Billy Ciancaglini had been a South Philadelphia Democrat for all his voting years. Then, he moved to the right. Just how far to the right is in question.
Ciancaglini, a criminal defense lawyer, changed his registration to Republican 10 months ago and is now the Republican candidate for mayor of Philadelphia.
Activists on the left say he’s more than that. They say that Ciancaglini has ties to the alt-right and white-supremacist movements. There are pictures of him in the company of people thought to be members of right-wing organizations, and his name turned up in leaked chats among members of Identity Evropa. That organization, which was renamed the American Identity Movement in March, targets its message to college-aged white men and espouses white supremacist ideology.
But Ciancaglini says he has no ties to that group or any other far-right organization.
“I was a Democrat until I turned 47,” said Ciancaglini, who turned 48 in January. “No one called me a Nazi. Ever. I turn Republican, and just like every other Republican and Donald Trump, I’m called a Nazi. It’s ridiculous.”
Activists began connecting Ciancaglini to the extremists after he appeared at two rallies which drew people identified with alt-right groups.
One, in August, was labeled Back the Blue, and was intended to show support for police officers. Gwen Snyder, a community organizer in Philadelphia, said she identified members of extremist groups in pictures from the rally. One of those groups was the Proud Boys, who are known for anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and white nationalist views. They marched at the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., where a counter-protester died.
Ciancaglini, she said, is seen in close proximity to the Proud Boys.
One of the most explicit links cited by activists comes from a leak of chats among Identity Evropa’s members. The chats were obtained by Unicorn Riot, a left-wing media collective, and published March 8.
In these chats, someone with the handle Tee-PA writes that he and another member of Identify Evropa “met my boy Billy Ciancaglini last night. Old school South Philly Italian dude.” Tee-PA goes on to quote Ciancaglini saying, “Ay youz guys betta vote for me!”
Ciancaglini says all the fuss comes from “one idiot on the Internet with a made-up name.”
“It’s idiocy,” he continued. “It’s what the left does. They say everybody is a Nazi if you don’t vote for Hilary or believe what we believe.”
Asked if he dissociates himself from alt-right views, he replied: “Yeah. I wouldn’t even know where to go to find an alt-right website.”
Where Ciancaglini sees a harmless political event championing a cause, others see something darker.
Brian Villa, a lawyer who monitors the activities of the far right, says that extremists hold “Trojan-horse events, expressing support for the police and patriotic values when what they are trying to do is develop political momentum.”
The alt right makes use of Republican candidates to try to get into office, said Snyder, the Philly community organizer.
“This is part of a broader infiltration attempt,” she said.
Another incident provides a further look into Ciancaglini’s point of view.
In March, the restaurant Le Virtú on Passyunk Avenue held a dinner to raise money for two immigrant families who are facing deportation. They sought asylum at the First United Methodist Church of Germantown.
Francis Cratil-Cretarola, the co-owner of Le Virtú, said he supports the families out of solidarity with hardworking immigrants who have helped to make his restaurant a success. His grandfather was an immigrant from Italy. His Chinese-born grandmother helped finance the business.
But Ciancaglini didn’t like what he read about the fund-raiser.
“They had a fundraiser for illegal immigrants and I objected to it online,” Ciancaglini said. “I found it distasteful.”
Ciancaglini’s objections led to a flame-out on social media by other conservatives. Ciancaglini suggested the restaurant hold a fund-raiser for injured police officers and homeless veterans. The restaurant did not respond.
“He’s desperately searching for relevance,” Cratil-Cretarola said of Ciancaglini. “He’s looking for fuel to stoke the fire underneath whatever he thinks will propel his base. One of those things is anger against immigrants.”
Ciancaglini is campaigning on his opposition to the soda tax, safe-injection sites and sanctuary cities. All three are hot-button issues for conservatives. He said the soda tax is putting mom-and-pop shops out of business. The placement of safe-injection sites ignores the concerns of neighbors and the sanctuary city policy protects people who have “broken our country’s laws.”
Ciancaglini is unlikely to make it to City Hall, given that only about 11 percent of Philadelphians are registered as Republicans. He said he has support in South Philadelphia, which is also home to the current mayor Jim Kenney, the heavy favorite to win the May 21 Democratic Primary.
Ciancaglini is not expecting much support from LGBT voters. He said he had attended events of the Liberty City Democratic Club, a political action committee that supports the LGBT community, in the past, but he is no longer a Democrat.
What about the Log Cabin Republicans?
“I’m not going to kid you,” he replied. “I’m relatively unfamiliar with them. I’ve only been a Republican for about 10 months, so I’m still feeling my way around. But I’ll absolutely look into that immediately. I’d like to see them and speak to them. I speak to just about anybody now.”