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Published: 8/3/2000

Philadelphia is Republican - but only for convention week

BY JOHN NICHOLS
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

PHILADELPHIA - Across from the First Union Center, the shiny new hall where the Republican convention is under way, there is a sprawling city park.

Most of the delegates will never get near the park. The limousines and air-conditioned buses that whisk delegates through the city wheel right past it. And the nearest city subway stop has been reconfigured to make sure that Republican convention-goers don't get lost and end up in the park.

That's because the patch of green adjoining the arena where George W. Bush will be designated as the 37th Republican nominee for the presidency of the United States is known as FDR Park - as in Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States, longest serving chief executive in American history - and a Democrat.

"The irony of this convention is that the Republicans are meeting in a town where we name our parks after Roosevelt, Truman, and Kennedy," says Horace Small, a native Philadelphian who has been a community activist here for the better part of three decades. "That's because Philly's an old-fashioned Democratic town."

While polls of delegates inside the First Union Center rank Ronald Reagan as the 20th century's greatest president, the citizens of Philadelphia are much more inclined toward Roosevelt - the Depression-era Democrat who remains an iconic figure in the City of Brotherly Love.

"Roosevelt pretty much walked on water in this town," says Mr. Small. ". . . There are people here who'd vote for him today if they could. I suppose I'm one of them."

Philadelphians knew Roosevelt well. The patrician president who cast his lot with Depression-battered factory hands and shopkeepers was a political hero here. Old-timers recall it was here that, in the depths of the Great Depression, Democrats nominated the 32nd president for a second term. And it was on a hot July, 1936, night in Philadelphia that Roosevelt told Americans they ha'a rendezvous with destiny."

Even today, on the streets of Philadelphia, Roosevelt is still a reference point. "There are a lot of reasons why we vote Democratic," Tim Whitaker, the editor of the Philadelphia Weekly newspaper, explained to arriving Republicans. "Like the denizens of most industrial Northeast cities, we were born to it. We were taught that Franklin Delano Roosevelt worked to make things tolerable for the destitute."

The teaching took.

For all the courtesy being extended the GOP delegates by most Philadelphians, this city is still a Democratic town - right down to its precinct captains. The latest voter registration figures show the city has 735,000 Democrats and just 191,500 declared Republicans. Democratic candidates for the presidency have swept Philadelphia for as long as anyone can remember, and locals such as Ronald Wilson don't pause when asked which party nominee will prevail in the contest between Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Al Gore.

"You kidding? Gore will win Philadelphia so easy George W. Bush won't know what hit him here," said Mr. Wilson, who edits a local Internet guide.

In Philadelphia, carrying a union card and a Democratic slate card is standard operating procedure. So much so that the electricians wiring the podium from which Governor Bush will deliver his acceptance speech wore T-shirts that read "Republican . . . for a week."

Some locals have been more pointed in their challenge to the Grand Old Party presence in their town.

Left-leaning activists, who have greeted the Republicans with rallies, demonstrations, and street clashes, have delighted in comparing Governor Bush with the Republican president that Franklin Roosevelt deposed in 1932: Herbert Hoover. Indeed, the tent city for protesters against the Republicans has been dubbed "Bushville," a modern variation on the 1930s homeless camps that were called "Hoovervilles."

Philadelphia Weekly's convention edition featured a not-particularly attractive elephant and the headline: "Go Home!" And the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter plans a cookout tonight that they've dubbed a "Capitalist Pig Roast." George W. Bush is not expected to attend.

Don't get the locals wrong. For the most part, Philadelphians of every political stripe are delighted that Republican delegates, alternates, and hangers-on are expected to pump an estimated $150 million into the local economy before the convention closes tonight. But even the most cordial convention greeters don't mind saying that the political picture will be back to normal tomorrow.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, a Democrat who represents much of Philadelphia, sent an invitation to those union workers in the "Republican . . . for a week" T-shirts: "You're invited to our Friday, August 4, bonfire, where we dispose of those shirts."

When asked if the blaze might be kindled at FDR Park, Horace Small laughed.

"I don't know if that would be appropriate to have a bonfire in a city park," said Mr. Small. "Of course, it'd be a lot more appropriate than holding a Republican convention in Philadelphia."



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