the Republican majority Senate caucus meets and there’s nobody from Philadelphia there,” Ceisler says, “they don’t care about Philadelphia.”

Says Martina White, 26, who’s running for state representative in the 170th District: “My voice would be part of that majority caucus and could provide our people with a much louder voice than any other particular candidate.”

Martina White

Though inexperience has been a theme for Republican candidates in recent years, the party hasn’t run candidates this young. In 2011, for instance, 9 of the 11 Republicans vying for City Council positions were white males over 40, and both mayoral candidates were over 40.

“People might call them nobodies and maybe they are,” DeFelice says, “but they’re also a kind of different breath of fresh air.”

The young candidates — like White, trying to kickstart the party — draw from a variety of backgrounds. White is from the Northeast where there’s still a large population of Republicans. Mayoral candidate Melissa Murray Bailey grew up in the suburbs, recently moved to Philadelphia and says she wants to make Philadelphia a place where young people will want to stay and raise families. Council candidates James Williams, the track coach at Cheyney University, and Kevin Strickland are black men who have spent much of their lives in North Philly. The other candidates under 40 running for the Republicans are Rhashea Harmon for mayor and Terry Tracy and Dan Tinney.

Williams says he and Strickland have been speaking everywhere — from schools to barbershops to youth football practices, trying to convince their community they can be comfortable with the Republican party.

“Slowly you build momentum,” Williams says. “You have to turn people into Republicans…It can be done. Philadelphia will vote for the right candidate over time.”

James Williams

The party is trying to coalesce around lower taxes and less city spending for a better business environment, better education that might include increased charters or vouchers, and less corruption and mediocrity than a Democratic party that — DeFelice points out — has been marred by recent scandals around porny emails, leaky grand jury proceedings and shakedowns involving local state representatives, judges, Attorney General Kathleen Kane and former State Treasurer Rob McCord.

Ceisler says a message like this is the one Republicans should push to get support but notes “it’s easier said than done, obviously.”

There is plenty of reason to doubt Republican growth and not just because of their moribund recent history. In this election, DeFelice says the GOP doesn’t plan on endorsing candidates, which Citified notes could hurt the chances of new candidates for at-large spots and help Oh and O’Brien, who have been criticized by Republicans for not proposing a bill to sell the PGW (Oh and O’Brien didn’t respond to interview requests). Sam Katz, who might run for mayor as an Independent, would also take away many Republican votes.

DeFelice is planning on “baby steps” for now while hoping the Dilworth-Clarke-esque turnaround could come someday. The belief that one party can’t hold power forever comes up again and again with the young GOP candidates.

“It’s happened before,” Murray Bailey says. “Maybe it’s time for that to happen again.”

Featured photo comes from Philadelphia Evening Bulletin via Temple University

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