Taking Care of Business (chapter 30)

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.)

Between juicy news stories about well-known Philadelphians who frequented prostitutes came more juicy stories about one of those customers in particular: state representative Michael Ianucci. The local press had lusted for years after information about Ianucci: about his political power and how he amassed it, used it, and kept it in the face of all challenges and all challengers. For years, though, that lust had gone unrequited in the face of unyielding walls of silence: Ianucci’s political allies were fiercely loyal and notoriously close-mouthed and his enemies were too afraid of retribution to speak – either on the record or off.

But in light of recent events, lips were beginning to loosen. Ianucci had gone into hiding and appeared vulnerable. For the first time that anyone could remember, he missed an entire week of legislative activity in Harrisburg. Sensing his possible loss of power, political enemies cautiously began to talk – not a great deal and still not for attribution, but talk nonetheless. The Gazette seized this opportunity and published a front-page story about the politician about whom its readers knew relatively little.

Ianucci: Jumble of Paradoxes and Contradictions

Political career, influence in jeopardy

Arguably the most influential politician in Pennsylvania for more than a decade, state representative Michael Ianucci appears to be a man who has it all: power, wealth, respect, a beautiful wife and family, and a large political machine known and feared for its effectiveness and its loyalty.

But as a result of allegations that he paid for sex from high-end prostitutes, Ianucci now appears to be on the verge of losing it all.

Ianucci, who did not return numerous requests for comment for this article, has been seen only briefly in public in recent days and has not spoken publicly about his alleged patronage of the escort service.

Over the years, the ten-term representative of the Roxborough section of Philadelphia has carved a reputation as a brilliant legislator, fierce leader of liberal causes, tireless advocate of the interests of working people, and Harrisburg’s unmatched political operative.

At the same time, Ianucci also has come to be known as an exceedingly ruthless and idiosyncratic politician who routinely destroys the careers of both friends and foes for misdeeds real and imagined.

Above all, Ianucci has operated under a veil of virtual secrecy, his opponents too afraid to speak about him publicly and his supporters too loyal to do so.

But with his implication last week in the prostitution ring, veteran political observers see the powerful Ianucci as vulnerable, and some of his opponents are now cautiously speaking about him, albeit still only under the cloak of anonymity.

“Michael has been dealt a terrible political blow, and I’m not sure he can ever fully recover from it,” suggests Martin Jones, a veteran observer of Philadelphia and Harrisburg politics and a professor of political science at Albright College, in Reading.

“It’s like the schoolyard bully who gets punched and hurt for the first time,” Jones speculates. “He still wins the fight, but for the first time, the other kids see that he’s human, just like them. So maybe, someone who may never have even considered taking on the bully decides to give it a try. I suspect that at some point in the not-too-distant future, someone’s going to test Michael to see if he’s still invincible. It’ll be interesting.”

For years, Ianucci has been known for his bruising, take-no-prisoners approach to politics. Fellow legislators who oppose him on important matters are immediately ostracized, with little chance of rehabilitation. He is known never to forgive a slight.

“About twelve years ago,” recalls a former legislative staffer, “there was a debate within the appropriations committee about an obscure provision in a huge bill that would have provided additional state funding for the meteorology sciences department at Penn State. It was a budget bill, which meant it was Michael’s bill, and he was furious that an obscure back-bencher, Tom Graham of Centre County, had snuck the appropriation in without first consulting him. Michael started off easy on Graham, noting that one of the biggest private weather forecasting companies in the country was headquartered in the same town as Penn State and had hired a lot of the program’s graduates over the years. Michael suggested that before the state provide any additional public money for the program, the company should endow a chair in the department. When Graham disagreed and refused to withdraw the provision, Michael was furious. The provision mysteriously disappeared from the final version of the bill. It was suggested that its omission was a printer’s error, but everyone knew better.

“A year later Graham, who had served four terms in the state House, including his last two re-election bids without opposition, lost by twelve points in a party primary to a well-funded but unknown candidate who did virtually no campaigning. The message was clear, and everyone got it: don’t mess with Michael.”

A Philadelphia ward leader tells of what happened to a fellow ward leader who failed to deliver enough votes on election day.

“Ianucci was supporting a candidate for council and there was no way the guy could possibly lose. Anyhow, Michael set quotas for each ward: a minimum percentage of the vote he wanted his candidate to get. In this one ward, he said he wanted his guy to get at least seventy-seven percent of the vote and that the ward leader, Jim Anton, would be held responsible if he didn’t. Well, the candidate got seventy-five percent of the vote, which isn’t too shabby, and won the election in a landslide, but Michael was furious that Anton didn’t make his number. Within two weeks Anton lost his patronage job at the housing authority and his wife lost her job working for a judge.

“In the next election, Michael refused to give Anton any street money, so of course, when Anton ran for re-election as ward leader, Michael didn’t even have to bother running someone against him because no one’s going to vote for a ward leader who doesn’t get street money. Poor Anton was totally broken.”

Over the years, Ianucci has been known for the quality of his legislative staff – generally considered the best and brightest in the state capital. Of the twelve highest-paid legislative staffers in Harrisburg, ten work either on Ianucci’s personal staff or his committee staff. That staff also is highly educated: although Ianucci himself never finished college, everyone on his staff – even the people who answer the phones and work on constituent services – has at least a bachelor’s degree, and nearly half have a master’s degree as well. All earned their undergraduate degrees at one of three Philadelphia universities – Temple, LaSalle, or St. Joseph’s; a review of state records did not uncover even a single Ianucci staff member, past or present, who did not complete their undergraduate education at one of those three schools.

Also, Ianucci employs only men in professional positions. The few women on his staff answer phones and type correspondence. Despite this, Ianucci has always enjoyed the enthusiastic support of women’s groups – and he has reciprocated by becoming one of Harrisburg’s foremost advocates on women’s issues.

Despite what appears to be a close relationship with his staff, Ianucci requires everyone who works for him to call him “Mr. Ianucci” – even seventy-four-year-old Neil Stills, a childhood friend of Ianucci’s father who came to Harrisburg with Ianucci when he was first elected twenty years ago. In addition, while Ianucci frequently refers his House colleagues to members of his staff for information or assistance, he refuses to deal at all with the staff of his fellow legislators.

While Ianucci’s staff is highly regarded for its quantitative analysis of complex issues, mastery of state budget details, unusual accuracy in projecting state revenues and expenditures, and extensive use of data, and while his political operation is said to rival any in the country in its use of technology, Ianucci himself is considered somewhat of a technophobe. He does not use a computer, has never sent nor received an email, and is one of a dwindling number of legislators in Harrisburg who does not carry a Blackberry. The only technology he seems to use himself is a cell phone; his home telephone does not have an answering machine or voice mail and Ianucci does not subscribe to cable television.

At this point, Ianucci’s political future is uncertain.

“Michael faces a primary election in about a month, but it’s hard to believe that will pose much of a threat,” said Albright’s Jones. “He’s banked an awful lot of goodwill over the years, and as of right now, he doesn’t even have a primary opponent.”

While many share that view, one person who is willing to go on the record with a different perspective is Philadelphia Republican party chairman John Brent.

“I’m hoping the Democrats are either stupid enough, or still so afraid of Ianucci, that they don’t run someone against him in the primary,” Brent said. “The people of Roxborough have always supported Ianucci, but they’ve held him at arm’s length because they know his political operation is bad news. Now that they see that the man himself is bad news, too, there’s no way they’re going to support him if they have an even marginally appealing alternative. If he wins the primary, we’ll put up a quality, squeaky-clean Republican opponent who’ll clean his clock. I guarantee it.”

(more next Sunday)

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