Matt Wolfe, the 58-year-old West Philly lawyer and Republican ward leader, had given up on the idea that he’d ever run for public office in Philadelphia. For one, there’s the insurmountable voter registration differential: Democrats outnumber Republicans roughly 7 to 1.
For another, in a corrupt one-party town, his outspokenness had often run him afoul of our bipartisan permanent establishment, as when he penned an Inquirer op-ed quibbling with the conventional wisdom that it was an example of good government in action when Mayor Nutter dismissed 16 part-time rec center employees last year who were “double-dipping” because they were also employed by the School District. (The charter forbids city workers from holding more than one city job at a time.)
Not so fast, Wolfe wrote, pointing out that Nutter gave a handful of his own deputy mayors two titles — essentially, two jobs — in order to get around charter limits on pay. “It was the height of arrogance and hypocrisy,” Wolfe says now and wrote then — much to the chagrin of the let’s-not-rock-the-boat crowd, which includes stalwarts of both parties.
So Wolfe figured his public service would be relegated to his community activism in West Philly, where he lives with his wife, Denise Furey, and where they’ve raised two grown sons. But then Republican Governor Corbett nominated Bill Green to chair the School Reform Commission.
Wolfe had had enough of his party settling for the crumbs of patronage; it was time to compete. “There’s a political aspect to this,” he says now. “Green is a good guy, but if you’re trying to build a stronger party, that’s a seat where a Republican could make some positive changes for people. It infuriated me, because it was an opportunity for the governor to set up a Republican as an important civic leader.”
“A Democrat in Philadelphia is more likely to leave office by dying or getting indicted than by getting beaten at the polls,” says Wolfe. “That’s why we’ve gotten the Marge Tartagliones and Mark Cohens decade after decade.”
And then, with the help of Republican Councilmember David Oh and Dennis O’Brien, City Council refused to even hold hearings on the sale of the Philadelphia Gas Works to Connecticut-based UIL, standing in the way of a $1.8 billion windfall. “That was a colossal failure of leadership,” Wolfe says. “It was indefensible for any councilmember to stand in the way of selling PGW, but it’s particularly indefensible for a Republican to do so.”
Wolfe hammered this point at his February announcement of his at-large bid. He chose to announce outside the Center City offices of PGW. And, boy, did those optics work out for him. Turns out, that office is closed on Wednesdays. So he announced his candidacy in front of locked doors that bore a sign detailing the office’s operating times — closed Wednesdays, and no weekend or evening hours.
“Does anything scream out that government shouldn’t be running a business more than that?” Wolfe asks today, still incredulous.
So, when the Democratic machine nominated the underwhelming Ed Neilson — the electricians’ hand-picked candidate — to replace Green’s vacated Council seat a year ago, Wolfe decided to run against him; he lost, of course, garnering only 15 percent of the vote But it was a chance to lay the groundwork for this at-large bid.
Wolfe says that, under new party leaders State Rep. John Taylor and executive director Joe DeFelice, the Republicans are finally getting some swagger back — witness 26-year-old Martina White’s upset in the special election last month to fill the state representative seat vacated by Brendan Boyle, who was elected to Congress. But that new fighting spirit has yet to find its way onto Council.
The most Republican of this year’s candidates
“I get that compromise is part of the legislative process,” says Wolfe, who grew up in Elkins Park, the son of a Democrat-voting executive at TV manufacturer Philco; Wolfe attended Penn and got involved in Republican ward politics there. “But look at how many 17-0 votes this Council passes. It’s because most people on Council will never get a job that pays as much as this one, and they’re desperate not to lose it. So they vote to keep Darrell happy.”
That’s why Wolfe favors term limits for Council — and will impose one on himself. “If I win, I will serve one term,” he says. “I will not seek reelection. I’ll compromise, but in the interest of the city. Not in order to get reelected.”
Wolfe is the most Republican of this year’s candidates. With his balding pate and his pinstriped suits that scream banker more than ward leader, he can project that “get off my lawn” grumpiness so often associated with the leaders of his national party.
No, Wolfe is a throwback Republican in a city that hasn’t had many of them. Like a Reagan era devotee of supply-side economics, his policy panaceas all come back to the same thing: cutting taxes. “We have the perfect tax structure for 19th century Philadelphia,” he says. “Back then, you could afford to tax jobs and businesses, because they weren’t going to move to the suburbs.”
Now, Wolfe says, the city needs to get back to basics, and that includes rightsizing city government. He doesn’t believe government can stimulate economic growth; at best, government’s contribution ought to be to get out of the way. “The best economic development program is lowering taxes,” he says.
Wolfe favors term limits for Council — and will impose one on himself. “If I win, I will not seek reelection,” he says. “I’ll compromise, but in the interest of the city. Not in order to get reelected.”
Wolfe wants to hold all of city government up to inspection — something Nutter passed on doing when the Great Recession hit. “There are core municipal responsibilities,” he says. “Public education, police, fire. But Council wants to be all things to all people, and panders to special interest groups that don’t fall into those core categories. Does City Council really need a director of civic engagement? I like [consumer advocate] Lance Haver, but do we need him on the public payroll to send out emails to people telling them what Darrell Clarke is doing? Really?”
Well beyond the GOP’s local self interest
Wolfe spent much of Nutter’s tenure as one of the lone canaries in our political coal mine. If he’s a supply-sider, Nutter has proven to be a prototypical tax and spend big city liberal.
“He didn’t just reverse the modest wage tax cuts of mayors Street and Rendell, he increased taxes every year in office,” Wolfe says. “He needs a history lesson. Like Council, Nutter wouldn’t show the political nerve to cut spending. The city is not an employment agency. It’s a provider of services. I’m not saying we should privatize trash collection — but it should be on the table. If we did it, it’s not like we’d use non-union labor. I’m sure the Teamsters would love to provide that. We need to study that.”
No matter what party you belong to, you have to concede that Philadelphia would be better off with a two-party system. A real competition of ideas. Instead, we get what we’ve gotten, and we act like our politics are the natural state of things. Wolfe begs to differ. “We could not have done worse if there had been an earthquake,” Wolfe says.
Wolfe’s a partisan Republican, but his argument for a robust, competitive Republican party extends well beyond the GOP’s local self-interest. As he sees it, it’s endemic to the health of local democracy — in a very practical way.
“If Democrats don’t think they’re going to face a strong Republican opponent in the general elections, it’s much easier for them to crush reformers in their own primaries,” he says. “That’s why we’ve gotten the Marge Tartagliones and Mark Cohens decade after decade. A Democrat in Philadelphia is more likely to leave office by dying or getting indicted than by getting beaten at the polls.”
When I ask Matt Wolfe if he really just isn’t headed for another clock-cleaning come election day, he doesn’t take the bait to talk political horserace strategy. Instead, he says what you wish more candidates would say. “I don’t know,” he says, “but someone’s got to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough.’”
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