Marco Lentini was sitting in front of a television screen that covered virtually an entire wall of his living room, a can of beer in his hand as he watched the Super Bowl, when he saw the appalling television commercial.
Hi, I’m Shaniqua Watson, the city of Philadelphia’s new streets commissioner, and I’m pleased to announce the streets department’s new service initiative.
If a street light is out in front of your house, call us at 1-800-fixitnow and we guarantee we’ll fix it within twenty-four hours.
If a traffic light isn’t working on your corner or a stop sign has been knocked down, call us at 1-800-fixitnow and we guaranteed we’ll fix it within twenty-four hours.
If there’s broken glass in your street, call us at 1-800-fixitnow and we guarantee we’ll clean it up within twenty-four hours.
And if there’s a pothole on your street, call us at 1-800-fixitnow, and as long as it’s not raining, we guarantee we’ll fill it within three business days.
We’re the new Philadelphia streets department, and we’re here to serve you. If we fail to live up to our guarantee, we’ll give the first person to report the problem a $50 gift card to a local store or restaurant. Visit our new web site at www. phillyfixitnow.com for details. Call now: we’re waiting to hear from you.
Lentini slammed down his can of beer – slammed it so hard that he knocked over two of the six empties sitting on the table alongside his Barcalounger.
“What the hell?” he demanded of no one in particular. He sat alone in his living room.
Marco Lentini was not happy, and he picked up the telephone to vent his displeasure.
“Hey, Charlie, it’s Marco. Are you watching the Super Bowl?”
Charlie said he was not. Marco paused, not quite comprehending how a heterosexual adult male could possibly not be watching the Super Bowl.
“Marco?” Charlie asked, not understanding why their conversation had ground to an unexpected halt.
“Oh, yeah,” Marco replied, regaining his composure. He described the appalling commercial.
“What the hell?” Charlie exclaimed when Marco finished.
“My reaction exactly,” Marco replied.
Charlie heard a click on his line.
“Hold on a minute, Marco, I got another call.”
Marco did as asked, and a minute later, Charlie returned.
“That was Jimmy B,” Charlie said. “He just told me the same story.”
“I mean seriously, Charlie, what the hell? Who the hell is this kid and what the hell does she think she’s doing?”
“Calm down, Marco, this is the first I’m hearing about it. Let me get to the bottom of it and I’ll get back to you tomorrow night.”
“You do that, Charlie. I don’t know who this broad is or what her game is, but she just can’t go around telling people how to call the city to get help. That’s just not how we take care of business around here.”
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.
That afternoon, fifty-seven of the Democratic party’s sixty-six Philadelphia ward leaders crowded into their party office conference room and essentially repeated the same scene Charlie had witnessed in his own conference room five hours earlier: everyone talking at once, demanding to know who this Shaniqua Watson was and what the hell she thought she was doing.
When party chairman Denny McDougal called the meeting to order, he sought to focus on what he considered the most basic question: exactly who was this Shaniqua Watson? City councilman James Barber arose and explained that Watson had just assumed her position a few weeks earlier, shortly after the new mayor took office.
In which city department did she previously work, someone asked. None, Barber replied; the mayor had recruited her from another city.
A murmur of disapproval swept through the room; it was highly unusual for city departments to be run by out-of-towners and especially unusual for bread-and-butter operations like streets to be led by someone without a long history of employment in Philadelphia’s government. Such a practice was highly frowned-upon by party leaders, city council, and other political partisans because such individuals typically were too independent, owed their positions only to the mayor, and were unreasonably difficult to control, manipulate, or bully. Party leaders could not understand why mayors ever looked outside the city for people to serve in their administrations; they could not fathom why they put education, skill, experience, and expertise above party loyalty. Since virtually everyone involved in the management of city government moved into such circles with the help of a political sponsor, this meant that the usual question asked when a problem arose – “Who does she belong to?” – was meaningless in this situation.
One of the ward leaders rose and challenged Barber aggressively, demanding to know why he and his council colleagues had confirmed her misguided appointment. Barber – one of the few ward leaders present, and one of the few council members, for that matter, whose IQ could be measured in three digits – explained to his questioner and the others present that council did not confirm appointees to run city departments.
“Since when?” his questioner persisted, certain that he had uncovered the latest example of government gone awry under the new mayor.
“Since 1951, actually,” Barber replied.
After numerous expressions of disdain and disgust, McDougal turned the discussion to the question of whether any ward leaders had yet interacted with Watson. Several affirmed that they had, and as angry as they all were, those who had been in contact with her reluctantly conceded that all of those dealings had been quite satisfactory and that she and her staff had fulfilled their requests promptly and completely. This unexpected and not-very-welcome discovery of Watson’s apparent competence caused a lessening of the volume of the ward leaders’ complaints but not in the degree of concern they expressed. After several more minutes of now-muted discussion, McDougal announced that he would form an ad hoc committee to look into the matter. The vacant stares he observed among the ward leaders startled him for a moment, but he quickly realized his mistake.
“A temporary committee,” he clarified. “Just to address this one issue.”
He saw a glimmer of understanding on the faces of many of his ward leaders – and amusement in the eyes of a few of the lawyers in attendance.
To this committee McDougal appointed six people: one member of city council, one elected state representative, and four ward leaders. He asked his appointees to look into the situation, check out Watson’s background, and learn more about her program and how it worked. The committee should report back to him in three days, he said, with its findings and recommendations.
