Taking Care of Business (chapter 2)

(For an introduction to the novel Taking Care of Business, links to all chapters posted so far, and a list of characters who have appeared so far, go here, to the Taking Care of Business resources page. To see every part of Taking Care of Business posted so far in one place, go here.)

Chapter Two

When Charlie DiMaio arrived at work the next morning, just forty-five minutes after the official starting time of nine o’clock – his earliest arrival in months – he was greeted by a horde of subordinates expressing the same outrage that Marco Lentini had articulated the previous evening. When they all attempted to speak to him at once, he directed them into the conference room adjacent to his office.

‘Work’ for Charlie was the Philadelphia Parking Authority, a governmental agency established by political leaders many years ago for the purpose of creating government jobs that would be exempt from the city’s disturbingly fair and impartial civil service system – government jobs that party leaders could give to their political allies based on who they knew rather than what they knew. The authority’s 900-employee workforce included roughly 800 such people, about 200 of whom interrupted their coffee and meal breaks for about three hours out of every eight-hour work day to write parking tickets and another 600 who spent about two hours a day performing low-skill office tasks while devoting the rest of their time in the office between nine and five to political matters. The final 100 employees were outcasts, looked down upon by their co-workers: individuals who were professionally qualified for their positions and performed the actual work of running the organization.

Charlie DiMaio led an eighteen-employee administrative unit within the authority. He owed his job not to his expertise in on-street parking but to his proficiency in turning out the vote for Democratic candidates for state and local offices. He was one of sixty-six Democratic ward leaders in Philadelphia – and one of forty-nine who held such positions on the periphery of the city’s government. Each of those wards consisted of twenty-five to thirty-five voting divisions, or precincts, each of which could have as many as two elected committeemen. These committeemen elected their ward leader every two years. Charlie had been a committeeman for twenty-five years, building his reputation on the strength of his success in securing especially high pluralities in his own division for Democratic candidates for public office – generally, around eighty-five percent of the vote. Charlie had risen to his position as ward leader nearly seven years earlier, in the great tradition of many ward leaders: upon the death of his predecessor, who also happened to be his father. Despite this obvious advantage, Charlie’s ascent had been highly dramatic. Facing stiff competition for the post despite the obvious entitlement of his birth, he had arranged for his supporters to arrive at the appointed location for the meeting thirty minutes prior to its scheduled start, whereupon he had herded them onto a rented bus, declared a quorum, instructed the driver to put the bus in motion, and then was unanimously elected ward leader by those present. His opponent challenged his election in court, only to find that the judge randomly assigned to hear the case was DiMaio’s wife’s uncle.

As ward leader Charlie was, first and foremost, responsible for directing his committeemen and spurring them to turn out great pluralities for Democratic candidates. In exchange for producing such excellent results, Charlie enjoyed numerous benefits, the most visible of which was his $85,000-a-year job at the parking authority. In addition, he could arrange for the best of his own committeemen to get jobs in his own organization as well as in the city’s housing authority, redevelopment authority, court system, and school district. On election day Charlie controlled a large pool of cash generally referred to as “street money” that he could distribute to – or withhold from, if he so desired – his committeemen based on their performance, on their loyalty to him and the party, or on whether they were related to him or anyone in his family. Much of that money, of course, remained in his own pocket; for it to do otherwise would have breached several generations of party tradition.

Most important, Charlie owned something that contained the true source of his ability to assist his committeemen and turn out the vote in his ward: a small notebook with the names and phone numbers of key city employees who could deliver the public services their constituents sought. With the help of this book, he could – often, with a single call – obtain copies of birth, marriage, and death certificates; arrange for special parking spaces for handicapped neighbors or neighbors who wished to claim a physical handicap despite all evidence to the contrary; arrange for a loading zone in a no-parking area in front of a constituent’s business; secure the presence of a policeman or fireman for a third-grade class; schedule immediate appointments for sick neighbors at a city health clinic even though the normal waiting time for such appointments could be as much as six weeks; and much more. On those rare occasions on which this notebook did not produce the solution Charlie sought, he also had a direct pipeline to the member of Philadelphia’s city council who represented his ward; to two other council members who represented the entire city but clearly owed their electoral success to Charlie and a few other ward leaders in his area; to the state senator and state representative elected by the voters in his and several surrounding wards to represent them in Harrisburg, the state capital; and to several members of the mayor’s staff who had been assigned responsibility for helping ward leaders with their constituent service needs.

In return for these favors, grateful constituents gladly cast their votes for candidates recommended by their committeemen. Committeemen did not waste this gratitude on unimportant offices like president, senator, or congressman. Instead, they sought the support of their constituents for candidates running for offices that mattered to the local Democratic party: sheriff, register of wills, clerk of quarter sessions, judge, city commissioner, city councilman, mayor, and sometimes governor. These were the positions that kept their party in power and able to do favors and provide jobs for the party faithful. Voters had no idea what some of those offices did and were rarely familiar with the candidates who aspired to hold them, so casting a vote for a candidate recommended by a committeeman seemed a reasonable, no-cost way to repay that committeeman for a favor.

Among the many different types of favors that Charlie and his committeemen performed, their bread and butter, without question, was solving problems involving city streets: fixing broken street lights and traffic signals, filling potholes, and clearing broken glass. If their constituents did not see them as responsible for the delivery of these services, they risked losing the loyalty of those constituents – and the votes that came with that loyalty. People might start deciding for whom to vote based on the merits of the candidates – a prospect that party regulars found appalling.

But now, this newcomer to Philadelphia, this Shaniqua Watson, was threatening to steal this responsibility away from them and, in so doing, jeopardize their ability to retain the loyalty of voters, jeopardize the success of the party, and most important of all, jeopardize the jobs of the political appointees who owed their employment and livelihood to their success on election day.

The political appointees who worked for Charlie and who gathered with him in his conference room now demanded to know what was going on and what he and party officials intended to do about it. All had either seen or heard about the offending television commercial and all of them – despite the exceedingly modest intellectual gifts they brought to their work – unmistakably understood its implications. Explicitly, Watson was promising better, more responsive city government and services. Implicitly, she was threatening to render committeemen partially obsolete – and if others in city government picked up on this outlandish idea of delivering city services directly to the public, she could make them entirely obsolete and destroy Philadelphia’s Democratic party.

Charlie permitted his subordinates to vent their displeasure for about ten minutes, told them he would look into the matter, and sent them back to their desks.

He knew better than to tell them to get back to work.

Charlie then returned to his office and to what he considered “work.” After spending about twenty minutes making a half-dozen phone calls, he was standing outside the building smoking a cigarette during a long-overdue break when he received a call on his cell phone from the party’s vice chairman inviting him to an emergency meeting of all ward leaders at party headquarters at three o’clock that afternoon. When Charlie questioned the desirability of holding a meeting at a time when most people were still at work, the vice chairman laughed and reminded him that most of the party’s sixty-six ward leaders either were elected officials who reported to no one or worked for one of the city’s authorities or agencies and would have no trouble leaving work in the middle of the day to attend a party meeting. Most of the rest of the ward leaders were lawyers in private practice who made their own hours, and no one really cared whether they attended anyway.

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