Philadelphia will be the background of many political photo ops the next few months. We’re the biggest city in a somewhat purple state, the birthplace of Democracy and next year the host of the Democratic National Convention. National politicians will be flocking.
To these candidates, good luck. Philadelphia is a tough place to master. Our city can embrace you, or it can claim that you live inside of a butt.
Scott Walker found that out a few weeks ago. And while any Republican who ventures into a city with 7-to-1 Democrat-to-Republican registration advantage might see a few negative reactions, he compounded his misery with three more mistakes. He was indecisive — going to both Pat’s and Geno’s — culturally unaware — picking American cheese rather than the savvier and safer whiz — and kind of a jerk — Walker might not have even picked up his trash.
So his visit was a flop. But not every candidate has to fear this city. This is how you properly visit Philadelphia as a national political candidate.
Show up unannounced. If you’re seeking the presidency, you better be able to attract a quick crowd based on word of mouth and social media. It worked for Al Gore. In 2000, he did this at the 4th Street Deli, as recounted in Billy Penn earlier this year:
Word spread to residents in the neighborhood, who started crowding the restaurant wanting to see Gore when he left. Rather than try to avoid the people, Gore ran through the crowd.
“It was a real moment,” longtime owner Dave Auspitz says. “If they could’ve passed him around on their shoulders they would have. I wish Gore had become president. He loved Philadelphia.”
Don’t get a cheesesteak
Philadelphia’s culinary scene extends far beyond a greasy albeit delicious sandwich and has for a long time. This isn’t Eisenhower’s Philadelphia. Yet few candidates seem to realize the sandwich invented during the Depression to satiate hungry, empty-pocketed day laborers no longer defines our palate. Nearly every time someone runs for president they come here. Barack Obama and George W. Bush did, as did Bill Clinton. It worked out for them but not everyone has their charisma. A candidate who acknowledges that Philadelphia has evolved would certainly gain some local points.
With so many options to choose from, it could be tough to move beyond the old standby cheesesteak joints. Pitfalls exist in this route, too. A candidate doesn’t want to pick something too fancy, say Zahav, and come off as an elitist. John McCain stopped at Devon Seafood Grill while running for president in 2008. Probably a little too much but a good effort nonetheless.
A candidate will want to pick something exotic yet still mainstream. The top choice might be Continental in Old City. This Stephen Starr restaurant helped usher in our new, booming restaurant era and helped reinvigorate Old City. Plus, it’s a diner. Continental may merit the $$ sign on Yelp, but it still has the old-fashioned, reasonably blue-collar feel that pervades cheesesteak establishments. Another idea: Have a Dinic’s roast pork sandwich.
Skip the cheesesteak and you won’t feel like a cliche. Or an idiot. Cheesesteaks are taken seriously here by a great number of people and ordering one under pressure can lead to embarrassment. John Kerry, who ordered his cheesesteak with swiss cheese, and Walker learned this lesson the hard way.
If you’re going the cliche route, handle Pat’s and Geno’s the proper way, aka the Clinton way
Walker could only pray for some of Bill Clinton’s smoothness when it comes impressing the locals. During his presidential run in 1992, he crafted the best strategy for dealing with the Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteak gauntlet. Clinton went to Geno’s, ordered a cheesesteak with whiz (melted cheese), shook a bunch of hands, signed autographs and somehow managed not to piss off Pat’s and also not look like indecisive. The night before, his campaign had stopped there to buy $100 worth of food. Later, they purchased nearly $600 worth of food to be catered for a later campaign stop. Pat’s was happy. Geno’s was happy. And Clinton didn’t look like he was trying to please too many factions. Boom.
Let Ed Rendell be your guide
That spontaneous trip of Gore’s wouldn’t have happened without Rendell by his side. Obama made four campaign stops in 2008 flanked by the former mayor. Rendell knows where to go, and Philadelphia loves him.
Visit the Northeast
The Northeast is a true battleground in a city where political lines are clearly drawn. Many of the registered Democrats will switch allegiances when election time comes. So note to Republicans: You probably won’t be bombarded with embarrassing Scott Walker signs here.
These swing voters are also aware too many Philadelphians closer to the middle of the city don’t consider the Northeast residents their equal. They’ll appreciate a candidate who does.
Finally, add the Mayfair Diner to this mix. Bill Clinton came here on Election Day in 1992 and sixteen years later Hillary Clinton did the same (and she won the Pennsylvania primary). A few months later in 2008, Obama visited the Mayfair Diner a month before defeating McCain in the general election.
Or visit any of the neighborhoods far removed from Center City
Bill Clinton has done this, too. About a month before his ’92 victory — the same trip as when he visited Geno’s — Clinton rode the El with local U.S. senate candidate Lynn Yeakel to 52nd Street and walked around, attracting a massive crowd. The people who came to watch said they saw the event as a political gesture more than a sign of actual caring for a mostly-forgotten neighborhood, but they still came out to watch.
Drink a Yards
This advice gets at every contrived message politicians from both sides love to emphasize. Philadelphia beer is a once-thriving, then-dead industry that is now thriving again. American ingenuity, ftw! And local, small businesses jump-started the beer scene’s resurgence; Wall Street fat cats had nothing to do with it. So drink a Yards. Or if not, a Dock Street or Philadelphia Brewing Company. At worst, at least opt for the Yuengling and earn points for Pennsylvanians in general.
Don’t be Chris Christie
And if you are him, probably stick to the suburbs.