The next day, the aggrieved leaders of Philadelphia’s Democratic party opened their morning Philadelphia Gazette, the city’s oldest and most established newspaper, and learned that they were not the only people who had viewed the Super Bowl commercial with great interest.
Editorial: A Breath of Fresh Air in City’s Streets Department
Philadelphians who have long been frustrated by the quality of the service – or lack thereof – from the city’s streets department are no doubt heartened by streets commissioner Shaniqua Watson’s bold promise of a new day.
The streets department, responsible for cleaning and maintaining city streets, collecting trash, and clearing snow, has long been a sore spot in city government. Historically underachieving and run surreptitiously by its workers’ powerful union, the department has seldom encountered a challenge it could successfully meet. Commissioner Watson, one of Mayor Norbert’s first appointees, has ridden a breeze of fresh air into town from her native Baltimore and made unprecedented promises to clean up – literally and figuratively – our perennially rundown and dirty city. Only time will tell if this is truly an exciting new wind blowing from city hall or just another blast of political hot air.
Reading this editorial while eating a meatball sandwich as his desk, Charlie DeMaio scowled and told himself that he needed to cancel his subscription to the Gazette.
Of course, Charlie did not subscribe to the Gazette.
Three blocks away, Mayor James Norbert read the same editorial and could not suppress a broad grin.
Three days later, McDougal’s committee met with him over roast beef sandwiches and beer at a bar owned by one of the few Democratic ward leaders who did not earn his living on the public payroll. There, committee members reported that they could find no “dirt” on Watson: no political scandals, no obvious personal or professional failures, no apparent skeletons in her closet.
In light of such disheartening findings – they clearly were surprised and disappointed to discover a public official of integrity and ability – committee members recommended a three-part approach to discrediting this dangerous woman.
First, the committee suggested that the chairman lead a delegation to meet with Mayor Norbert and press their case for the immediate termination of Watson’s offensive program – and, ideally, of Watson herself. This, committee members agreed, would be the best solution, rendering its other recommendations superfluous and completely solving their problem.
Second, the committee proposed that city council turn this year’s budget hearing for the streets department, which would take place in just a few weeks, into a broader inquiry into the department’s performance, its spending, and its leader. The committee cited several potentially embarrassing issues council members might raise during such a hearing, including several major failures in the department’s performance in the past. When McDougal pointed out that the incidents in question preceded Watson’s arrival, committee members failed to see the relevance of his observation and blinked in confusion.
Third, the committee recommended attempting to undermine Watson through the local newspapers. Party leaders had excellent relationships with newspaper reporters and had found over the years that the easiest way to get something into the newspaper was to give a story, in its entirety and without need for any additional reporting, directly to a reporter – local government reporters being inherently unenterprising individuals who rarely pursued any story not handed to them by a source or through a news release. The tabloid Post, in particular, eagerly invited unsubstantiated stories by creating a weekly political gossip column, essentially giving anyone with an axe to grind a forum for all manner of fabrication while at the same time giving the feature’s contributing writers license to publish such fabrications without guilt and without the need to verify whether there was any truth to them by clearly labeling such items “gossip.”
The chairman agreed to the strategy, ordered another round of beer for his guests, and decided that he would call the mayor’s office first thing in the morning to request an appointment.
Shortly after two o’clock the next afternoon, Democratic party chairman Denny McDougal, ward leader Charlie DiMaio – who had failed to sign himself out properly from his office at the parking authority and was frantically being sought by his secretary (he refused either to carry a pager or to give her his cell phone number, even though she was also his sister in-law, maintaining that there was no such thing as a ‘parking emergency’ and therefore no possible justification for disturbing him when he was out of the office) – city councilman James Barber, and two other ward leaders were ushered into the office of mayor James Norbert. After they exchanged greetings and selected soft drinks, McDougal came straight to the point.
“Mayor, we want to talk to you about Shaniqua Watson,” McDougal said.
The mayor smiled.
“Can you believe her?” he asked, leaning forward. “I mean, I was told that she was a ball of fire and creative as hell, but I had no idea she would be this innovative and energetic. She’s almost single-handedly transforming the worst department in city government.”
“That’s not quite how we see it, Mr. Mayor,” McDougal replied.
“I have sixty-six ward leaders, all backed by fifty to sixty committeemen, who want her gone yesterday. Or at least that program of hers.”
“Why?” the mayor asked.
“Because she’s undermining our role in the political process.”
“Potholes and street lights are what we do. That’s how we turn out votes.”
“Now Denny, I’ve yet to see a Democratic committeeman with a shovel full of hot asphalt or seventy-five feet up in the air in a cherry-picker.”
“You know that’s not what I mean, Jim. You also know how it works, and how it’s supposed to work: when people need something done for them by the city, they call us not you. We arrange to get it done, and then, come election time, we ask them to return our large favor with a very small one.”
“I agree that that’s how it currently works, Denny,” Norbert responded, “but I don’t accept that that’s how it’s supposed to be. When people need something from their government they should be able to go directly to that government to get it. Philadelphia has been a miserable failure on that score for decades, and as far as I can tell, Shaniqua is the first person to come along and challenge the status quo. I think it’s great.”
“So then what’s left for us?” McDougal asked.
“Your job: turn out the vote,” the mayor replied.
“Based on what?”
“What’re you talking about?”
“How do you think we turn out the vote, Jim?”
“You tell me.”
“We win the loyalty of our neighborhoods, block by block and house by house, by solving problems and delivering services. We do a favor for them, they do a favor for us.”
