Welcome to Philadelphia and the 2016 Democratic National Convention! That faint chanting? No, you heard correctly: They’re not saying “Hillary for President.” They’re saying “Hillary for Prison.”
It’s just the local Republican Party’s way of greeting visitors. Hillary Clinton, they say, will fit right in here: Philadelphia is a city with “endemically corrupt Democratic politicians, both at the local and statewide level,” as Joe DeFelice, chairman of the Philadelphia Republican City Committee, puts it. Stick around for nomination night, when they’ll celebrate Clinton making history as the Democratic Party’s flag bearer – because she’s the first major party nominee to be
investigated by the FBI.
“This gives us a perfect platform,” DeFelice said. “It’s an exciting time.”
Even for a Republican.
Next week, thousands of Democratic delegates will flock to Philadelphia to officially name Clinton their presidential candidate. They’ll be joined by about 20,000 members of the media who, if Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is correct, are a left-leaning bunch who collectively “need to get (their) head out of (their) butts.”
That means a tidal wave of Democrats will flood a city where their party’s registered voters already outnumber registered Republicans by roughly 7 to 1. In October 2015, the Office of the Philadelphia City Commissioners reported there were just over 1 million registered voters in the city: 781,198 Democrats, 111,638 Republicans and 107,645 “others,” including those unaffiliated with
any national party.
What’s a loyal Republican to do? Seize the opportunity, according to DeFelice, an attorney in private practice. With guidance from the national party, he and his committee members want to send this message: Clinton is a corrupt career politician whose main goal has been to enhance her own power and influence.
“As the Philadelphia GOP, we are uniquely prepared to tie her to a culture of corruption that has run our city into the ground through decades of one-party rule,” said DeFelice, who is also considering a simple TV viewing party for what he derisively terms
“I love our city and I want to see it showcased in the most positive way,” DeFelice said. “That said, this is a cesspool of corruption, and if that makes it to the world stage, it could prompt change.”
Democrats have dominated Philadelphia politics for more than 60 years. (Republicans might use less friendly terms like “stranglehold,” a “suffocating grip” or a “false democracy” to describe the majority.) The last time a Republican was elected mayor was in 1947. Of the city’s 13 City Council members, only three belong to the GOP.
City leaders are happy to showcase how Philadelphia has flourished in recent years – with a Center City development boom, a growing population and new recreation opportunities along both the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, among other positives.
But Republicans say they need to focus beyond downtown. Census data from 2014 has shown the city has the highest rate of deep poverty – those with an income of 50 percent or less of the poverty rate – among the country’s 10 largest cities. In April, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Virginia Commonwealth University released data showing that people who grow up in struggling parts of North Philadelphia have an average life expectancy of 68 years, while those who live in tony Society Hill, about five miles away, have a life expectancy of 88 years.
The schools, the GOP notes, are struggling. The crime rate is holding steady. The only thing going strong? Corruption, they say. Longtime U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, a Democrat, was recently convicted of racketeering, fraud and money laundering. (His son, Chip, was convicted of federal bank and tax fraud charges last year.) Another Democrat, state Sen. Larry Farnese, has been indicted by the feds on charges of bribery and conspiracy. The city’s daily newspapers have reported that the FBI is looking into money dealings involving Democratic District Attorney Seth Williams.
“We work as Republicans to make the city better and try to hold the opposition that has controlled it for so long accountable,” said DeFelice, comparing his group’s efforts to those of Sisyphus, the character in Greek mythology who was condemned for eternity to push a boulder up a mountain, only to watch it tumble down again. “We keep pushing that rock up the hill and we’re hoping it gets lighter and lighter.”
G. Terry Madonna, a professor and director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College, said that historically, members of the opposition party don’t do much to draw attention to themselves during their rival’s nominat-
“It’s one of those things where you let the other party have their four days, then it’s over and you move on … There’s nothing wrong with an occasional press release or providing input when contacted by reporters, but officially, the other party doesn’t play a role,” he said. “But we’re in the wildest, most unpredictable time in our history. Maybe the old rules are gone.”
This is an “election like no other,” he noted, with each side realizing that “the more outrageous they get, the more attention and press they get.”
That’s how the “Hillary for Prison” platform came about. One GOP insider wondered if the Republicans should use Eastern State Penitentiary, where Al Capone was once held, as a backdrop for some events. At one point, they considered a “Feel the Bern Clinic,” where local Republicans would staff an ersatz medical tent and offer to heal the pain of Bernie Sanders supporters with love and legitimacy – if they switched to the Republican Party. They ditched the idea to refocus on Clinton, they said.
Of course, it’s possible that the Republican dissent will be overshadowed by the Democratic dissent. The city is issuing permits to protest, allowing groups to gather in FDR Park in South Philadelphia, not far from where the convention is being held. But many groups – including some Sanders supporters and anti-poverty organizations – have said they won’t allow their free speech to only be free in designated areas.
Among the most creative exhibitions planned so far: Cheri Honkala, of the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, is organizing a “fart-in” both inside and outside the Wells Fargo Center to take place on the night Clinton will give her acceptance speech. The so-called “Beans for Hillary” event is meant to “greet the rhetorical flatulence of Hillary Clinton with the real thing.” Accordingly, people from across the country have been sending beans to her
offices, Honkala said.
“We’re hoping farting is not illegal yet in this country, because everything else seems to be,” she said.
While passing gas in protest may seem silly to some, Honkala said the fart-in is drawing attention to the causes she supports, like ending homelessness and hunger. Doubters who Google “Honkala and fart” will see
“These are literally life-and-death issues – we have no other choice but to step forward,” said Honkala, who said her group was also planning to set up a tent city called “Clintonville,” in a nod to the Depression-era shantytowns called Hoovervilles. The location will not be announced for fear the city will block the gathering, she said.
More mainstream Democrats also take advantage of the national love of ridiculousness. In June, the left-leaning firm Public Policy Polling reported that 46 percent of Pennsylvania residents believed the Phillie Phanatic – the mascot of Philadelphia’s Major League Baseball team – was more qualified to lead the country than presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. (About 40 percent picked Trump when the question was asked of 1,106 registered voters over a
In a similar vein, the Philadelphia City Council in June passed a resolution condemning Trump for his “racist, sexist, xenophobic, and anti-American values … which are at odds with the deeply held values of the City of Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection.” The 10 Democrats supported the resolution. The three Republicans did not. It’s unknown how much time in terms of city employee time and resources went into drafting the
“The question is if you think this the right forum,” said Councilman David Oh, a Republican who voted against the measure. “It looks like we’re getting into the campaign and we’re supposed to be staying out. I also wouldn’t support something against
Oh said he and other elected officials are planning workshops and other gatherings when the DNC is town. The end goal is strengthening the local GOP in the long term, not tearing down the opposition
in the moment.
“The focus will be on what we as Republicans are doing that is positive and good,” he said, noting the party has a small group of reactionaries – perhaps 15 percent – who are rabid in their dislike for all things Democratic and who manage to monopolize the media.
“I would characterize 85 percent of Republicans as solution-oriented. We’ll talk about working together and how to
John Featherman, a Republican who has run for Congress and mayor of Philadelphia, said the city’s Republican committee used to be “a dormant organization that no one knew existed.” He sees that changing under DeFelice, who took the helm of the Philly GOP last year and immediately made changes like hiring a director of communications and a director of finance. He’s an aggressive and creative leader who has shown he can recruit younger party members, and – if all goes as planned – grab headlines, Featherman said.
“This convention,” he predicted, “is going to be part of a revolution for the Republican Party in Philadelphia.” ■