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Billy Ciancaglini wants to be Philadelphia’s first Republican mayor in decades. The problem? Many voters ‘have never heard of me.’

It's been 20 years since a Democratic candidate for mayor in Philadelphia faced a close call from a Republican. Billy Ciancaglini, a Democrat-turned-Republican, hopes to change that by defeating Mayor Jim Kenney's bid for a second term. He knows you may not have heard of him.

Republican Mayoral Candidate Billy Ciancaglini  speaks with former client and friend Mike DÕImperio during the 26th Ward's Republican fundraiser on October 18, 2019.
Republican Mayoral Candidate Billy Ciancaglini speaks with former client and friend Mike DÕImperio during the 26th Ward's Republican fundraiser on October 18, 2019.Read moreEd Newton

It’s a Friday night, and the Republican nominee for mayor roams a South Philadelphia catering hall, where his party’s 26th Ward leader is holding a fundraiser. Billy Ciancaglini shimmies between tables as Louis Prima’s “Angelina” booms from the disc jockey stand.

At one table, a couple complains about litter. At another, the party’s standard-bearer is asked if voters recognize him as a candidate. To a table of five portly men waiting for dinner, Ciancaglini jokes, “This isn’t your first buffet, huh?”

It’s a curious remark for a candidate who needs votes and wants to be the next leader of a city of 1.5 million. But it captures Ciancaglini’s devil-may-care approach: He is at ease in the face of long odds.

After all, it’s been 20 years since a Republican opponent has made a Democrat sweat in a race for Philadelphia mayor.

On the campaign trail — at the annual Republican City Committee clambake fund-raiser in Northeast Philadelphia, at a predominantly African American church in North Philadelphia, and in his daily flurry of Facebook posts — Ciancaglini consistently hits Mayor Jim Kenney on the same three issues.

He decries the controversial sweetened beverage tax that pays for pre-K and park improvements. He vows to end the “sanctuary city” policy that requires federal authorities to obtain an order from a judge before the city will alert them to the imminent release from custody of a person in this country without documentation. And he insists the city should not allow the creation of a nonprofit supervised injection site, where people can use drugs under medical supervision.

The messages often resonate. But that doesn’t signal any serious political shift in a city where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans by 7-1.

Ciancaglini has raised just $10,500 for his campaign in a year when a political action committee funded by building trades unions spent $930,000 just to make sure Kenney won a three-way primary election nobody expected him to lose. Kenney’s campaign reported raising $14,500 in a single day this week.

Ciancaglini spends significant time fighting fellow Republicans on Facebook — another ward leader in South Philly, a community group leader in the Northeast, the party’s original endorsed mayoral candidate.

‘Republicans should be embarrassed’

Sam Katz is the last Republican who came close. In the 1999 general election for mayor, former City Council President John F. Street edged Katz by a margin of just 1.65%.

Katz returned with a credible 2003 challenge to Street, but lost by 17 points after the discovery of an FBI listening device in the mayor’s City Hall office, which the Street campaign blamed on President George W. Bush.

As Kenney ignores Ciancaglini, refusing to debate his challenger or appear in any forums with him, Katz said he worries about the mayor’s focus on keeping power instead of discussing the city’s future.

“No candidate should fly through without a debate,” said Katz, who is unimpressed with Ciancaglini’s candidacy as well. “But what kind of debate would that be? Who would watch it?”

Katz sees a city ill-prepared for the next economic downturn. “Republicans should be embarrassed that they’re not capable of grooming candidates for citywide office,” he said.

‘Billy for Philly’

Ciancaglini, 48, was born in Philadelphia and started college at La Salle University in 1988. He left school to work as a craps dealer at casinos in Connecticut and Atlantic City and later for a company that did casino-theme fund-raisers. He returned to finish his degree at La Salle in 2000 and then attended law school at Temple University.

He has been a criminal defense attorney since passing the bar in 2003 and only became a Republican last year, after running unsuccessfully as a Democrat for a judicial seat in 2015. Ciancaglini also briefly ran as as a Democrat for judge in 2017 and for state representative in 2018, but abandoned those races.

A review of Ciancaglini’s social media posts from before 2017 shows little interest then in partisan politics, a notable difference from the caustic commentary he posts daily now.

For instance, he started an online flame-war in March with Le Virtù, a South Philly restaurant that gained some attention for helping a family that, facing a deportation order, took refuge in a city church. The restaurant owners said his Facebook posts led to “waves of orchestrated stupidity” — fake reservations, phony online reviews, and calls to federal immigration agencies to raid the restaurant.

“I think Trump kind of got everyone politicized,” he said, adding that Kenney’s policies as mayor were also a factor. He has branded his campaign “Billy for Philly,” with a South Philadelphia swagger, unconcerned about bruising feelings.

Ciancaglini’s Facebook posts rack up hundreds of comments, many in support. That does not translate into campaign donations.

“I truly believe if I had $1 million I would consider myself the favorite,” he said. “The problem is there are a lot of people who don’t leave their houses to go to community meetings and have never heard of me.”

Winning from losing

City Councilman Al Taubenberger is the last actual Republican to run for mayor, in 2007. Former City Councilman Michael Nutter easily defeated him.

That was a genial campaign, with Nutter and Taubenberger appearing together at events, where there were few clashes of personality or policy. “We had a good rapport,” Taubenberger said.

He wishes there was more of an outcry about Kenney’s ignoring Ciancaglini.

“I’m saddened by that,” Taubenberger said. “There is a process to this. It’s called democracy.”

A legacy of GOP losses in Philly

Karen Brown was a committeewoman for the city’s Democratic Party in South Philadelphia when the Republicans recruited her to run for mayor in 2011. The party was trying to head off an insurgent, John Featherman, who was seeking the nomination by criticizing local Republican leadership.

Nutter crushed Brown by 53 percentage points. Brown likes Ciancaglini, though she doesn’t expect him to win and plans to vote for Kenney.

“As much as Billy has good intentions, he’s not going to make it as a Republican in a Democratic world,” she said.

Businesswoman Melissa Murray Bailey, another Democrat turned Republican, volunteered to take on the dominant party in 2015. She raised less than $30,000 and lost to Kenney in a blowout.

Republicans trade blows before and after primary

Ciancaglini was the party’s second choice, after the candidacy of former Republican Ward Leader Daphne Goggins imploded.

Goggins won the party’s endorsement but withdrew from the primary on March 11 after failing to gather the 1,000 voter signatures needed. She suggested the party didn’t help enough because she is an African American woman.

Ciancaglini had criticized Goggins for collecting federal disability benefits since 2010, prompting the GOP to reconsider its endorsement. The party stuck with her, even after she gave an interview to the conservative news site Daily Caller explaining that she had struggled with anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder after she stopped using cocaine in 2005.

Ciancaglini continued to mock Goggins on Facebook.

“That’s where he’s at with trying to bring the party together,” she said. “He’s a joke. And it’s a shame. I can tell you there’s a lot of people who wish I was on the ballot now.”

Ciancaglini shrugs.

“She goes on and on,” he said. “I don’t know what her problem is. I didn’t take her off the ballot.”