“So if your new commissioner starts providing public services without us getting the credit, how can we earn voters’ loyalty and take care of business?”
The mayor looked puzzled; McDougal thought the argument was so self-evident that he asked himself if the mayor might possibly be putting him on.
“Look, Mr. Mayor, I understand that you didn’t come up through the party ranks, so you may not appreciate what goes on in the streets and what’s involved in getting candidates elected and keeping them in office.”
“I seemed to get elected easily enough without that help,” Norbert said. “Listen, maybe we’re talking about a process that’s obsolete, Denny. If having committeemen working on your behalf is so important to getting elected, how was I was able to win a primary against a party-endorsed candidate who had virtually 100 percent name recognition and a well-funded campaign?”
Norbert felt bad as soon as he said that because Councilman Barber, seated across from him, had been one of the four candidates he had easily beaten in the Democratic primary for mayor, and he knew the man still was hurt by that defeat. Norbert genuinely liked Barber and thought he was one of the few members of council who managed not to embarrass himself, his constituents, and his city every time he opened his mouth.
Still, outwardly, Norbert laughed. Years ago he had launched a small business and turned it into an international giant. Over the years he had funded numerous local projects, and then, with his own money, had purchased the city’s professional basketball team, hired a new coach and new management, signed new players, and saw the team win a championship in just his third year as owner. He was a much-loved figure who had barely needed to campaign at all to gain office.
“That’s easy enough for you to say,” McDougal argued. “But if you want to get things done in this town, you can’t do them all by yourself. You need the support of city council and strong delegations looking out for the city’s interests in Harrisburg and Washington, and it’s the party and our committeemen who get you the people you need to do those jobs, not your basketball team.”
The mayor smiled.
“So your people can use improved government as their selling point.”
“When they knock on doors, instead of reminding people about getting potholes filled, they can tell them that it was their party that made city government so responsive to their needs. How can you argue against good government?”
McDougal shook his head.
“It doesn’t work that way, Mr. Mayor. Come election day, the voters want to know ‘What’s in it for me?’ That ‘me’ means ‘me, personally,’ not ‘me’ as in ‘me, a citizen of Philadelphia.’”
“So you’re telling me that improving city government by making it more responsive to the needs of taxpayers is bad politics?”
“Very bad politics, yes,” McDougal replied. “The worst possible politics. There are many things you can do as mayor to improve the city that would be good politics as well, even great politics, but enabling the public to contact city agencies directly when they need help and eliminating committeemen, ward leaders, and councilmen as the middlemen between the people and those agencies and the services they provide isn’t one of them.”
“That’s ridiculous, Denny.”
“No, it’s not ridiculous. Believe me, I’ve been doing this for a long time and I know.”
The mayor paused for a moment.
“We had a deal, Denny. We agreed that I’d run the city and you’d stay out of my way and you’d run the party and I’d stay out of yours. I set up a small unit in my office to take care of your service requests and my understanding is that they’ve done a great job so far. Have they failed you even once yet?”
“And has Commissioner Watson? I know all your ward leaders were given her email address and cell phone number.”
“And I expect them all to continue to do great work. And while we’re doing all that for you, have I asked you to find even a single job for any of my supporters?”
“And have any of my people come to you for that?”
“Then please, let’s continue to live up to our deal. Shaniqua is doing a great job and I have no intention of slowing her down or stopping her. If you want, I’ll arrange for you to sit down with her, and I’ll even join you if you want, but my only concern right now is how to find more leaders like her with the same level of commitment, energy, and creativity.”
The delegation – its leader and the four others who had spoken not a word to the mayor – departed disappointed. During his walk back to party headquarters, McDougal decided that his next step should be to have a talk with Fred Gilliam, president of the city’s blue-collar workers’ union. Gilliam and his union were a powerful behind-the-scenes force in running much of Philadelphia’s government, and nowhere was their influence greater than in the streets department. Maybe Gilliam can help with this problem, McDougal told himself optimistically.
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 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.”
“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.
“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.
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.
While McDougal’s representatives began quietly spreading their fabrications and innuendo, Pennsylvania’s governor unveiled his proposed budget for the coming state fiscal year. George Clayton, a moderate Republican who had twice won his office in part based on his strong anti-Philadelphia platform, took great pleasure in annually proposing massive cuts in funding for the state’s largest city. This was Mayor Norbert’s first year in office, however, and therefore his first experience with this annual assault on his city’s financial well-being. Consequently, when his staff presented him a preliminary analysis of the proposed budget and its potential impact on Philadelphia, he immediately called an emergency meeting of his cabinet.
“Thank you all for coming over on such short notice,” Norbert began. His colleagues nodded.
“Todd,” he said, looking to the financial wizard he had brought in from Chicago to serve as his finance director, “why don’t you start us off by laying out the proposed cuts as you understand them.”
“The hits are enormous,” Todd Dixon began. “The biggest are reductions of $400 million from the current year’s state funding for public schools and $189 million in general state revenue-sharing funds for the city. He’s also proposed cutting our health care money by $65 million, our community development funding by $35 million, our recreation money by $10 million, and our miscellaneous infrastructure funding by $15 million. There’s also a $15 million cut for parks and the environment and $15 million for public safety. On top of that, he wants to postpone $35 million in highway construction and repair projects within city limits and reduce the convention center subsidy by $8 million.”
