Taking Care of Business (chapters 7 and 8)

(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 Seven

The next evening, McDougal met blue-collar workers’ union president Fred Gilliam at a bar and they talked over drinks.

“So, Fred, your new boss has made quite a splash in the last few days, hasn’t she?” McDougal asked Gilliam.

“I don’t have no bosses, Denny. I’m the boss in my shop.”

“I mean the new streets commissioner, this Shaniqua Watson.”

“She ain’t my boss, but I hear what you’re saying.”

“And you’re letting her run that department?”

“Commissioners run departments.”

“Since when?”

“Since in her case she’s helping a lot of my men pick up a few extra bucks.”

McDougal was surprised.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“She can’t keep all those big-time promises without overtime. If a street light crew has a full day of work planned and she’s got ten more lights to replace that day to keep her promise, my guys get some OT.”

“Where does she get the money for that?” McDougal asked.

“Don’t know, don’t care. Wherever she gets it, it’s green and it spends, and that’s all that matters to my guys.”

McDougal paused.

“So you have no problem with her?”

“Hell no. She rotates the extra hours, fair and square, to everyone who wants them. No favoritism, no problems for anyone who passes. Double time for Sundays and holidays, too.”

“She’s causing real problems for my people, Fred.”

Gilliam looked at him and laughed.

“Your people ain’t my people, Denny.”

“If she goes around my people and starts making the streets department responsive directly to the public, how do you expect my people to turn out the vote?”

Gilliam laughed again.

“Ain’t my problem.”

“If we start getting a few Republicans elected to council and the state legislature it’ll sure as hell be your problem, Fred.”

“First of all, state legislature’s been controlled by Republicans on and off for the past twenty years, and more on than off. If it makes a difference for us, I’ve never seen it. Second, it’s not like the brothers and sisters in north Philly and west Philly are gonna start voting Republican.”

Gilliam was referring to two large, densely populated parts of the city that were ninety percent African-American and consistently voted ninety percent Democratic regardless of the office being contested, the issues being debated, or the candidates on the ballot. Democrats representing these areas rarely faced more than token opposition at the polls, and once elected, unless there was a scandal – and often, even if there was one – they could comfortably hold the office for the rest of their lives.

“What about the northeast?” McDougal asked, referring to a part of the city that had long been predominantly white and had the only meaningful concentration of Republican voters in the city.

Gilliam scoffed.

“You ride out there lately? It ain’t all white no more. You’ve got a few brothers and sisters out there, a lot of Hispanics who don’t even know what a Republican is, and a lot of Asians, who don’t vote because they’re afraid the immigration’ll put ‘em on a boat back home. I’m not worried about the northeast.”

“So you’re seriously okay with Watson?”

“No, I’m in love with Watson. She’s smart and she’s fair, which my men appreciate. She’s helping my people make more money, which I appreciate. And with contract negotiations coming up, she’s making my people look good, which we all appreciate. So hell, no, I got no problem with her. Shoot, I’m hoping a little Shaniqua rubs off on the commissioners in some of the other departments where I have members.”

McDougal thanked Gilliam and, as the union leader departed, asked the bartender for another drink and two aspirin.

Chapter Eight

Three days later McDougal met with three carefully selected party leaders, including a member of city council and a long-time state senator. All three were notable for their strong relationships with members of the city’s print media. They all spoke regularly to reporters and columnists – not just when there were specific stories, but often, just to talk about whatever was going on at the time in city hall or Harrisburg.

The time had come, McDougal told them, to begin planting in the press the idea that despite all the excitement Watson had created, there remained serious questions about her ability to do her job.

The planting should be subtle, McDougal instructed them. Under no circumstances were they to initiate a conversation with a reporter solely to talk about Shaniqua Watson. Instead, she should be one subject among several in any given conversation – and definitely not the first subject. McDougal was familiar with such exchanges; he often had them himself with reporters. These conversations followed one of two basic patterns. The first focused on a specific issue: a reporter would call regarding a particular bill, a specific political issue, an anticipated development. Once they finished talking about the subject of the call, the conversation would wander off into whatever else might be going on at the time. The second type of conversation took place when there was no specific agenda. Typically, this started with a reporter just working his sources, fishing around for a story or a small bit of information that might eventually lead to one – anything to avoid having to do any actual reporting. Often, it was just a means of staying in touch, and such conversations often amounted to little more than an exchange of political gossip. Sometimes, the politicians would even initiate such calls themselves, doing so to find out what reporters knew or to make such calls seem like everyday occurrences so that when they needed to call for a specific purpose, the interaction seemed routine and the reporter had no particular reason to question the politician’s motives.

For now, McDougal told his colleagues to focus on three things.

First, they should mention in passing that Watson was one of a surprising number of non-Philadelphians appointed to top positions by Mayor Norbert. With so many outsiders running city government – including Norbert, who was viewed by local politicians as an outsider even though he had now called Philadelphia home for more than twenty-five years – people were beginning to question how the new administration’s senior-level officials could possibly understand what the city and its residents needed and wanted from their government.

What people, one of McDougal’s guests asked.

“Us,” McDougal replied. “We’re people, and we’re questioning it.”

Second, McDougal continued, they could point out that Watson was not qualified for her position. Philadelphia’s streets department had always been run by engineers. While her management experience might be valuable in some other departments, streets addressed a number of highly technical matters. How could she make decisions about complex engineering problems without a strong academic background in engineering? For that matter, how could the engineers who work for her possibly respect her in light of this glaring shortcoming in her background?

The third idea he wanted his colleagues to attempt to plant was more delicate, McDougal stressed. While the streets department, like any large bureaucracy, had administrative and clerical staff, more than ninety-five percent of its employees were men: trash collectors, truck drivers, laborers, and the like. Watson is a woman – the first to lead the department. In their conversations with reporters, McDougal said they should suggest that this all-male, working-class workforce was – or so they were starting to hear – none too happy to be working for a woman.

“Is that true?” the same person interrupted.

“How should I know?” the party chairman replied.

Anyhow, McDougal continued, many believe that any woman working in this kind of operation must be a lesbian, adding to worker unease.

McDougal turned to the person who had already interrupted him twice.

“No, I don’t know if she’s a lesbian.”

As his colleagues departed, McDougal asked them to report back to him about their conversations with reporters so he could keep track of them, monitor their impact, and reinforce the messages they were delivering through his own, separate discussions with the same reporters.

 

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