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Patrick Kerkstra: Revived GOP would help city

One of the most bitter and longest-running civil wars in Philadelphia politics came to an end this month, and almost nobody noticed.

One of the most bitter and longest-running civil wars in Philadelphia politics came to an end this month, and almost nobody noticed.

That's the price of irrelevance, which is perhaps the most charitable adjective one can use to describe the state of Philadelphia's Republican City Committee, a barely functioning party apparatus that often struggles to field credible candidates for offices big and small.

For four years, the city's GOP has been riven into two blocs: an old guard, largely content to hold on to its share of the city's dwindling patronage jobs, and a cast of relative newcomers disgusted by the party's stagnation and insignificance.

The two sides reached an accord this month, when old guard GOP Chairman Vito Canuso agreed to step down, making way for Rep. John Taylor, the city's lone Republican in Harrisburg and a figure that both factions admire.

Given the Philadelphia Republican Party's dysfunction and lack of clout, it would be easy to dismiss this news as meaningless. And it may in time prove to be just that.

But I hope not.

Decades of de facto one-party rule haven't exactly worked out well for Philadelphia. A healthy and competent Republican party could help. Not necessarily by winning a lot of elections. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by almost seven to one in Philadelphia, so it's entirely proper that a large majority of the city's elected officials be Democrats as well.

But a revived city GOP - one capable of filling the vital role that opposition parties are supposed to play - would help to keep those Democratic officials honest and broaden the political discussion.

Consider the case of Mayor Nutter's reelection. Given the huge advantages of incumbency, he faced no serious challenger in the Democratic primary. In a city with a healthy minority party, however, Nutter would at least have had to contend with a qualified opponent in the general election.

But Philadelphia's GOP could only manage to field Karen Brown: an overmatched former Democrat who didn't come close to clearing the credibility threshold. So Nutter cruised through the general election as well.

Sure, Nutter would almost certainly have won easily no matter whom the city GOP nominated. But the city - and I would argue Nutter himself - would have been far better served if the mayor had been forced to run a real campaign. Competition would have compelled Nutter to develop a clear second-term agenda, and to defend his record. That's the whole point of an adversarial political system. And Philadelphia's is badly broken.

Such overwhelming one-party dominance makes it that much less likely that political newcomers can crack their way into the systems. To an unusual degree, Philadelphia is run by a professional political class: folks who worked in Council offices or for political organizations before graduating to political office themselves. Political lifers, in other words.

There's nothing wrong with that sort of resume. But there is something wrong with a system that makes so little room for other qualified leaders from the private sector or the nonprofit world. A more robust Republican party would offer another entry point for those sorts of leaders to get a crack at governing, or at least at widening the public debate.

To be sure, there's hardly unanimity within Philadelphia's professional political class. There are very real differences between a pro-business, "Gov 2.0" mayor like Michael Nutter and an old-line liberal like Councilman Bill Greenlee, despite their shared party registration.

Indeed, the electoral success of business-oriented Democrats like Bill Green suggests that there is, at least theoretically, a chance for Philadelphia Republicans to win outside of their dwindling bastions in the Northeast.

But the party will have to do some serious rebuilding first, as Taylor acknowledges.

"We're on a downward trend, and we have to try to reverse that," he said. "It's not going to be easy."

One of the biggest problems the GOP has in Philadelphia is the staunch conservatism of the national party, Taylor said. "I would have loved to have a Chris Christie type of guy, an earthy guy, instead of a Mitt Romney-type guy."

There's little doubt that the national party's platform is political poison in Democratic Philadelphia. But municipal government is less about divisive social questions than garbage collection and effective policing.

Can Republicans do it better? We're not likely to find out anytime soon. But the end to the city GOP's civil war at least gives the party a shot at relevancy. And that, in turn, gives Philadelphia a shot at a healthier political system.