“Oh, yes, one more thing. We’ve been getting $25 million a year to support the 400 new police officers we hired under the state’s anti-crime program. That program started three years ago and funding was supposed to continue for five years, at which time local governments were to assume financial responsibility for the new officers. Now, he’s calling for an end to the funding, but apparently, only for Philadelphia. The money would continue for every other jurisdiction in the state. So the total is $812 million: $400 million for the school district and $412 million for the city.”
“It would be catastrophic,” declared Wilma O’Neill, the city’s managing director. Philadelphia’s managing director was the equivalent of a corporation’s chief operating officer, and Norbert had recruited O’Neill from Atlanta to take on what was unanimously regarded as the most difficult job in city government: the person to whom the leaders of most city operations reported and the first person at whom people pointed fingers whenever anything went wrong. “We’d be expected to get by with much, much less, and the only way we’d be able to do that would be through severe cutbacks in city services and significant lay-offs of city employees.”
“Or tax increases,” added Ari Feldstein, the hot-shot budget director imported from the New York City office of Norbert’s company. “Property tax, wage tax, business use tax, it would all be on the table. We’re talking about filling a potential budget hole of more than $800 million.”
Mayor Norbert, a man who made a studied practice of looking calm and collected regardless of the circumstances, looked neither calm nor collected at the moment.
“What can we do?” he asked his team.
“We can sue,” declared Francisco Estevez, the Denver-born city solicitor who had joined the Norbert administration from the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.
“On what grounds?” Norbert asked.
“We don’t need grounds,” Estevez replied. “The idea is to get the money, not to win in court.”
“Jesus,” Norbert said, and then, just in case anyone may have missed his invocation of his lord and savior, he repeated “Jesus Christ.”
As the five colleagues sat silently, staring at one another and contemplating the possibilities, they heard a faint knock on the door and in walked Jon Ravelsky, a partner in one of Philadelphia’s largest law firms and one of Norbert’s oldest friends. Ravelsky and the mayor had been roommates at Yale and it was Ravelsky, a native Philadelphian, who had persuaded his friend to come to Philadelphia after graduation. Now, in addition to being Norbert’s best friend, he also was his most important and influential political advisor.
“Jon, thanks for coming over.”
“Sure,” Ravelsky replied. “What’s up?”
“The governor’s budget, and it’s down, not up,” Norbert replied. “He’s talking about cutting more than $800 million in aid to the city and school district.”
Ravelsky, who had taken a seat and had been leaning far forward as the mayor spoke, now sat back and smiled.
“You think it’s funny?” Norbert asked.
“Actually, I do, yes.”
The mayor just looked at him for a moment before speaking again.
“Would you care to let us in on the joke?” Norbert asked.
“It’s February, Jim, it was just a speech and it’s just a proposal. Clayton does this every February. He sandbags Philadelphia in his first budget and takes shots at the city in his budget address. That’s how he got elected, that’s how he got re-elected, and that’s one of the things he does to help his fellow Republicans get elected and hold onto the state legislature. It’s all political posturing and it’s very effective.
“By the way, where are Ed and Larry?” Ravelsky asked, referring to two of Norbert’s political aides.
“I didn’t think we needed them for a budget meeting,” Norbert replied.
“Well, you need them, because a budget meeting like this is also a political meeting. Four out of the five of you are from out of town and have never been through a budget cycle in Philadelphia, and Jim, you’re not a career politician, so you’ve never noticed things like this. Ed and Larry know this kind of stuff and could’ve told you what this is all about.”
“So are you saying we don’t need to take this seriously?”
“No, not at all, you need to take it very seriously, but you don’t have to worry about it. A lot of legislators would love to stick it to Philadelphia, but it never happens. Michael takes care of it.”
Ravelsky was talking about Michael Ianucci, Philadelphia’s most powerful elected official serving in the state capital and the dominant voice on the House Appropriations Committee, which ultimately had the biggest role in reviewing, revising, and approving the state budget.
“He just…takes care of it?” Norbert asked.
“Yes. It’s what he does. He takes care of the city’s business in Harrisburg.”
“He’s that powerful?”
“Yeah. As long as he’s in Harrisburg, you don’t have to worry.”
“And his seat is safe?” Norbert asked, knowing that all state representatives were up for re-election later in the year and that the party primaries would be held in only three months.
“As safe as any elected official can possibly be. I don’t think he’s gotten less than eighty percent of the vote in years, and he often runs unopposed in both his primaries and the general election. As far as I know, no one’s planning to run against him this year.”
“So you’re saying we don’t have to worry about this?”
“Not quite. You have to take the threat seriously because if no one intervenes, the budget’ll pass as proposed.
“What you need to do is pay proper tribute to Michael, the delegation, and the legislature. You need to act out in public like you’re very worried and take the threat very seriously. You have to court our delegation and then go with it to the state capital and kiss a lot of asses – especially Michael’s and the Republican leaders. You have to put on a visible and highly public display of how worried you are and how hard you’re working to fight it so that when the smoke clears and you end up getting what you want, the Philadelphia-haters in the legislature can go back to their home districts and tell their constituents that they fought the good fight but were defeated by the evil and powerful Philadelphians.”
“And this is how it works every year, you say?”
“Amazing. Then that’s what we’ll do. Thanks for the insight.”
In late February, two weeks after learning that the governor’s proposed budget would not destroy his city, Mayor Norbert proposed his own budget for Philadelphia’s upcoming fiscal year in an address to city council. To the delight and amazement of the public, the business community, and the news media, Norbert’s spending plan called for no new taxes, modest reductions in two business taxes and the city’s onerous wage tax, a few modest new programs and program expansions, and the exact same bottom line of overall expenditures as its predecessor. Even anti-Philadelphia state legislators found disappointingly little in the mayor’s proposal to which they could object, and the traditional cross-state bloviating about profligate neighbors to the southeast was muted and only half-hearted.
