Philly’s Republican Party seems to think it’s OK to betray their own to retain control over the Philadelphia Parking Authority. Mayoral candidate John Featherman, a Republican who thought he could trust his own party, learned this the hard way.
Things came to a head back in February, when the unendorsed candidate was urged by another GOP City Council candidate, Joe McColgan, to make a friendly, let-bygones-be-bygones phone call to Republican City Committee leaders—whom Featherman had been fighting a media war with over their opposing political views and the candidate’s unwillingness to join an establishment he saw as corrupt.
“I said, ‘I don’t think it makes a lot of sense for us to trash-talk each other,’” Featherman recalls telling RCC Chair Vito Canuso. They left the call on good terms. The following morning, South Philadelphia Public Record Editor Jim Tayoun called Featherman. “Vito Canuso said he’s supporting you,” said Tayoun, to Featherman’s shock. (Tayoun confirmed this to PW, though claims Canuso said he’d support Featherman if they couldn’t find anyone else. “Featherman tends to exaggerate,” Tayoun says.)
Hey, a candidate can dream. “The idea of an RCC endorsement meant … they were prepared to meet me on these issues,” says Featherman, who labels himself a “real Republican” whose oft-libertarian stances on matters of gay marriage and drug legalization put him at odds with the city and national GOP. His disapproval of ‘Democrat-lite’ Philadelphia Republicans was also a likely source of contention. But he thought that he had campaigned against both them and Nutter to the point where they were willing to begrudgingly bring him in their camp.
The Featherman-RCC match made sense, at least on paper. He, though in disagreement with many of the RCC’s tactics, was an ambitious candidate, making up for his lack of funds with writing Internet comments on any and all articles that mentioned him. This was more than the RCC could say for itself. Every time a candidate was rumored as their mayoral pick, that candidate would deny allegations to the press.
Featherman went to see the big boys at their RCC headquarters on the Parkway anyway. He says lawyer Michael Meehan told him, “We need to know about your skeletons.” He gave them the basics—he doesn’t drink or take drugs. He’s divorced but it was amicable. The meeting was left, like the phone call, on good terms. But in March, the RCC sent out this blind-copy email: “Our Mayoral Candidate is Karen Brown.” Featherman was shocked when he received a forwarded copy. Brown, after all, was a lifelong Democrat and Democrat City Committee member, one who was running for First District and at-large Council seats at the time. Brown would be endorsed by the RCC so long as she filed her papers to run for mayor, dropped her Democrat bids and switched parties within 36 hours, which she did. After having jumped through the hoop for RCC leaders, Featherman was shocked at the lengths they were willing to go to just so they wouldn’t have to endorse him. it was the ultimate ‘fuck you.’
“I wasn’t surprised that they picked a Democrat to run for mayor,” says Brewerytown activist Adam Lang, a Republican who supports Featherman. “But I was surprised they picked someone who was a member of the DCC [Democratic City Committee] and was running as a Democrat ... Otherwise, it’s always nice to see people change their party affiliation.”
Poor Featherman. But he should have known—it’s amazing anyone is willing to put any trust into the RCC at this point. Current leadership has made it a priority to go down with the ship, so long as they maintain power on the ocean floor, where they’ve been since Frank Rizzo Sr. found his final resting place. The party faces 7-to-1 Democrat/Republican registration odds within city limits. And part of the reason that’s the case is that the RCC has never done so much as considered a change in strategy. But that’s not necessarily outright irrationality; how do you think they get all those sweet parking spots?
“The entire structure of the party in town is deliberately geared toward protecting PPA to the point not just that they don’t even field candidates, but they decide strategically to support Democrats who support continued Republican control of the PPA,” says a source close to city government who asked to remain anonymous. “They look at a district and it’s not that they can’t get a candidate to run. They’ll actually say, ‘We can’t take on this Democrat because he’s on our side.’ The Republican structure in the city is so corrupted by the PPA that it’s not that they can’t—they won’t. They don’t want to. The implications of that are kind of staggering…It’s not a political party in Philadelphia. It’s almost like a legitimized criminal enterprise.” The state party is trying to unseat Meehan and Canuso, says the source, because they know they’ll never have a viable party as long as the Philadelphia Parking Authority is the prize, and those guys own it.
Consider Republican Pia Varma, who tried (and failed) to run against Rep. Bob Brady for U.S. Congress in Pennsylvania’s First District last year. She found out the hard way that you don’t mess with the status quo in Philadelphia. After announcing her intentions, she relied on the RCC to collect the majority of her signatures, which were successfully challenged in court. She then wrote and self-published the book Brotherly Love—A Cautionary Tale of Naivety, Deceit, and Corruption, which details her bizarre experience with the city’s Republican Party. She claims Meehan, the lawyer, did not circulate her petitions, perhaps purposely leaving her out of the contest so as not to upset Brady. She also claims Meehan’s law firm earned more than $1.3 million from the PPA from 2005-2009.
Since Brady runs the Democratic City Committee, so it goes, Republicans believe he likely has the power to take back PPA any time he wants. The party is therefore forced to actually bet against themselves—accepting universal defeat, humiliation and a permanent deference to the Democrats, happy with the two at-large seats they’re guaranteed as the minority. And, as has been the case with lone Republicans Frank Rizzo and Jack Kelly, offering few legislative alternatives to Council Democrats.
So every time a viable candidate comes along, who could lose by, say, less than the last propped-up piece of milquetoast, Meehan and Canuso have nowhere to put him or her besides that hard place between eight moving wheels and cement. Otherwise, it’d make no sense that such a large population within our borders wouldn’t put up a protest vote, at least once in a while. Which is probably why they chose Brown, a gaffe-prone Democrat who just settled a case with the Philadelphia Board of Ethics as this year’s Republican patsy. “The PPA thing isn’t going to be solved by me,” says Featherman. “It’s too big. It involves thousands of people, ward leaders, too many people. I want to be the catalyst, but I can’t solve it. It’s like the Peter Gabriel song, ‘You can blow out a candle, but you can’t blow out a fire.’ I’m just a candle. I’m not going to be able to change everything by myself.”
Worst part: The PPA conspiracies, the unnecessary infighting and the power-sharing deals aren’t necessarily a secret. They’re just really unfortunate byproducts of a corrupt political system. Kinda sucks for, you know, democracy.