Perzel steps up efforts to keep House seat vs. Boyle

Posted: October 26, 2010

Clutching campaign literature and business cards, state Rep. John Perzel says he has banged on the front doors of all 19,000 houses in his Northeast Philly district since the summer.

That's a lot of doors. And it's the kind of labor-intensive retail politics that the Republican veteran, who has ruled the horseshoe-shaped 172nd District for 30 years, doesn't typically engage in.

"I'm doing a little bit more than I usually do," Perzel said last week, as he scrambled across the lawns of tidy Halloween-festooned twin homes in Mayfair.

But this year is different. In December, Perzel, 60, was charged with 82 counts of conspiracy, theft and conflict of interest as part of "Bonusgate," the scandal involving payments of state money to state workers for campaign work.

Now Perzel is facing his first serious challenge in a decade, from 30-year-old Kevin Boyle, a baby-faced policy wonk who has been hammering Perzel in television and print ads and calling for "honest leadership" in Harrisburg.

"He's not the power in the neighborhood that he used to be," said Boyle, whose brother Brendan was elected to represent the adjacent 170th District two years ago. "If anything, he's holding the neighborhood back."

Political insiders have taken notice. The Harrisburg news site Capitolwire recently rated the 172nd District seat as the mostly likely to turn over of any seat in the state.

"Before he was charged, Perzel was unbeatable in this district," Capitolwire bureau chief Peter DeCoursey wrote in the piece, published Sept. 27. "Now, with a well-funded, hardworking opponent, his era is very possibly over."

But Perzel isn't going away quietly. He's been working so hard he's lost 25 pounds, and there's a ferocious glint in his eye. And he's more than prepared to get down in the mud and wrestle.

"I can tell you from going door-to-door that it's fine," Perzel said of his prospects. "I thought in America you were innocent until proven guilty."

Going into the final stretch, both candidates were using television ads, campaign leaflets and shoe leather to deliver their messages.

Perzel, who has always been a fundraising powerhouse, has more cash on hand going into the final stretch, with $249,046, according to the campaign-finance report filed Friday.

Boyle has $27,997 on hand, according to his report. But he has had substantial support from the state House Democratic Campaign Committee, which has put in about $175,000 to pay for mailers and TV ads, according to Boyle's campaign.

Perzel, once a maitre d' at a popular neighborhood restaurant, was first elected in 1978. His district includes parts of Mayfair, Tacony, Fox Chase, Bustleton, Rhawnhurst and his own neighborhood of Lexington Park. He became the city's most powerful Republican, as House majority leader, then speaker, before being deposed in 2007.

But last year, Perzel was charged as part of the "Bonusgate" corruption probe by Attorney General Tom Corbett. He is accused of spending $10 million of taxpayer money on employees and computer firms to develop and manage computer programs that helped run GOP political campaigns.

Perzel, whose trial is tentatively set for April 4, said he expects to be cleared of all charges.

"I'm not concerned by the problem the attorney general is throwing at me. They promised to get a Republican," Perzel said.

Despite the charges, many experts think Perzel's longevity and commitment to the district might be hard to beat.

"Perzel has done a lot over the years to help the district. I have not heard or seen anything that indicates he's likely to lose," said pollster G. Terry Madonna, of Franklin & Marshall College.

Perzel's last close general election was in 2000, when he squeaked through with a 92-vote margin over Mark Chilutti. After that race, Perzel cut the 62nd Ward - which opposed him - out of his district in the last round of redistricting, to help ensure a smoother future.

"Did I try to make a nice district for myself? Yes," Perzel said. "Was it approved by the United States Supreme Court? Yes."

Faced with feisty opposition, Perzel has been more than prepared to play politics Philly-style. His campaign sent out a mailer that accused Boyle of an assault - a charge Boyle and other witnesses have disputed. There was no police report filed in the alleged incident.

As Perzel went door-to-door last week, many people he spoke with expressed support, saying they appreciated his work over the years.

"He's done so many nice things for the neighborhood," said Albert Rednor, 90, of Mayfair, who declined to say for sure how he would vote.

But Perzel acknowledged that the corruption case has taken a toll.

"They won't take the lawn signs the way they did," he said. "They're with me, but they don't like what they're hearing."

And they're getting an earful from Boyle, who may be young, but started studying politics early. He and his brother were political junkies as kids, polling their parents and neighbors in Olney on the 1988 presidential race for a school project.

Two years ago, they got Brendan Boyle elected to represent the 170th District on his second attempt. Kevin Boyle managed the campaign. After Perzel was charged with corruption, Kevin Boyle knew he had to run.

"Five years ago, if someone had told me [I'll] be running against Perzel, I would have said, 'No way,' " Boyle said as he knocked on doors on another block in Mayfair last week.

Boyle, a graduate of La Salle and Harvard universities and a resident of Fox Chase, most recently was chief of staff for Councilman Bill Greenlee, for whom he worked on legislation that provided unpaid leave to domestic-violence victims.

His big brother stressed that Boyle isn't just tagging along to the state House.

"He's running completely on his merits. He was born and raised in the city of Philadelphia, grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood. . . . He has great working experience in D.C. and in City Hall," said Brendan Boyle. "As he likes to remind me, he's written more bills than I have, and he's not even in office yet."

For weeks, Boyle has been running TV ads on local cable in the Northeast that attack Perzel's record. As he knocks on doors, he tells people of his endorsement by the Fraternal Order of Police and his Council background and then hammers the "honest leadership" line.

"You're in Perzel country, but I hope, I hope," Democratic Committee member James Ewing, 47, said last week after Boyle came by his Mayfair home. "Hopefully, everybody wakes up and realizes what Perzel has done."

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