New Blood: Is Philly ready for a bleeding-heart conservative?

In the third of an ongoing series, meet Terry Tracy: a reformer bent on shaking things up and the rarest of Philadelphia creatures – a Republican.

New Blood: Is Philly ready for a bleeding-heart conservative?

In the third of an ongoing series, meet Terry Tracy: a reformer bent on shaking things up and the rarest of Philadelphia creatures – a Republican.

When last we saw 31-year-old Terry Tracy, he was getting his clock cleaned. Tracy was the human sacrifice carrying the Republican mantle in last November’s city controller race; he took eighteen percent of the vote against incumbent Alan Butkovitz.

Terry Tracy
Terry Tracy

“You lose 82-18, and it is humiliating,” says the one-time fashion brand CEO (he ran Ralph Lauren’s Canadian operations) and policy wonk with a graduate degree from the Fels Institute of Public Policy. “But as the controller’s race reached its inevitable conclusion, I realized it was only a down payment on a longer term effort to make this city all it’s capable of being.”

What got him out of his funk was…wait for it…the debacle that was the non-sale of PGW. “Forget about the merits of the deal for a minute,” says the product of Upper Darby public schools. “Think about the way it went down. As a citizen, I deserved the opportunity to develop an informed opinion about this $1.8 billion deal. I’m entitled to that. And that was taken away from me by City Council.”

His outrage was stirred by the silent unanimity on Council; the policy maven in Tracy noticed that this wasn’t just an isolated incident, that Council has a habit of taking 17-0 votes. “George Patton once said, ‘If everybody is thinking alike, someone’s not thinking,’” Tracy says. “Wherever you come down on the deal, having a hearing on PGW should not have been a 17-0 decision. And that’s the case with so many of the unanimous bills coming out of Council these past four years. There’s no real debate.”

So, right after the controller’s race, here he is, putting himself out there again (he’ll officially announce Feb. 4) because, he says, he feels a responsibility to be part of Philadelphia’s progress. “You can name twenty great things happening in Philadelphia,” he says. “And one bad thing – the state of our politics. Part of the challenge is to get all these people who are engaged civically and remaking the city in the arts, development and energy worlds to get engaged politically.”

Tracy’s Republicanism harkens back to a time when the national party actually tried to help cities. He calls himself a Jack Kemp Republican; Kemp, the late congressman and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, used to call himself a “bleeding heart conservative.”  “Jack Kemp used to say, ‘People don’t care what you know until they know that you care,’” Tracy says, and it’s a lesson that he believes applies to the local Republican Party.

“The Republican party in Philadelphia long ago abdicated its responsibility to be the loyal opposition,” he says. “For too long, we relinquished the Bully Pulpit. That’s changing. Thirty percent poverty? The state of our schools? These are not natural disasters. These are the direct results of public policy decisions that have been made for years.”

Tracy wants to bring his business acumen to government, focusing on fostering economic growth on Germantown and Bustleton avenues as well as Walnut and Chestnut streets. He wants to link the ever-burgeoning creative class to the city services that can help them and – most of all – he wants to spearhead real tax reform. “It’s not about higher or lower taxes,” he says. “It’s about making our tax system rational. The fact that we tax gross receipts means a start-up has to plan on losing money before they lose money in their first year, like so many do. It’s insane and holds back growth.”

“As a citizen, I deserved the opportunity to develop an informed opinion about the PGW deal,” says an outraged Tracy. “That was taken away from me by City Council.”

Here’s where you’re thinking: Okay, but c’mon dude. You’re a Republican in a town where registered Democrats outnumber the opposition by about seven to one. Yet, there might be a path to victory for Tracy. He’s already run citywide once and – despite getting creamed – some twenty thousand Philadelphians pulled the lever for him. David Oh and Dennis O’Brien, both of whom garnered roughly 11,000 votes apiece in the 2011 Republican primary, currently hold the two Republican seats on Council. Granted, this is an open mayoral year, so turnout should exceed that of four years ago, but Tracy did get more votes than either of them his first time out. And chances are that he who wins the primary pretty much guarantees himself a seat on Council, since two seats are effectively reserved for the minority party. (Other Republicans will also vie for the at-large seat, including West Philly lawyer and Republican ward leader Matt Wolfe and, rumor has it, Al Taubenberger, who was Michael Nutter’s token opponent in the 2007 mayoral race.)

But to hear Tracy tell it, he’s not just setting his sights on the set-aside seats. He wants to compete against every at-large player, and the registration statistics don’t frighten him. “We shouldn’t be satisfied with the crumbs of patronage,” he says. “The goal is to have a competitive two-party system as a key component to long-term reform. And the registration numbers are as reflective of the Republican Party putting its tail between its legs as it is proof that the Democratic Party is some juggernaut.”

As he talks, the words come in rapid succession. Tracy, who once worked for J Crew corporate, looks like he just stepped out of its catalogue. But when he starts talking, you realize that he’s not some preppy supply-sider. He speaks truth to power – whether that power is the Democratic machine or the Republican feckless leadership – and the fact that he’s back at it so soon after the controller race says something about him. “Yeah, I don’t quit,” he says, laughing. As a Republican in Philly, he may be a rarity – but how Philly is that attitude?

For more information on Terry Tracy, click here.

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