Political conversions can be much like religious conversions. They can occur suddenly (Saul of Tarsus blinded by a flash of light), or they can occur gradually.
My switch from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party took years, and was the result of observing the party I had identified with since my teen years turn into something I no longer recognized. My story is like thousands of others: I didn’t leave the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party left me.
My identity as a Democrat was based on that party’s advocacy of LGBT civil rights — working against employment and housing discrimination, harassment of gay men by the police, etc. — but the slow radicalization of the party, especially since 2016, changed that. That’s when the Left began to exchange its former classical liberal views for authoritarian ones: its eagerness to cancel free speech, its promotion of political correctness, and its compliance in destroying statues of historical figures because of something these famous men said or did 50 to 600 years ago.
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I found the new Democrat orthodoxy terrifying, akin to a religious cult. The party became an ideological minefield with its support of puberty blockers for “transgender” children, female trans athletes competing in women’s sports, its alignment with (or tolerance of) far left groups like Black Lives Matter, its growing obsession with “correct” pronouns, esoteric gender philosophies, critical race theory, sanctuary cities, abortion on demand, and not to mention how these same Democrats began to classify anyone who criticized illegal immigration as racist.
The turning point for me were the riots in 2020 spurred by the death of George Floyd. Nearly every Democrat-run city in the nation heralded a new slogan — “Defund the Police” — while allowing their cities to burn rather than using police to stop the destruction. In Philadelphia, police officers ran from rioters en masse as the latter group burned and looted stores, while the media manufactured lies that the rioters were merely a small group of troublemakers ruining otherwise peaceful protests. Ensuing damages in the city of Philadelphia amounted to $21 million, a sum that hardly suggests that the cause stemmed from a few hooligans.
Finally, I had enough and changed my registration from Democrat to Republican. Then I did what would have been unthinkable to me just ten years prior: I decided to run as the Republican Committee person for Philadelphia’s 31st Ward, 17th Division.
That idea came from Matt Wolfe, former PA Deputy Attorney General, Special Assistant DA and 2019 Republican Philadelphia City Council at Large candidate, who posed the following question to The Daily Pennsylvanian in 2019: “How do we get to be the poorest big city in America? It’s because of decisions made in City Hall.”
Wolfe suggested I run for Republican Committeeperson for the city’s 31st Ward, 17th Division, since there was a vacancy. I voiced an interest, and over the next couple weeks we exchanged emails on the topic. He visited my neighborhood and presented me with the Philadelphia City Commissioners 2022 instructions for circulating and filing nomination petitions, which called for the signatures of at least ten eligible electors. In addition, there were separate sheets of paper listing the names and addresses of registered Republicans in my area, so I wouldn’t embarrass myself by knocking on Democrat doors.
How do we get to be the poorest big city in America? It’s because of decisions made in City Hall.
While most of my neighbors are Democrats, they don’t like Larry Krasner or Mayor Kenney, yet they maintain an allegiance to the party. Most, I suppose, do so out of family loyalty or habit. It’s hard for dyed-in-the-wool Philadelphia Democrats to think outside the box. In many cases, the box prevents them from realizing that all of the nation’s big blue Democrat cities have a similar crime problem to Philadelphia’s, with radical DAs and mayors who are much like Krasner and Kenney when it comes to avoiding prosecutions and sanctioning early parole in order to lower the incarcerated population.
Consider the case of a prominent lawyer neighbor of mine, who wrote a Facebook post in 2020 about the violence occurring on Aramingo Avenue during the Floyd riots by BLM, antifa and assorted looters.
While stating how shocking and horrible the destruction was, and how it had to stop, at no point did he trace the anarchy — or the “permission” to riot — to the radicalization of the Democratic Party, its call in 2020 not to condemn those who called for defunding the police, and its collective shrugging off of the riots — “No Justice, No Peace” — to a social justice narrative that is often couched in nuance (“Most of the protesters are peaceful”). It is fact and not opinion that in 2020 many Democrat mayors and governors sent in too few police to handle rioters because to do so might have been perceived as overkill, anti-protest and racist.
