Two potential futures for the Philadelphia Republican Party were on display during debates for mayor and at-large Council candidates Wednesday night.
Future No. 1 is the status quo. Remain a party content with electrifying 12.5 percent of the voters in mayoral races, election after election after election. Find placeholders to take up space on the ballot, not viable, legitimate candidates whom voters can enthusiastically support. Put more energy into internal party squabbles than challenging Democrats and their policies. Never, ever offer an alternative vision on crime, education, taxes, or economic development, for fear of upsetting the mighty Democratic machine.
That future was reinforced in the mayoral debate Wednesday at the German Society of Pennsylvania. One candidate, former Democrat Karen Brown, was a no-show. Organizers said she had promised to attend but had a last-minute scheduling conflict. Given that the debate was sponsored by the Loyal Opposition, the GOP radicals who believe that political parties should try to win elections, it's not surprising that the party's candidate wouldn't show for the upstarts' event.
So that left moderator Larry Mendte chatting with John Featherman, a Loyal Opposition member who joined the race last year to ensure that the party's candidate didn't have a free ride in the primary. Just as he hopes to challenge Mayor Nutter in the general election.
Featherman is one of the nicest people you'll meet. He has a passion for the city and believes strongly that it can be better. He knows that a real two-party system is crucial to that transformation, and is adamant that the current GOP leadership is holding the party and the city back from much-needed changes.
None of that, however, means he's ready to run Philadelphia. So, ironically, the one guy with guts enough to stand up to his party and insist on a real candidate for mayor reinforces the notion that the city GOP is rife with people who run for offices they are not qualified to hold. This year, in the May 17 mayoral primary, Republicans offer two such candidates. (The Democrats have one.)
Even more ironic, many Philadelphians probably agree with Featherman on the issues. There is too much crime. Residents are overtaxed, and Mayor Nutter has increased that burden. Philadelphia isn't friendly to businesses. Pension and health-care reform are needed. A mayor should use the bully pulpit to condemn officials who abuse the public trust.
But knowing what's wrong doesn't qualify you to make things right. Or able to win over voters and the Council majority needed to make changes. The messenger is every bit as important as the message.
That's where Future No. 2 comes in, in part with the nine men running for the two at-large Council seats guaranteed to Republicans.
All the candidates showed up for this event Wednesday, but one had an odd way of debating. Four-term incumbent Councilman Frank Rizzo sat on stage with his opponents for the introductions, told the audience what a great job he was doing, and left. He had other events to attend - perhaps ones in which people wouldn't ask pesky questions about his participation in the controversial Deferred Retirement Option Plan.
But Rizzo is old-guard anyway, occupying a seat that Republicans can't lose but was never used to challenge the status quo. Maybe he'll hold on, or maybe there will be two newcomers from among the other eight candidates. In which case, Future No. 2 for the GOP looks pretty bright.
It's a strong field: State Rep. Dennis O'Brien, a former House speaker; David Oh, a former assistant district attorney and Special Forces vet; Malcolm Lazin, one-time corruption-fighting federal prosecutor, developer, and civic activist; Al Taubenberger, president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce; Navy vet and banking executive Joe McColgan; health-care manager Elmer Money; former prosecutor Michael Untermyer; and lawyer Steve Odabashian.
Based on what I heard at the debate, and a meeting with the Inquirer Editorial Board the day before, none of these candidates plans to just occupy space on Council. Like Featherman, they recognize that in order to create more jobs, the city needs to attract more taxpaying residents and businesses. For that to happen, taxes must be lowered, the overall system reformed.
Oh, Lazin, and O'Brien seem most prepared to hit the ground running, both in being able to push a reform agenda and to build the bridges necessary to have influence on a Council with a solid Democratic majority. They won't always win the day, but expect them to persist. And, yes, that will be good for the GOP. More important, it will be good for Philadelphia.