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A questionable tactic to curb GOP insurgents

City Republican leaders have come up with a new tactic to minimize the clout of party insurgents, but it appears to violate state law.

City Republican leaders have come up with a new tactic to minimize the clout of party insurgents, but it appears to violate state law.

The GOP's ward leaders approved a change in party bylaws last month that would threaten more than 100 candidates who staged primary-election write-in campaigns to get elected as Republican city committeemen.

The rule change would require any write-in candidate to get at least 10 votes to win the job, even if no one else is on the ballot.

The move is aimed at more than 100 divisions throughout the city, mostly in North and West Philadelphia, where people were interested in running for vacant spots as Republican committeemen but couldn't find or convince enough registered Republican voters to sign their nominating petitions - a minimum of 10 signatures is required to get on the ballot.

Local organizers allied with the Republican State Committee - at war with the leadership of the Philadelphia organization - advised the would-be committeemen to write in their own names for committeeman when they voted in the May 18 primary.

Dozens followed the advice. City election officials reported last week that 120 people were written onto ballots as Republican committee people.

Virtually all would fill committeeman spots that would otherwise be vacant.

But before the election, the city Republican organization got wind of the plan, and moved quickly to change the party's rules, requiring write-in candidates to get at least 10 votes, comparable to the 10 signatures required to get spots on the ballot.

Of the 120 people who were written-in as Republican committeemen in the primary, only seven had 10 or more votes, according to Al Schmidt, one of the local organizers allied with state committee.

"What we're trying to do is make it fair," said party chairman Vito F. Canuso Jr., an ally of the party's general counsel and acknowledged leader Michael P. Meehan.

"The normal process is you go out and get 10 signatures on a nominating petition to get on the ballot," Canuso said. "Our bylaws now say you have to have a minimum of 10 write-in votes. . . . We want it to be fair for everybody."

Except for state law. The Pennsylvania Election Code sets basic rules for the primary elections in which party positions are filled, and it specifies that candidates "who receive a plurality of the votes of the party electors at a primary, shall be the party officers of their respective parties."

Before the bylaw change was adopted, University City ward leader Matthew Wolfe sent a memo to all the Republican ward leaders advising them of the state law and urging them to reject the 10-vote minimum for write-ins.

"Why would we want to make it more difficult to get elected committeeman when we are only filling about a third of the positions citywide?" Wolfe asked. "In some areas of the city, particularly the minority areas, it would be impossible to run a write-in campaign for committeeman if you needed 10 votes. . . . The minority areas of the city offer the greatest opportunity for growth, but instead we wage war against those neighborhoods."

Canuso said the bylaw change was approved overwhelmingly. He said party leaders were confident of its legality, but declined to say what sort of legal review had been performed.

"That goes to attorney-client privilege," Canuso said.

The situation puts city election officials on the spot.

Under state law, the three city commissioners - two Democratic ward leaders, Marge Tartaglione and Anthony Clark, and a Republican ward leader, Joseph Duda - are supposed to count the city's votes and issue "certificates of election" to all successful candidates, including those running for party offices like committeeman.

But at the request of Duda, a Meehan ally who holds the title of managing director of the city Republican Party, the three commissioners agreed last month that they would not issue election certificates directly to successful Republican candidates for committeeman. Instead, they decided, they would send the vote-count results to Republican City Committee and let the organization notify the winners.

Wolfe showed up at the commissioners meeting last week and protested that the commissioners were planning to skirt their legal duty.

"I have never seen such a flagrant violation of the election code by this body," he said.

But the commissioners blew off the criticism. Frederick Voigt, the commissioners' legal counsel, suggested repeatedly that Wolfe was free to sue if he disagreed with the commissioners' plans.

City election workers spent the weekend counting votes, including write-ins, and expect to make the results public this week.

Next Monday newly elected committeemen in both political parties are supposed to choose ward leaders in each of the city's 68 wards.

Two days later, the new Republican ward leaders are supposed to convene to choose citywide leadership. Democratic ward leaders will choose their city leadership on June 14.

No matter what may happen in disputed committeeman contests, Meehan is thought to be firmly in control of the Republican Party machinery, thanks to another bylaw change in February that weights the votes of each ward leader based on how many Republicans are registered in each ward.

The change concentrates Republican power among ward leaders in Northeast Philadelphia, the geographic base of the Meehan family's clout for three generations. Meehan's father, William A. Meehan, led the party from the 1960s to the 1990s, and his grandfather, Austin Meehan, dominated the party for close to three decades before that.