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.)
The following morning Mayor Norbert boarded a train for the state capital – his sixth visit to Harrisburg in as many weeks. There, he planned a single meeting with the city’s entire legislative delegation – all thirty-five members, with the likely exception of Michael Ianucci, who had not been seen in public in recent weeks. He intended to encourage, to rally, and to cajole, but if necessary, he was prepared to plead as well.
Much to the mayor’s surprise, everyone had gathered by the time he arrived. He took this as a positive sign: they knew what train he was taking, knew what time the train would pull into the station, and knew how long it would take him to walk from the train station to the Capitol. Clearly they had made a planned, concerted effort to greet him. He hoped this was a harbinger of good things to come.
The members greeted him cordially, although not warmly. He knew them all and was in the process of developing relationships with them all, but these were still relatively new relationships and he knew he had no business expecting more than cordiality. After shaking hands with everyone and pouring himself a cup of coffee, Norbert took an empty seat in the middle of the room, sitting among the legislators. He thanked them for meeting with him and said he looked forward to working with them.
Two people – a man and a woman – rose from their seats and walked to the front of the room. The man, state senator Frank Minor, spoke first.
“We understand why you’re here, Mr. Mayor. We appreciate that you’ve come to us here, and that you’ve been coming here almost every week now for the past two months.
“We also understand the extent of the challenge the city faces with the governor’s proposed budget. If we can’t get the money back, the city’s finances would be in bad shape and the school district would barely be able to function. Rest assured that we all understand, we all get it.”
Minor looked over to the other member of the delegation who was standing, state representative Cynthia Ruiz.
“We also understand that in the past, the people in this group could sit back and let Michael Ianucci fix problems like this for us,” Ruiz began. “No matter how big the challenge, he was always able to overcome it.
“But just because the rest of us haven’t done this before doesn’t mean we can’t do it now. We think we can. Between us, we have enough members on the two appropriations committees to swing some votes there. We also have an excellent relationship with the Pittsburgh delegation, and you may not be aware of this, but the governor’s pretty much doing to Pittsburgh the same thing he’s trying to do to Philadelphia. The minority leader of the Senate is from suburban Pittsburgh and the majority leader of the House is from Pittsburgh, and so are key members of the appropriations committees. Put it all together and, if we work hard and work smart and work cooperatively with them and one another, we think we can salvage this situation and come out of it with our money.”
Senator Minor resumed speaking, and for the next ten minutes he talked strategy: who they needed to work with, what they would need to offer in return for support, the private citizens, corporate leaders, and party operatives who could help, and more.
The more Minor spoke, the more encouraged Norbert felt. For the first time since he opened his morning newspaper and read the news about Michael Ianucci and the prostitution arrest, he felt he had cause for optimism.
Ruiz again took the floor.
“So you see, Mr. Mayor, there’s a way out of this dilemma, and this delegation is prepared to lead the way. Jack?”
In the back of the room, a large, heavy, white-haired man slowly rose from his chair: it was Jack Nelson, who at ninety-one was the dean of the city’s Harrisburg delegation. Old, hard of hearing, and troubled by heart problems and emphysema, he had spent most of the past decade as a virtual ghost legislator, rarely visiting Harrisburg; his colleagues cast his votes for him by jamming a bent paper clip into the voting switch on his seldom-used desk in the House chamber. He had been driven to the capital specifically for this meeting.
“Son, we can do all of this for you and the city. Or not. Personally, none of us care.”
Norbert just looked at him for a moment before speaking.
“You don’t care?” he asked.
“I certainly don’t give a damn, and I’m sure no one else in this room does, either. If we succeed, you’ll get the credit anyway.”
“And your constituents?” Norbert asked.
“Not a consideration,” Nelson replied.
“In exchange for our assistance,” Nelson continued, “we want just one thing from you.”
The mayor’s shoulders sagged.
“We want Shaniqua Watson, Mr. Mayor,” Nelson declared. “The choice is entirely yours.”
With that, and without even waiting for a response from the mayor, the members of the delegation rose as one and filed out of the room, leaving Norbert behind to consider their ultimatum.
(next Sunday: the final chapter)