Back Channels: From the GOP, a solid lineup in at-large race for City Council

Posted: October 23, 2011

There are plenty of reasons to criticize the Republican Party of Philadelphia, but today it deserves credit for a strong field of candidates in the at-large City Council race.

Too often, with the GOP down 6-1 in voter registration, it's tough to even find a Republican willing to put in the time and effort for a sacrificial-lamb campaign. Hence the recruiting of former Democrat Karen Brown to challenge Michael Nutter for mayor this year.

But with a pair of at-large seats reserved for a minority party, and with the Green party not quite ready for prime time in terms of numbers, Philadelphians are pretty much required by law to have at least two Republicans on Council. Take that guarantee, throw in the retirements - one forced - of longtime GOP Councilmen Jack Kelly and Frank "DROP" Rizzo Jr., and there is good reason for serious people to run for office. Many did, and that field was narrowed to five for Nov. 8.

David Oh. The top vote-getter in May still seems like the candidate to beat next month. He has name recognition from his two previous tries for Council, plus a wealth of contacts from a legal career that spans private practice and time as an assistant district attorney. He picked up some additional press this summer with questions about his U.S. Army service and gun charges that were dismissed in 1995. Both were blown out of proportion, though Oh didn't help with his often meandering explanations. The concerns cost him the Fraternal Order of Police endorsement, but haven't kept Vietnam veteran and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge and the United Veterans Council of Philadelphia from backing him. As Oh and the other candidates rightly point out, what matters most to voters now is jobs and growing the city. So Oh's ideas about reforming taxes and regulations, as well as increasing Philadelphia's stake in the international trade marketplace should carry the day. First position on the ballot won't hurt, either.

Dennis O'Brien. He's Mr. Speaker in so many ways. One, because he had the top job in the Pennsylvania House - elected in a rare bipartisan vote. Two, because once he starts on what the city and state need to do for kids he'll never stop. He is grab-your-arm-and-let-me-tell-you-something passionate on the subject, and it makes you wonder whether children wouldn't be better served with O'Brien running city schools. It would be a good fit for a district in desperate need of someone who has spent decades in Harrisburg nurturing relationships on both sides of the political aisle. But as the second-highest vote-getter in May, he'll likely bring all that experience and those friendships to Council, becoming a formidable ally for those intent on making life better for kids in Philadelphia.

Joe McColgan. This financial consultant and former naval officer quietly took third in a nine-person primary field and is pushing bold ideas to save a city with a third of its residents below the poverty line. Looking at the failure rate of the city's schools, he's calling for an end to the state takeover, with the School Reform Commission replaced by regional, elected school boards that are closer and more accountable to parents. Looking at the city's unfriendly tax structure, he advocates eliminating the business-privilege tax and selling city assets to make up the difference. He's not sure that'll be enough to fill the gap but emphasizes that the city can no longer just work the edges of its problems.

Al Taubenberger. If the name sounds familiar, it's because he was the Republican sacrificial lamb running for mayor four years ago. He took the loss in stride and now hopes that lessons learned in one citywide campaign, plus his years of experience on Council staff and as president of the Greater Northeast Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, will give voters a reason to take a second look at his pro-business agenda. If so, they won't be alone, as evidenced by his recent endorsement by former City Controller Jonathan Saidel.

Michael Untermeyer. He hasn't held elective office - though he's tried, twice - but Untermeyer may have the most extensive public-service background of the bunch: assistant district attorney, deputy attorney general, special counsel in the Office of Inspector General, and hearing examiner for the state Liquor Control Board. He's also been a real estate developer and chairman of the South Street Headhouse Special Services District. He's quiet, but offers incremental steps to save the city and cut its residents and businesses a break; for example, tax credits for seniors to help them stay in their homes, and for businesses that make new hires.

Without a doubt, Council will have two capable Republican members next year. What remains to be seen is whether the newcomers will distinguish themselves by offering new leadership and ideas in a town that has paid a price for letting one-party rule go unchallenged for far too long.

Contact Kevin Ferris at 215-854-5305 or

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