John Taylor is Philly’s last Republican representative in Harrisburg. What’s amazing is that many in his district — largely Democratic, working-class neighborhoods — seem content to keep him there. The reason for that is simple, he insists: He’s a bridge-builder, a problem-solver. “If you’ve got a problem in Yugoslavia, and I mean this literally, we would sit down with you and try to figure it out,” he tells me in his Bridesburg office, one of three scattered around his 177th District. “Call Yugoslavia.”
Taylor, like the former Yugoslavia, is from the old school. Ostensibly, state legislators may be dedicated to drafting, debating and passing laws in Harrisburg. But they often stand in as neighborhood mini-mayors, one-stop shops that help constituents pay taxes, fix potholes and even land jobs.
This November, the 57-year-old Kensington native and Northwood resident is running for re-election to the office he first won in 1984, representing a district that covers parts of Port Richmond, Juniata Park, Bridesburg, Kensington and Frankford. His challenger is William Dunbar, 28, a former aide to Congressman Chaka Fattah and state Rep. Tony Payton. Dunbar is an African American running in what has traditionally been a bastion of the white working class. But the district is changing.
On a warm September evening, Taylor led a team of Republican committeepeople and volunteers across Juniata Park, an extraordinarily diverse neighborhood of neatly kept rowhomes.
Among African-American constituents, Taylor seemed popular. Take assistant diner manager Corliss Phillips, 56, who moved her family here from Southwest Philly, worried her daughter would be shot on her way home from school. “Of course, Obama,” laughed Phillips, when asked who she’ll vote for in the presidential election. But she credits Taylor for keeping up the neighborhood. “As long he cares, as long as he keeps doing what he’s doing, I’ll vote for him. No matter [that] I’m a Democrat, even though he’s a Republican.”
One woman complained about not receiving enough help from Taylor. But she said she liked him: A gas grill she won from his office was sitting on her patio. A crossing guard, Earline Stephens, 54, credited him for providing brunch for the workers every year. “I’m only voting for one Republican, and that’s John Taylor,” said Stephens. “I’ve run into him in Wawa. He’s getting his coffee and he’ll say, ‘Oh, how you doin’?’”
Among constituents of other races, it’s much the same. Taylor received hugs from a few middle-aged white women and praise from Israel Varela, 70, a Puerto Rican man about to lead a prayer circle in his living room. Taylor helped Varela secure a disabled license plate.
Taylor argues that lack of familiarity, and not race, is his greatest challenge. “It’s not about a vote in Harrisburg as much as it is, ‘My kid doesn’t have the proper transportation to go to school,’ or ‘The streetlight’s out,’ or ‘I have drug dealers in my yard.’”
Taylor’s district is only 25 percent Republican; campaign volunteers openly encourage residents to split their tickets. “You gonna be a Republican? No. You gonna vote for Mitt Romney? Probably not,” says Taylor, a master of political realism. “We’d like you to vote Republican. But, hey, you don’t have to.”
The Pennsylvania Republican Party is dominated by suburban and rural politicians renowned for spurning Philadelphia. Some say Taylor is a key emissary to a GOP-dominated state government.
“I’m a Democrat who thinks it’s very important that the Republican caucuses in Harrisburg have members from Philadelphia,” says political consultant Larry Ceisler.
“When it comes to these difficult issues in Philly,” says Taylor, “there’s not one other member in the majority party in the Senate or in the majority party in the House or in the governor’s office who could care less.”
City Hall sources praise Taylor’s efforts on behalf of the city. Mayor Nutter’s legislative affairs director, Lewis Rosman, says Taylor has been “helpful to us in our agenda.” Taylor is not so much a Republican, says City Council President Darrell Clarke, as just “a legislator who represents a particular part of Philadelphia.” Both point to legislation passed this summer that protects the city from expensive property-tax-assessment appeals.
Despite that goodwill, the Republican Party in Philly is at an undeniable low point today.
Just four years ago, four Republicans represented Philly (not counting Rep. Thomas Murt, whose district includes a small sliver of the city). In 2008, after Rep. George Kenney retired, Democrat Brendan Boyle won his seat. In 2010, his brother Kevin Boyle defeated John Perzel, hobbled by corruption charges. In a special election this year, Democrat Ed Neilson won the seat vacated by Republican Denny O’Brien, now on City Council.
“The challenge that William [Dunbar] has is the real personal appeal of John Taylor,” says Kevin Boyle, who is backing Dunbar. “You have a lot of Democrats, especially in Port Richmond and Bridesburg, that are willing to cross party lines for state representative.”
That’s especially true when the powerful trade unions support a candidate, as they do Taylor.
“There’s probably not, philosophically, a whole lot of difference between a Northeast Philadelphia Democrat and a Northeast Philadelphia Republican,” says Taylor.
Dunbar disagrees: Taylor voted for Gov. Corbett’s 2012 budget, which eliminated General Assistance cash welfare for the disabled, victims of domestic violence and recovering addicts, and slashed funding for social-service programs. He also supported the controversial voter-ID law and co-sponsored legislation that would require women to undergo an ultrasound before an abortion. Constituents, says Dunbar, “could tell me how they hated the Republicans and Corbett, but they didn’t know that John Taylor was a Republican.”
Taylor, who did oppose the General Assistance cut in a separate vote, says the budget was imperfect. “You can only vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the entire budget. You really don’t get to vote for pieces.”
Critics also point to Taylor’s reputation for awarding patronage jobs, such as at the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA), which was delivered to local Republicans in a 2001 state takeover orchestrated by Perzel. Vincent Fenerty Jr., a ward leader in the district, is the PPA’s executive director. Taylor campaign treasurer Carl Ciglar is executive deputy director.
Taylor says all of this is aboveboard. “It’s lovely to be able to pick up the phone and help somebody,” says Taylor. “So the people at the Parking Authority … were just people that said [to me], ‘I lost my job, I need a job, can you help?’”
But it’s a headache when people are “going to not come to work or steal shit, and then [they think], ‘John Taylor’s going to get you out of it.’ I have relatives who got fired from the Parking Authority.”
The patronage and party decline have sparked a revolt among Republicans who want a more aggressive Philadelphia Republican Party.
In 2011, Taylor backed Republican City Commissioner Joseph Duda against reformer Al Schmidt, because “Schmidt was really like the symbol of the other side.” But Taylor says the reformers are right that the party is “way too inactive.” He’s for “the workers, not for the talkers … the sort of wine-and-cheese set.” And he concedes that Karen Brown, the party’s widely mocked 2011 mayoral nominee and a former Democrat, was an unwise choice.
Brown and Taylor show, in different ways, that Philadelphia politics can be a lesson in improbability. But Taylor’s bucked the odds for the better part of three decades now. And he has reason to think he can do it again.