Norbert’s budget address also marked the unofficial start of contract negotiations between the city and its unionized employees – and it had the unintended effect of getting those negotiations off to a disastrous start.
The current contracts expired on June 30, and while formal negotiations still would not begin for another month, the public posturing and chest-thumping that were so much a part of the process in such highly visible talks traditionally began just moments after the mayor finished making his annual budget address to council. Not knowing where negotiations would lead, past mayors always included the same labor costs in their proposed budgets as they had in the fiscal year then in progress. Immediately following the mayor’s budget address, reporters would always be met by the heads of the four major unions that represented city workers. Those union leaders would always criticize the mayor angrily, accusing him of acting in bad faith by proposing a budget with no additional money for city workers. Union staff would always distribute press releases with the same message – press releases written before the mayor’s budget address and before anyone outside the mayor’s office even knew what he would propose.
This year, though, the new mayor, unaware of the always, thought outside the box: he added $140 million to the previous year’s labor costs in anticipation of negotiating modest raises for city employees. The union leaders, however, did not attend the budget address or read the materials distributed to those who came to hear the speech. Consequently, when the press gathered around a makeshift podium outside the council chamber where the heads of the four major unions stood to excoriate the mayor following his speech, reporters shook their heads and laughed while Frank Martell, president of the white-collar workers’ union and someone who functioned only from deep, deep inside the box, offered his usual, angry remarks.
It was no accident that Martell spoke on behalf of the four union presidents. Despite how the negotiating process worked in theory, the police and firefighters’ unions never seriously negotiated at all with the city: they only pretended to negotiate – and the city only pretended to negotiate with them. Every time a contract was about to expire, the police and firefighters unions would cite the extreme dangers inherent in their members’ jobs, demand double-digit raises, and insist that anything less than that was a sign of the mayor’s callous disregard for the men and women who risked their lives daily for their fellow Philadelphians. City negotiators would counter by offering miserly salary increases, pleading poverty and insisting that while the city valued its uniformed employees it could afford no more. The two sides then would make a continued public show of negotiating: for months they would meet weekly, but only briefly, with neither side willing to compromise on its original proposal. Because state law prohibited police officers and firefighters from striking, contract impasses inevitably led to binding arbitration between the parties – which was precisely what both sides wanted in the first place. Some time in June, both sides would declare further negotiations fruitless, arbitrators would be engaged, the parties would present their cases, and the arbitrators would announce their decision in the fall. This process gave both sides someone to blame for their own failures. The union leaders would condemn the arbitrators as lackeys for the mayor – even though the unions participated in the selection of those lackeys. This enabled union leaders to save face with their members and improve their chances of winning re-election to their union offices, thereby avoiding the unthinkable: being forced to earning their living fighting fires or patrolling city streets. At the same time, city officials would criticize the arbitrators for awarding firefighters and police officers money the city did not have. They would not protest too much, though, because the arbitrators’ award provided the justification needed for the mayor and city council to raise taxes and point the finger of blame at the arbitrators instead of at themselves or the firefighters or police officers.
For these reasons, it made little sense for the heads of the police or firefighters’ union to speak publicly on behalf of unionized city workers. The same was true for the head of the blue-collar workers’ union: among city residents, few people were as reviled as members of the blue-collar workers’ union and the head of that union. Virtually every Philadelphian whose trash had not been collected, whose street had not been plowed of snow, or who had driven past a tavern with a trash truck parked outside believed that these city workers were underworked and overpaid. Knowing that people who hauled trash for a living received better fringe benefits than they did – better health coverage, more liberal vacation and paid holidays, and more generous pensions – led to enormous public resentment of those workers and every dime of taxpayer money they earned. That left Martell, head of the white-collar workers’ union, as the natural spokesman for the four unions and all of their members.
“This mayor has brought shame to our city today,” Martell declared. “He has shown the greatest disrespect for our city workers, from the men and women who pick up trash and the highly trained professionals who staff our city health centers to our thousands of men and women in uniform who risk their lives every day to protect us from fire and crime. This man who lives with a silver spoon in his mouth in a downtown penthouse has shown the arrogance of the rich toward ordinary working people by proposing no raises at all for any city workers. He has declared war on us, but what he doesn’t know is that we’re going to fight back – and we’re going to win. The rest of the country is laughing at Philadelphia right now because of this, but they won’t be laughing a few months from now when Mayor Norbert has no choice but to treat the 20,000 unionized employees who work for the city of Philadelphia with the respect we deserve and the respect we have earned.
“Do you have any questions?”
“Yes, Mr. Martell,” called out Megan Malone, the city hall reporter for the Philadelphia Post.
“Did you hear the mayor’s speech?” she asked.
“I know what he said.”
“Then you’re aware that he put a great deal of new money in his budget for raises for city workers?”
“He did what?” Martell asked.
“He put money in the budget for raises.”
“No he didn’t,” Martell replied, speaking from deep within the box.
“Actually, yes, he did. Have you seen the handouts?”
“So now that you know he’s provided for raises for your members, what do you have to say?”
Martell paused for a moment and looked to the other union leaders for help. The other three, standing nearby, made a point of avoiding his gaze, focusing intently instead on the tops of their shoes. He took a moment to regain his composure.
