If there is such a thing as a Republican bloc left in Philadelphia, conventional wisdom would say it’s the Northeast. It’s home to Philly’s only Republican district Councilman, Brian O’Neill, and only Republican House member, John Taylor (whose district also runs through Kensington). Just two years ago, the area claimed a total of three GOP state reps: Taylor, now-Councilman Dennis O’Brien and now-convict John Perzel.
So it’s no wonder that when Republican 27th Ward leader Matt Wolfe is looking for a breakthrough in this election cycle, he looks northeastward: “You have some really solid Republican organizations up there.” And with Romney and pro-Romney PACs splurging on $3 million in last-minute ad buys in Pennsylvania, Wolfe is thinking (or is it wishing?) that a little top-of-the-ticket boost might trickle all the way down the line.
In particular, he’s looking at the 169th state House district, O’Brien’s old seat, where the councilman’s anointed successor and former aide David Kralle has been canvassing heavily against Democrat Ed Neilson, the former political director of the powerful International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98 who won a special election in April. He’s eyeing the 172nd, where Northeast Chamber of Commerce president and always-the-candidate-never-the-office-holder Al Taubenberger is vying to take back Perzel’s seat from freshman Democratic Rep. Kevin Boyle. And (maybe if he squints just a bit) he can visualize a win for Joe Rooney, a retired Marine fighter pilot who’s running a spirited, if underfunded, race against U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, outside whose office Rooney has taken to appearing with a person in a chicken suit, taunting her to debate him.
Kralle, for one, notes that his brand of Philly conservatism has drawn support from the Philadelphia firefighters’ union and some blue-collar workers (even if Neilson does have IBEW in his corner). They recognize “that even though I’m a Republican, I’m a Philadelphian first. That means fighting for workers.” Kralle figures the city is desperately in need of another Philly voice within — but not afraid to stand up to — the Republican caucus that grips Harrisburg. Reality-TV-style, Kralle adds, “I’m not going to Harrisburg to make friends. I’m going to Harrisburg to represent the people in my district and the people of this city.” (Just as well not to make friends, actually, since on proposed future legislative maps, the 169th District vanishes, reappearing 100 miles west in York County.)
But over in the 172nd District, Democratic Rep. Kevin Boyle says he’s found a better way to represent his district. Sure, he opposed Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget cuts and says challenger Taubenberger (who didn’t return CP’s calls) wouldn’t do the same. But it’s his constituent services that he thinks will secure his second term. Taubenberger may have on his side Perzel’s C-shaped masterpiece of Republican gerrymandering — “some people refer to it as the ‘Arc of Triumph,’” Wolfe notes — but Boyle’s offices have seen more than 7,000 walk-ins, people complaining about blighted properties, economy-related woes. He’s been working to save St. Hubert Catholic High School for Girls from closing and to keep a methadone clinic off a block with a day care in Holmesburg. “The key to success in the Northeast, in districts that are roughly 50-50 [Democrat and Republican],” Boyle says, “is the quality of service you provide to people that come into your district office.”
One thing everyone agrees on is that, in the Northeast, it’s all about crossover appeal. “The president won my district four years ago,” Kralle notes. So, “I’m hoping the top of the ticket can help, but I’m not relying on it. … I’m making sure that voters know that, if you want to vote for the president or you want to vote for the governor, you can still vote for me.”
That’s a vital message, says Republican 65th Ward leader Phil Innamorato. He’s well aware that his Northeast Philly ward is 65 percent Democrat, 30 percent Republican: “Compared to the rest of the city it’s a Republican stronghold, but we’re still clearly outnumbered.” Yet the 24-year-old, who caught the politics bug when the Republican National Convention came to town in 2000, also sees many young people like him getting involved with a re-energized Philly GOP. In his ward, Romney may not win, but “I think he will do a lot better than John McCain did.”
That has given some hope to 13th District congressional candidate Joe Rooney, who hasn’t gotten much traction in the media or attracted the curiosity of a single pollster, despite his straight fiscal message (campaign slogan: “A taxpayer like us!”). He’s counting on constituents to agree that Schwartz, considered a prospect for Senate or governor, hasn’t done much for the district, which reaches from the Northeast into the suburbs.
Rooney is looking to draw on the momentum of Romney and Senate candidate Tom Smith, but he knows he needs more than that. He needs, frankly, Democrats. “People say, ‘Are you for Obama?’ And I say, ‘All I’m trying to do is beat Allyson Schwartz.’”
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