Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Philadelphia's mayoral primary offers a Republican Party at war with itself

Last week's Republican mayoral debate was almost over when the subject took a painful turn - from Philadelphia's budget, crime, and pensions to a game of medical one-upmanship.

Political observers are watching next Tuesday's Republican Mayoral Primary race between Karen Brown (right) and John Featherman (left) to see what it says about the party's future.
Political observers are watching next Tuesday's Republican Mayoral Primary race between Karen Brown (right) and John Featherman (left) to see what it says about the party's future.Read more

Last week's Republican mayoral debate was almost over when the subject took a painful turn - from Philadelphia's budget, crime, and pensions to a game of medical one-upmanship.

The party-endorsed candidate, Karen Brown, having been asked to explain her four bankruptcy filings in a decade, said her financial woes were caused by her husband's brain tumor.

He has recovered. But Brown went on to say that her opponent, John Featherman, "apparently had a wonderful life" and did not understand such problems.

That prompted Featherman to look straight into the NBC10 camera, open his collar to reveal a scar, and say: "Folks, there is a reason why I'm not wearing a tie today. If you look at my throat, for 13 years of my life I had a tracheotomy." He said he was thrown from a horse at age 7.

Brown shot back that she had had thyroid cancer. "I've got a story, too," she said, "but I didn't bring it up."

The animosity reflects a deeper turmoil within the city's Republican Party. Outnumbered by Democrats more than 6-1, the party also is at war with itself.

But that does not quite make this a race to nowhere.

Political observers are watching the Brown-Featherman contest in next Tuesday's primary to see what it says about the party's future.

City GOP leader Michael Meehan is fighting a group of insurgents, backed by the state party chief, who want to unseat him. The rebels say the party can fight harder locally; Meehan says he is doing his best in a largely Democratic town.

Brown, a former Catholic-school teacher who until recently was a Democrat and a political unknown, has Meehan's backing. Featherman, a real estate agent, is aligned with the rebel group.

"I'm running because I don't like the direction of my party and I don't like the direction that Michael Nutter has taken the city," Featherman says.

As the endorsed candidate, Brown should trounce Featherman; loyal GOP ward leaders are supposed to work for her on election day.

If Featherman gets a big chunk of GOP votes, it could put Meehan on the spot.

"All this is going to say something about the establishment, about its ability to function effectively as a party," says Randall Miller, a St. Joseph's University history professor and an expert on local politics.

Miller says a meaningful showing for Featherman would be 40 percent or more.

Along with the mayor's race, Miller says he'll be watching tallies in the City Council and city commissioners' races, where insurgents and candidates not completely aligned with Meehan have staked claims.

"This is a direct challenge to the old boys and the way they have been doing business," Miller says.

Sam Katz, erstwhile Republican mayoral candidate, agrees. "This race is not about the future of Philadelphia," Katz says. "It's about the future of the Republican Party in Philadelphia."

To be sure, Brown and Featherman will duke it out over a wee slice of the electorate. When Katz ran in 1999, only 36,444 Republicans voted in the mayoral primary - and his candidacy had generated excitement.

Turnout is expected to be low this year, in part because the outcome seems predetermined. Experts guess that about 18,000 GOP voters will go to the polls May 17.

Though more than a half-century has passed since a Republican was elected mayor, Katz is living proof that a competitive race can be run - he got within a whisker of Democrat John F. Street in 1999.

But lately, Katz says, electing a Republican has grown so difficult that the party has become desperate. "They were looking for anybody," he said. They settled on Brown.

She has not kept an especially high profile. Efforts to interview her for this story were fruitless.

In the debate with Featherman on NBC10, Brown said she would fix the city budget by cutting a third to half of all City Hall employees except police or firefighters. Featherman replied that Brown "has no idea of the math of the budget." He said he would fix it by privatizing some services and changing city employees' pension programs from traditional to 401(k) plans, and by reducing the payroll 10 percent.

When Brown said the city budget was $4.3 million, Featherman swiftly corrected her - the total is $4 billion.

Brown retorted that Featherman should "stop attacking me personally."

And the fight for the soul of the party goes on.