“I think it’s inadequate. I think if the mayor thinks he can buy us off for such a small amount of money, he has another thing coming.”
“And how much is that amount?” asked Gene Dowler of the Philadelphia Gazette.
“Why, it’s…it’s a pittance compared to what we deserve based on our hard work for the city.”
“But specifically, Mr. Martell, you said the raises are inadequate. If they’re not enough, how much are you asking for?”
“I don’t think it would be very bright of me to reveal our negotiating strategy before we even begin negotiating.”
“But if you don’t know how much money the mayor put in the budget for raises,” Dowler persisted, “how do you know that he hasn’t set aside enough to satisfy your demands?”
“Don’t you see what’s he’s doing? He’s tricked all of you into thinking he’s going to negotiate in good faith with us.”
“How did he trick us?” Malone asked.
“By putting money for raises in the budget. He tricked you.”
“But what’s the trick?”
“He knows that mayors start negotiations by including no additional money for raises in their proposed budgets.”
“But when they do that, you accuse them of acting in bad faith.”
“Because it is bad faith,” Martell insisted.
“But you accused him of bad faith today even when he didn’t do that.”
“You’re making a semantic argument,” the flustered Martell replied, now hopelessly mired in the box.
“Did the mayor surprise you with this announcement?” Dowler asked.
“No, not at all.”
“Then why does your press release accuse him of bad faith for not budgeting any money for raises when, in fact, he’s clearly budgeted money for raises?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Martell said.
“Shall I read from the release for you?” Dowler asked.
“Do you have any more questions?” Martell asked, desperate to change the subject.
“Yes, I have a few,” said Rochelle Adams, a radio news reporter.
“Yes, Rochelle,” Martell asked, a look of relief on his face.
“You just said some pretty harsh things about the mayor. Didn’t your union endorse him in the election just a few months ago?”
“That was then and this is now.”
“What does that mean, Mr. Martell?”
“I think the statement speaks for himself.”
Several of the reporters just looked at one another for a moment before Adams resumed her questioning.
“A minute ago you said that the rest of the country is laughing at Philadelphia because of the mayor’s proposed budget. Do you really believe that?”
“Absolutely,” Martell declared. “They know and they’re laughing.”
“Even though the speech only ended a few minutes ago?”
“What’s your point?”
“You seem to think that contract negotiations between the fifth-largest city in the country and its unions are of national importance.”
“Because they are, Rochelle.”
“So we’re going to see this story reported on CNN later today and read about it tomorrow in the New York Times?”
Martell scowled and stormed off his podium.
“You’re an idiot,” declared Brian O’Day, head of the firefighters’ union, glaring directly at Frank Martell.
And then, to ensure that he was making his point, he repeated his previous assertion: “You’re an idiot.”
It was ten minutes after Martell had stormed away from reporters, and now, the heads of the four city employee unions shared a table at a coffee shop across from city hall.
O’Day resumed glaring. Police union president Ed Cotton, also seated at the table, laughed aloud.
“What’s so funny?” O’Day demanded.
“Martell. He was so bad he was funny.”
“And you think that’s funny?” O’Day asked. “He was up there representing all of us, not just the paper-pushers union, and he made all of us look ridiculous.”
“Watch what you say about my members,” Martell said.
“Well, after they hear about your performance today, I doubt they’ll be your members much longer.”
A look of worry crossed Martell’s face. He had left his city job to head the union nearly fifteen years ago, and the very thought of returning to inspecting restaurants for the health department sent a shiver up his spine.
“Oh, yeah,” said Fred Gilliam, head of the blue-collar workers’ union.
Martell thought for a moment.
“Damn,” he muttered.
He paused for another moment, whereupon a look of relief came over him.
“I don’t think it’ll be a problem,” he said.
“Why not?” O’Day asked.
“Because there were no TV cameras, my members don’t read the newspapers, and it’s not like I’m going to be putting a transcript of that fiasco in the union newsletter.”
Gilliam leaned forward.
“Wait a second,” he said. “You’re telling me that your members, the highly educated and elite management class of city government, don’t read the newspapers?”
“No. We learned that a few years ago, during contract negotiations, when they told us they felt like they were being kept in the dark about the progress of talks and we told them that it was reported regularly in the newspapers and they looked at us like we were from Mars. Later that year we did a survey on where they get their news and the papers barely registered. It’s all about TV, so I think I’m safe.”
O’Day looked at him.
“You’re still an idiot,” he asserted. “Where did you get that information?”
“Save it, Brian,” Martell replied. “It’s the same thing we all say every year and it’s what we all agreed to say this year. How were we to know that Norbert would cross us up like that?”
“Not say what we expected him to say.”
“And it never occurred to you to have someone inside listening, just to be sure?”
“Look,” Martell said, trying to defend himself, “you guys didn’t think of that either and you’re the ones who put me on the podium.”
“Don’t look at me,” Gilliam said. “I would have been happy to do it, but you guys were clear that you wanted me nowhere near a microphone.”
Martell turned back to O’Day.
“And that idiotic press release – your PR guy wrote that, not mine.”
“And your guy approved it,” O’Day replied. “All of our guys approved it.”
“I don’t know why you’re so upset, Brian,” Cotton interjected. “It’s not like this matters to your union anyhow.”
O’Day calmed down for a moment and nodded.
“That’s true. It’s not like we’re actually going to negotiate with them or anything. In fact, today will probably help after Martell’s incompetence blows over.”
“How do you figure that?”
