State Rep. Martina White was overwhelmingly elected Tuesday as chairwoman of the Philadelphia Republican Party, taking leadership of an organization in decline for decades and reeling from last week’s general election.
White, after the vote by the party’s ward leaders, promised to move the GOP forward and focus it on 2020.
”We’re excited,” White said, surrounded by supporters. “We have a lot of work to do. But I’ll tell you what, this party is ready for a resurgence.”
Former Chairman Mike Meehan, a third-generation leader of the party, resigned Saturday after what he dubbed a “preposterous” general election in which the local GOP lost a City Council at-large seat it had held for seven decades and its mayoral nominee could not crack 20% of the vote even though the incumbent Democrat, Mayor Jim Kenney, refused to campaign.
“It’s still dysfunctional,” Meehan said of his party, leaving the ward leader meeting at the United Republican Club in Kensington before the votes for White were counted. “I’ll leave it at that.”
Former party Vice Chairman Mike Cibik, who challenged Meehan for the top spot in 2017, backed White Tuesday. Party secretary Jim Pio considered a run, but also backed White.
Joe McColgan, who briefly ran in 2017 before getting behind Meehan, considered another try but emailed ward leaders Tuesday morning to say he would not ask for their support. Instead, he urged them to slow the selection process.
“Here is my reason — we need to cultivate and attract more women, more minorities and more youth into our party if we have any hope of changing the direction of the city, and I’m not certain a 57-year-old white guy is that person,” McColgan wrote. “It won’t be easy, but someone is out there and not necessarily someone who is sitting next to you tonight.”
Lawrence Tabas, chairman of the Pennsylvania Republican Party, said the local GOP was right to move swiftly in selecting a new leader, looking ahead to next year’s election for president and congressional races. He called the 31-year-old White an “outstanding" choice who represents the future of the party.
White, expected to seek a fourth term next year, first won Northeast Philadelphia’s 170th House District as a political novice in a 2015 special election called after Brendan Boyle, a Democrat, resigned to take a seat in the U.S. House.
Her victory, at age 26, was a rare spark of hope for a political party relegated for seven decades to second-class status in Philadelphia. White, the first Republican to win an open legislative seat in the city in 25 years, was helped by a Democratic row in the district.
Boyle and his brother, State Rep. Kevin Boyle, have been in a long dispute with other Democratic leaders in Northeast Philadelphia, including former Lt. Gov. Mike Stack III and State Sen. John Sabatina Jr. That disunity prevented the Democrats from coalescing behind a candidate to challenge White.
And while Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 7-1 citywide, that advantage drops to 2-1 in White’s district, where moderate Democrats are comfortable voting across party lines.
White, who has drawn strong support from unions representing police officers, firefighters, and building trades laborers, has been reelected twice by comfortable margins.
She became the city’s only GOP legislator in Harrisburg after the the 2017 retirement of State Rep. John Taylor, another Northeast Philadelphia Republican who was party chairman from 2013 to 2016.
The Republican Party has faced a decade of off-and-on civil war, with one camp largely cooperating with Democratic Party efforts and another demanding to be more competitive. Taylor was a consensus pick for chairman, and he brought a period of peace. He was replaced by Joe DeFelice, who resigned in 2017 to take a job in President Donald Trump’s administration.
White has become a champion of conservative legislation that draws criticism from city Democrats, including Kenney.
She was one of 36 legislators who submitted a brief in 2017 to Commonwealth Court calling to overturn Philadelphia’s sweetened beverage tax, Kenney’s signature achievement from his first term. That case faltered in court.
She has pushed to withhold state funding from so-called sanctuary cities like Philadelphia, which refuse to share information about the imminent release of people in custody who are in this country illegally, unless a judge issues an order.
White also introduced legislation that would delay the public release of the names of police officers involved in shootings. Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed that measure in 2016. White reintroduced it in 2017.