Many of the new people moving into my neighborhood — especially the ones buying those $500,000 shoebox prefab houses — are not Republicans. On my street, a neighbor in a $500,000-house proudly displays a BLM sign in her living room window. Across the way, another new occupant (a New Yorker) touts a tattered Bernie Sanders sign. In some parts of Port Richmond, one can still see Trump signs and an occasional American flag, but in my specific triangle, the tiny 17th Division, Republicans tend to stay hidden.
And that’s a shame.
In Philadelphia, there are 1,686 voting precincts, or divisions, with no fewer than 100 and no more than 1,200 registered voters, according to the Committee of Seventy, which was founded in 1904 “to combat corruption and closed politics in Philadelphia.” Each division is represented by up to two Democrats and two Republican Committee People elected by voters of the same party. There are 66 Wards in the City of Philadelphia, and those Wards have between ten and 50 Divisions. Generally speaking, a Committee Person is the go-between or point of contact between voters and their political party’s elected officials.
Committee people are volunteers and not considered public officials.
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While gathering signatures, I was finally able to put a party affiliation to homes I had always suspected of being “Republican-owned.” A house on Huntingdon Street with a painted American flag on its patio wall was one of these houses. Two blocks from my home, I had a long discussion with a woman elector who told me that several police officers in the area had to register as Democrats even though they were really Republican. The disguise was necessary, she said, because as registered Republicans they would never receive a promotion within the Police Department.
“See that house over there? He’s a Republican. And in the house behind his, there are two Republicans. They are all cops but pose as registered Democrats,” she said. “That’s what you’re forced to do in this city.”
In a house near Aramingo Avenue, I had a long discussion with a smart twenty-something man who told me he changed his registration to Republican because of the radicalization of the Democrat Party.
“I’m for free speech,” he said. “I don’t like it when they destroy statues, ban speakers, tell you what you can and cannot say, and when they tie the hands of the police as rioters destroy businesses.” After he signed my petition, he told me that his family wants him to run for City Council someday. “Good luck in the city that rejected Matt Wolfe,” I wanted to tell him (but didn’t).
One woman signer pointed me in the direction of other Republicans, then told me that during the last presidential campaign, some of her Democrat neighbors referred to her as “that Trumper.” She laughed when she said this, although in many ways I suppose it was not so funny when it occurred.
I collected 20 signatures. Yes, there were a few disappointments: an old woman, fearful of a home invasion, was afraid to open her door for me. Then there was the man who said he couldn’t sign my petition until he could look into my background and find out “who I was.” Another man questioned me about being a RINO. I told him I was not a RINO, but a freshly minted Republican who voted for Trump twice and would do so again, and that I stood against the pervasive core elements of Marxist ideology being pushed in our schools, the press, in corporations, in Hollywood, the Democratic Party, and especially in the Biden administration. He signed on the dotted line with a smile.
“Win that election” to change the direction of this injured, ailing city.
When it came time for me to submit my Petition to the Board of Elections in City Hall Room 142 on Mar. 15, I stood with several other potential committee people, all Democrats. It felt great being the only Republican in the room. I was not drinking the Flavor Aid; I had broken out of the mold, the brainwashing, and was finally doing something, albeit very small, to try to get this broken city to reimagine itself.
A month later, at the 31st and 18th Ward Republican Executive’s annual Spring Cocktail Party — the weekend before the May 17 Primary — I chatted with Vince Fenerty Jr., 31st Ward Republican leader, and met Pennsylvania Republican candidate for Governor, Charles Gerow, the current Vice Chairman of CPAC. There was also a conversation with Matt Wolfe and his wife Denise Furey about the dangers of Josh Shaprio, the Democratic candidate for Governor.
Before calling it a night, Wolfe and Furey spoke about having dinner, years ago, with Nancy Pelosi and her husband Paul.
Wolfe and Furey agreed that Pelosi was a cordial dinner companion, although someone mentioned, “You don’t get that far in politics without being nasty.” Wolfe also informed me that Pelosi has Republican in–laws and belongs to a very exclusive San Francisco Club where the prominent membership is Republican.
“Win that election! Win that election!” Wolfe said to various candidates stopping at his table to say a quick hello.
“Win that election” to change the direction of this injured, ailing city.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, Frontpage Magazine and the Philadelphia Irish Edition. He is the author of fifteen books, including ”Literary Philadelphia” and ”From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia.” “Death at Dawn: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest” will be published later this year.