“Simple,” Cotton said. “Whatever the blue-collar guys and paper-pushers get…”
“Shut up,” Martell interrupted him. He hated when the leaders of the other unions referred to members of the white collar workers’ union as paper-pushers.
“Whatever the blues and the paper-pushers get,” Cotton continued, ignoring his colleague, “we always get a little more. The people expect it. Usually, you guys start off at zero – no increase at all. The reporters said there’s about two percent more in the budget for raises, which means two percent is your starting point. My guys are gonna be thrilled.”
The others nodded.
After a moment of silence, Gilliam spoke.
“Plus, this year you have my people helping the cause.”
“How do you figure that?” Martell asked. “The public hates your guys.”
“Not now they don’t,” Gilliam said, smiling. He shifted his ever-present toothpick from the left side of his mouth to the right. “Right now, we’re heroes. Our turnaround time on street repairs and other work is practically zero, and we’re feeling the love from the people. Thanks to Miss Shaniqua Watson, we have more bargaining power than we’ve ever had. Now, we just have to figure out how to leverage that power.”
Philadelphia’s city council also was less than pleased with Mayor Norbert’s proposed budget. A number of council members complained immediately and publicly about pet projects that had been set aside and were not included in the new budget. In their public expressions of dismay, these council members conveniently forgot to mention that their projects had been set aside or delayed out of the mayor’s sense of fiscal responsibility – a rare occurrence in a city in which fiscal responsibility typically was viewed as something elected officials inexplicably exercised in other cities, not their own. Instead, council members railed about constituents cruelly denied access to some city service or other – usually, a ball field or swimming pool located within a mile of another ball field or swimming pool – and about the new mayor’s public display of disrespect for council in failing to carry out projects budgeted by his predecessor.
Privately, council members prepared for their favorite pastime of the entire year: public consideration of the mayor’s proposed budget. Sadly, from their perspective, the city’s charter gave them relatively little power and very little voice in the implementation of the city’s budget. Once those budgets were adopted, mayors generally could do whatever they pleased – and what pleased most mayors was to run roughshod over council’s aspirations in favor of pursuing their own.
Once a year, though, council members enjoyed an unrestrained opportunity to vent their spleen, demonstrate their commitment to serving their own interests, and publicly express their unhappiness with the mayor – whomever the mayor was, even though the city had never had anything other than a Democratic mayor for sixty years and even though the city had not had fewer than fourteen Democrats serving on its seventeen-member council at any one time during those same sixty years and even though that mayor as often as not was himself a former member of council. This special opportunity to create mayhem came at council’s annual budget hearings. Each year the mayor’s department commissioners and agency directors visited council’s chamber one by one, surrounded by an ungainly agglomeration of staff, to present their budgets, answer questions, and defend their operations in the face of grueling, trivial, and frequently pointless questions that often degenerated into idiocy and a game of political “gotcha.”
In addition to their unhappiness with the mayor’s proposed budget, council members also were among those most dismayed by Shaniqua Watson’s preposterous attempt to provide city residents with direct access to public services, so prior to her scheduled testimony, council budget committee chairwoman Mary Amordella decided to caucus with her colleagues to discuss their strategy for questioning Watson. Mindful of the state’s sunshine law, which prohibited legislative bodies from meeting behind closed doors, she held four small, separate meetings with different combinations of three or four of her colleagues at a time so they could successfully violate the spirit but not the letter of that annoying legal requirement. In all, fifteen of council’s seventeen members participated in these sunshine-free meetings; no one even considered inviting council’s two Republican members.
From the first of these strategy sessions it was clear that council members would not be dwelling on anything as relevant as the caliber of the streets department’s performance.
“We need to attack her head-on,” declared Councilman Andy Coben.
“I agree,” said Councilwoman Vivian Rivera. “She’s doing real damage to the city.”
“That’s good,” said Councilman James Barber. “Can you offer some specifics?”
“Yes,” Rivera replied. “Requests for constituent service are down twenty-eight percent in my office – and seventy-two percent for services that the streets department provides. Since she and her program started, people have stopped calling us for help and are going straight to the streets department.”
“Exactly,” said budget committee chairwoman Amordella. “Getting to the government is our job. The idea that the city should allow citizens to ask it for services directly is outrageous. If people don’t need us for services, we’d have nothing to do but consider legislation. What does that have to do with serving on council? The next thing you know, people will be expecting us to cut our staffs because we’re no longer performing as much constituent service.” Amordella understood well the implications of reducing her staff; such a cut could jeopardize the employment of her daughter and nephew.
“Wait a second,” Coben said. “You can’t say that.”
“Why not?” Rivera demanded.
“Because some people think that’s a good thing.”
“Think what’s a good thing?” Rivera asked.
“Smaller council staffs and government providing services upon public request,” Coben replied.
“What?” she roared. “Who thinks that? Do any of you think that?”
Everyone in the room shook their head in the negative.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Councilman David Steers, “if I’m going to let her take us out of the game and leave voters to decide who to vote for based on the bills we propose and our voting records. That has nothing to do with serving on council and this government has never functioned that way in my lifetime and I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow it to start functioning that way while I’m on council. That’s not how we take care of business around here.”
“What about the job she’s doing?” Coben asked.
“What about it?” Rivera replied.
“The public is happy with it.”
“The hell with the public,” Rivera declared. “We’re the ones who decide if commissioners are doing a good job, not the public. What does the public know about how its government is performing? What the public wants is irrelevant to this discussion.”
“But we can’t ignore it,” Coben said.
