Taking Care of Business (chapter 19)

(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 19

Conspicuously absent from the parade of politicians visiting Mayor Norbert to complain about Shaniqua Watson’s outstanding performance as Philadelphia’s streets commissioner was state representative Michael Ianucci. Ianucci had his own vast political organization that was both part of the city’s Democratic machine yet also a political machine unto itself. Ianucci even had his own separate patronage mill: in addition to placing many loyal party workers in public agencies like the redevelopment authority, the parking authority, the housing authority, the court system, and the school district, he had developed over the years a vast network of private-sector companies that owed him favors and repaid those favors by providing jobs for his political acolytes. Hundreds of Ianucci loyalists worked in local banks, the electric company, and the gas works; staffed parking lots and parking garages whose owners constantly did battle with the city’s police and frequently needed Ianucci’s help; sold soda, hot dogs, and beer at the city’s sports stadiums and arenas and worked as skycaps, baggage handlers, and retail clerks at the airport; and held clerical and unskilled laborer positions at law firms, insurance companies, hospitals, and colleges that depended on Ianucci for help in their many dealings with government. Anywhere a job could be found that required minimal education and training, few skills, and no imagination at all, Ianucci would seize any opportunity to do a favor for its owner or executives and later seek repayment of that favor not through campaign contributions but with jobs for his supporters. He made honest men and women of the people he placed in these jobs, too: he insisted that they do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay and warned them that he would not protect them if they failed to do the job and were fired. Because of this approach to leading his political organization, Ianucci did not view small favors like getting street lights fixed to be a major part of his constituent service portfolio; he and his organization provided such assistance, of course, but they did not consider it central to their survival or success. This explained why he was alone among local officials in not complaining to the mayor about Norbert’s disconcertingly effective streets commissioner.

Ianucci also had more important business to attend to in Harrisburg, where his budget committee was holding hearings on the governor’s proposed spending plan for the upcoming year. Three days a week for the past month, different department secretaries and agency directors had appeared before the committee to present their operations’ plans for the coming year and answer questions from inquisitive legislators.

Only lobbyists, lawyers, and a few newspaper reporters attended these hearings, not ordinary citizens or even representatives of interest groups or advocacy organizations; years would pass without such hearings seeing a television camera – except for cameras owned by the state’s own cable television network, which in a state of more than twelve million people reportedly had 350 regular viewers. With no gallery to play to, committee members asked dry, technical questions that elicited dry, technical answers; they spoke from their seats, never rising as if cross-examining witnesses; and they accepted, without criticism or protestations of outrage, the answer ‘I don’t have that information with me today but will get back to you and the committee about it as soon as I can’ in response to questions they asked.

In short, it was nothing like the circus of a Philadelphia city council budget hearing.

Michael Ianucci seldom spoke during these hearings. Because of the respect and fear he engendered and the perception that he wielded the appropriations committee’s ultimate authority, department secretaries and agency directors routinely presented their budgets privately to him and his staff prior to formal public hearings. During such meetings his staff – widely viewed as the best in Harrisburg – asked most of the questions; Ianucci spoke only often enough to ensure that he had his guests’ attention and to convey that he knew as much about their operations as they did.

Ianucci also did not wield the gavel during his committee’s hearings because technically, it was not his committee: he was a Democrat in a House chamber in which Republicans held a twenty-seat majority. Unlike in Washington, where the leading minority party member on a committee was referred to as the ranking minority member, and unlike in Philadelphia, where the leading minority party member on a committee had no title at all, the leading minority party member of legislative committees in Harrisburg had a special title: minority chairman. These minority chairmen chaired nothing and their title was little more than a means of funneling slightly larger salaries to a favored few and to pay them in public dollars to do private, party work. As a result, Ianucci technically had no more power than any other member of the committee – but in reality, he had far more power than any of them, including the committee’s chairman.

Amid Ianucci’s typically silent performance during recent House Appropriations Committee hearings, things appeared bleak for Philadelphia’s financial prospects. Secretary after secretary and director after director presented budgets that called for large cuts in direct appropriations for Philadelphia and large cuts in programs that primarily benefited Philadelphia, and they all ended their testimony without serious challenge from committee members and in most cases without being questioned or addressed at all. Like the governor, many legislators knew they earned extra points from their constituents for backing anything that would hurt the state’s largest city, and whether they thought doing so was good or bad or right or wrong never figured into the positions they espoused. During such hearings, they found no reason to question the testimony presented to them.

But the reasons for the silence of non-Philadelphia committee members ran much deeper. While these legislators supported proposals that would hurt Philadelphia, they rarely voiced that view aloud in the state capital. If they did, they risked incurring the wrath of their colleague, minority chairman Michael Ianucci. House members who crossed Ianucci faced dire consequences: they found funding for pet projects in their districts removed from the state budget; their opponents for re-election would experience sudden and inexplicable surges in campaign contributions; and even their reserved parking spaces outside the Capitol would “temporarily” be shifted to a distant location so the parking lot could be resurfaced – and then never restored when the new asphalt was dry. This could happen to any House member – even those who ostensibly outranked Ianucci, including the Speaker of the House – and even to members of the state Senate. Such punishments could never be traced directly or even indirectly to Ianucci, but they happened just the same and everyone knew who was behind them. All everyone knew was that the lots where legislators parked their cars were repaved with startling frequency and that whenever notices were posted and paving equipment appeared, speculation immediately began regarding the identity of the latest person who was about to be punished by Michael Ianucci.

On the other hand, Ianucci did not totally begrudge his opponents their opportunities to express their contempt for Philadelphia. They were free to do so outside of Harrisburg, in their own districts; he understood and respected the need for politicians to act certain ways and say certain things in front of their constituents. He made sure, though, that such individuals knew he was aware of their comments; often, they returned to the capital to find an envelope from him with a copy of a newspaper article in which their remarks were reported, accompanied by Ianucci’s card and a short note congratulating them on getting their remarks reported in their community’s newspaper. Still, legislative opponents knew they were free to speak ill of Philadelphia with impunity so long as they did so outside of the boundaries of the state capital. If they did so within Harrisburg, however, they knew they faced far more serious consequences than being exiled to a distant parking lot.

(more next Sunday)


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