Factions accuse each other of undermining Black representation
The struggle for control of the city’s Republican Party is spilling over into the African-American community — bringing accusations of carpetbagging and talk of a new “Civil War.” Both sides level the same accusations at their opponents — that they are filling ward leaders positions with white Republicans who often don’t even live in the wards they represent, essentially disenfranchising African Americans.
A dispute over who holds the title of Ward Leader in the 22nd Ward encapsulates the debate that has engulfed the party. In a disagreement that dates back to 2010, two men claim the title of ward leader — Calvin R. Tucker and Kevin Kelly.
Tucker, who is Black, has the support of party Chairman Vito Canuso and General Counsel Michael Meehan. Tucker cites the fact that Kelly is white to bolster his charge that the dissidents — often called the Loyal Opposition — are working to undermine Blacks within the party. He contends that Kelly’s election is invalid and accuses dissidents of being “political opportunists” who are seizing an opportunity to put white leaders in place in a Black community.
“Could this be a plantation insurgency by a group of anti-abolitionists, or do they see the seizure of this community and other minority communities as part of an overall re-gentrification process?” he asked.
He questioned whether a white ward leader could effectively serve constituents.
“You may understand the message, but I’m not sure you can be the messenger,” said Tucker. “You can’t sell the message — not necessarily understanding the problems inherent in our community.”
Kelly, who is white, has the support of the dissidents, including a coalition of Black ward leaders.
He could not be reached Monday for comment, but Lewis Harris Jr., president of Philadelphia Republicans of Color and ward leader in the 29th Ward, who is Black, defended Kelly, saying Kelly had been duly elected and that Tucker’s appointment was invalid.
“Kevin Kelly is the elected ward leader,” Harris said, arguing that the situation was the exact opposite of the one sketched out by Tucker.
“[Meehan and Canuso] have illegally been appointing white folks in Black wards,” said Lewis Harris, citing the fact that former mayoral candidate Karen Brown was recently appointed as ward leader in the 49th ward, a predominately Black ward.
According to Harris, it’s the dissidents that are on the side of African Americans. As proof, he points to his group. Philadelphia ROC has the support of 13 Black ward leaders, who have challenged the local GOP’s traditional leaders. That represents a majority of the 20 or so wards that are predominantly Black among the city’s 66 wards. The group is part of a larger faction of Republican dissidents that has for the last several years been challenging the entrenched leadership of Canuso and Meehan. The Meehan family has controlled the city GOP for generations — extending back to the 1930s.
However, that control has been challenged by a growing number of local Republicans and even the state party.
Last month, the breakaway segment of the party held an election, and 20 ward leaders chose Rick Hellberg as the chairman of the Republican City Committee, ousting Canuso. The move was the latest volley in an ongoing feud between party officials at the state and local level. The state committee had declared Canuso’s seat vacant. The RCC said the state had no authority in the matter.
Committee leaders said, at the time, that Hellberg’s election was a non-event. The vote is expected to end up in court. Hellberg could not be reached Monday to comment on the dispute among Black ward leaders.
Tucker, while acknowledging the fact that the opposition brings “competition” to the party, which helps enliven debate, said he’d prefer a united effort to reassert a Republican presence in Philadelphia.
For that to happen, it’s important, Tucker said, that the party embrace African Americans.
“Our only growth is in the minority community,” he said. “So, we have to appeal to the minority community, their issues and concerns if we are to grow our party.”
For once, Harris agreed. But his tactics differed.
“We’re going to create our own entity and we’re going to work together as Black ward leaders and we’re going to do what is required,” he said, adding that he planned to educate the Black community and their leaders in the party.