City's GOP chairman is stepping down

Vito Canuso, chairman of the city GOP committee, says he will step down. WILLIAM F. STEINMETZ, File / Staff Photographer
Vito Canuso, chairman of the city GOP committee, says he will step down. WILLIAM F. STEINMETZ, File / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 10, 2013

Vito Canuso, the chairman of the city's Republican Party for close to 20 years, is giving up the post, one of several signs that the party is healing a rift between its old-line leadership and a faction of younger, more aggressive members.

Canuso, 66, a lawyer first elected in 1995, announced his intention to resign Tuesday at the party's spring fund-raiser.

His replacement - subject to approval from ward leaders - will be State Rep. John J. Taylor, 58, the sole Republican still representing a Philadelphia district in the state House.

Canuso's last election to the chairman's post in 2010 was contested by party dissidents and ultimately ruled invalid by the state Republican organization. The dispute continued to percolate, with the dissident faction electing finance consultant Rick Hellberg to the same position last year.

Hellberg said Wednesday he would give up any claim to the job.

"My position has always been, if it will unite this party and get us working as one consolidated group moving forward, I will be happy to step down," Hellberg said. "I can't think of a better person to unite the party than John Taylor."

Joseph J. DeFelice, a 35-year-old GOP activist allied for several years with the dissidents, will become executive director.

DeFelice was hired by the state Republican Party in 2010 to recruit committeemen and ward leaders in Philadelphia neighborhoods where the party was almost invisible. He helped organize the 2011 election of City Commissioner Al Schmidt, who upset incumbent Joseph Duda for the election-board seat reserved for a non-Democrat.

Apart from offices guaranteed to minority parties by the City Charter, the Republicans last won a citywide election in Philadelphia 24 years ago, in 1989, when District Attorney Ronald D. Castille, now chief justice of the state Supreme Court, won reelection.

Registered Democrats in Philadelphia outnumber Republicans by more than 6-1.

"We had big setbacks," Canuso said Wednesday.

He cited an overall trend of registered Republicans moving to suburban counties, and specific situations like the 2008 presidential race. That year, the Democratic primary in Pennsylvania was supposed to decide the party's presidential candidate, and thousands of Republicans switched parties to participate.

The conventional wisdom was wrong, Canuso noted, as Hillary Rodham Clinton won the primary but Barack Obama became president, but people didn't bother to reregister. "Somebody like Obama made it almost embarrassing for someone in the inner city to register or vote Republican," Canuso said.

Taylor has won 15 House elections in a district that is now 68 percent Democratic, including Port Richmond, Juniata Park, Kensington, Frankford, Northwood, Wissinoming, and Mayfair. He is a critical figure negotiating on the city's behalf with Republican majorities in the state House and Senate.

"I'm a Republican, but that doesn't mean I'll change one thing from what I do in the legislature or the neighborhood," Taylor said. "We have to tighten up our message and let Philadelphians know we're not necessarily in lockstep with the national Republican Party."


Contact Bob Warner at 215-854-5885 or warnerb@phillynews.com.

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