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Intrigue, infighting define GOP at-large race for Philadelphia City Council

Five Republicans are aiming to win one of the two City Council seats traditionally reserved for the party.

Philadelphia City Hall
Philadelphia City HallRead moreTom Gralish / Staff Photographer

Republican infighting, old-school patronage politics, the #MeToo movement, and populist conservative rhetoric inspired by President Donald Trump have shaken up the race for the two at-large City Council seats that have traditionally been held by the GOP.

Neither David Oh nor Al Taubenberger, the Republican incumbents who hold the Council seats that the Home Rule Charter sets aside for candidates outside the city’s dominant party, is seen as a lock for reelection, opening up the door for challengers Dan Tinney, Matthew Wolfe, and Bill Heeney.

“You have the two incumbents, who both have detractors within the party and have for a long time, and then you have candidates who have run before,” said Dan Pearson, a Republican committeeman and member of the Philadelphia Young Republicans board, who is not aligned with any of the five candidates running in the Nov. 5 election.

Further complicating matters for Republicans this year are well-organized third-party campaigns by progressives hoping to steal from the GOP the two seats that are effectively reserved for non-Democrats. While few Republicans believe the third-party campaigns will win one of their two at-large seats, Pearson said their efforts may hurt Republican candidates, such as Oh, who depend on voters from outside the GOP base.

If there is a front-runner among the Republicans, it’s Tinney, a 37-year-old steamfitter and ward leader who finished first in the primary and has the backing of the building trades unions, the Fraternal Order of Police, and most of the party establishment.

“The widespread assumption is that Dan Tinney is kind of a shoo-in,” Pearson said. “The competition is for the second spot, and everybody is taking a different approach.”

Oh, who has made enemies in the party for being critical of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, the largest source of GOP-controlled patronage jobs in the city, is attempting to appeal to independents and good-government advocates, as he has in his two previous campaigns.

» READ MORE: Low-wage worker unions are trying to flex their muscle in Philly’s City Council race

"The Republican Party of Philadelphia, many of its leaders are in the Parking Authority or have contracts in the Parking Authority, and they are pretty much against me getting reelected,” Oh, 59, said.

In the primary, Republican ward leaders left Oh off their sample ballot, the list of party-recommended candidates distributed on Election Day, but he squeaked in for the general election by finishing fifth in the seven-candidate field.

Oh’s policy priorities reflect his need to reach outside the GOP base and appeal to other groups, such as millennials. His proposed student debt tax credit, for instance, would offer a $1,500 break on the city wage tax for Philadelphians with more than $35,000 in student loans.

While the biggest threat to Oh’s prospects came about due to his perceived antagonism toward the PPA, the biggest threat for Taubenberger’s attempt to secure a second term resulted from his loyalty to the agency.

A PPA board member, Taubenberger defended the agency’s former executive director, Vincent Fenerty Jr., after The Inquirer revealed Fenerty had sexually harassed an employee. Taubenberger said the episode was “a high-school puppy-love situation.”

» READ MORE: From 2017 — PPA audit shows the cost of predators in power | Mike Newall

He has apologized for the comment and is trying to focus on his record on Council.

“It was a mistake. It was something I really regret saying. It was probably the dumbest thing I ever said, and it’s dogged me ever since,” said Taubenberger, 66, who lives in Fox Chase. “But I’ve done a lot more than make a mistake.”

He pointed to his opposition to Mayor Jim Kenney’s sugary beverage tax, his efforts to reduce regulations on businesses, and his role in bringing a state agriculture program to Philadelphia to bolster urban farming in the city.

Wolfe, a lawyer who has served in top positions for Republican officeholders in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, including as a deputy attorney general, has been outspoken about combating corruption in the city.

He was one of the few politicians from either local party who called on Councilman Bobby Henon to resign after the Democrat was indicted in the federal corruption case involving John “Johnny Doc" Dougherty, head of the Electricians union.

“No city councilman has called for him to resign. No councilman has called for him to be removed as the majority leader of City Council. No city councilman has asked that he be stripped of his committee assignments,” said Wolfe, 63, who lives in Spruce Hill. “This has been a corrupt city for a long time, and City Council has not been immune to that.”

More so than any of the other candidates, Heeney, 60, has channeled Trump, frequently invoking red-meat Republican priorities and even attracting criticism for his history of controversial social media posts.

“I’m tired of seeing Republicans sit back and go along to get along instead of making some noise,” said Heeney, who owns a courier business and lives in the East Torresdale area. “Instead of raising hell down there and fighting for our beliefs, they just go along to get along.”

Heeney criticized Taubenberger and Oh for their past positions on Philadelphia’s status as a so-called sanctuary city, a term for jurisdictions that decline to assist federal immigration enforcement. Both incumbents criticized State Rep. Martina White, the only Republican in Harrisburg from Philadelphia, for introducing a bill that would cut off state funds to the city if it remained a sanctuary jurisdiction. (Taubenberger and Oh have said they generally oppose sanctuary cities, but don’t want the entire city to be punished for the Kenney administration’s policy.)

“We’re supposed to represent the minority party. I don’t think that’s happening,” Heeney said.

As for Tinney, Heeney said his opponent only gained front-runner status by allowing himself to be funded by special interests. “He’s going to be a controlled guy,” Heeney said.

Tinney declined to be interviewed, but responded to Heeney in a statement.

“By ‘supported by special interests,’ they mean the FOP, the Firefighters, Philadelphia Building Trades and AFL-CIO,” Tinney said. “I’m proud of their support and will be an advocate for all hard-working families in Philadelphia.”