“We most certainly can,” Barber replied. “It’s our job to ignore it. It’s our responsibility to ignore it. We need to focus on other things.”
“Such as how she thinks she can come in here as an outsider and suddenly overturn everything we’ve spent years building here in Philadelphia. And how she thinks she can usurp the rightful role of city council in serving as the one and only conduit to city services in this town. We’re going to take her out back and deliver an old-fashioned thrashing, friends.”
One day in mid-March, Shaniqua Watson’s turn finally came to sit at the witness table in the ornate council chamber. Even before she spoke she set tongues to wagging – and confused the council members present – by arriving alone, without the vast entourage of staff that traditionally accompanied department commissioners to budget hearings so they could answer the many obscure questions that members of council often asked on such occasions. Instead, she was accompanied only by a laptop computer, which she opened as soon as she took her seat.
Expecting a long and difficult day – the mayor had warned her about the party’s hostility toward her attempt to deliver accessible, quality public services – Watson kept her opening remarks brief, summarizing her department’s responsibilities, giving a statistical overview of its performance, and pointing out that while on the whole the mayor had proposed that his government do the same job in the coming year as it was doing in the current year with the exact same amount of money, she now was proposing to do more than in the current year with two percent less than the current year’s budget.
The seven council members present – out of seventeen members, since most preferred not to get involved in the nuts and bolts of city government or were off doing the day jobs they held because it was ridiculous that some people expected them to live on their $105,000 annual salaries alone – looked aghast. Budget committee chairwoman Mary Amordella voiced the concern of her colleagues.
“Are you serious?” she asked Watson.
“Yes, councilwoman. It’s all right there, in the budget.”
In the gallery, Gene Dowler of the Gazette nudged the Post’s Megan Malone.
“Watson’s right, it’s all there, in the budget. Council’s had it for three weeks. Is Mary being disingenuous or just stupid?” he whispered.
“I’m not sure, but when it comes to Mary, you’ll seldom go wrong betting on stupid.”
“Councilwoman Amordella, if you’ll recall, I contacted your office last week and offered to present this budget to you personally prior to this hearing. I was told that you declined my offer,” Watson said.
The councilwoman said nothing.
“Commissioner Watson, if I may.”
The speaker was Councilman Barber, who represented an especially low-income area of Philadelphia and took great pride in championing his constituents’ interests.
“Commissioner Watson, how do you propose doing the same job in the coming year with a smaller budget than you have now?”
“That’s not what I said,” Watson replied.
“It most certainly is. So you’re admitting that Philadelphians, including my constituents, will be expected to settle for less in the coming year because of your failure to negotiate an adequate budget with the mayor’s staff?”
Expressions of support could be heard from the gallery.
“That’s not what I said,” Watson repeated. “I said we intend to deliver more service even with a smaller budget.”
“And how do you plan to do that?” he asked.
“Better management. We will do more with less,” she insisted.
“How?” Barber asked in an incredulous, mocking tone.
“In a number of ways, councilman. For starters, we’ll take advantage of some of the capital funds set aside for our use to purchase new equipment that will make our workforce more productive.”
“So while our playgrounds and libraries go unbuilt because the mayor says the city can’t afford them, you get to buy new toys for your department? That’s outrageous,” Barber declared.
“Councilman, the mayor cut my capital budget twenty-eight percent. This is what I’m doing with what he left me.”
“And our playgrounds?”
“I’m the streets commissioner, not the recreation commissioner. I wouldn’t presume to speak for her or the mayor.
“As I was saying, we’ll also purchase some very innovative software I used in Baltimore to redraw our trash collection and snow removal routes. This will enable us not to replace some workers as they retire or move on.”
“Software you say you used in Baltimore?”
“Well, this is Philadelphia, commissioner. The population of Philadelphia is more than twice that of Baltimore and our city is three times larger in area. We need Philadelphia solutions to our problems, not Baltimore solutions. You’re in the big city now, commissioner, and the sooner you realize that, the better.”
“Yes, councilman, I realize I’m in the big city now. I saw the sign when I drove up I-95 when I moved here.”
Commissioner, that kind of response is unacceptable.”
Watson ignored Barber’s admonition.
“The software we used in Baltimore also has been used with excellent results in Houston and Chicago – two cities that are bigger than Philadelphia,” Watson replied.
“To continue, the final major component of doing more with less is that I expect to be able to identify significant savings in several contracts for supplies and services that we’ll rebid when they expire at the end of the current fiscal year.”
Barber turned toward one of his colleagues, Councilman David Steers. Steers was a trial lawyer on those rare occasions when someone made the horrible misjudgment of hiring him, and he and Barber had agreed that he should do most of the day’s questioning of Watson.
Steers rose and cleared his throat as Barber took his seat.
“Those are some interesting tactics you’re proposing, little lady,” he began.
Watson did not respond to his attempted insult.
“They’re not tactics, councilman, they’re management strategies, and I believe they’re sound strategies.”
Philadelphians, Steers knew, harbored enormous mistrust of educated people, and he thought he might take this opportunity to subject Watson to the ridicule of the literally hundreds of thousands of city residents who never finished high school – as if such individuals followed the proceedings of their city council – and who recognized no correlation whatsoever between their incomplete education and their struggle to find employment and earn a decent living and therefore saw no reason to encourage their own children to complete their education or even their homework, let alone pursue higher education.
“Well, we haven’t all had the opportunity to get an MBA like you, commissioner,” he said sharply.
“Or a law degree, for that matter, like you,” Watson replied.
Steers grew red in the face.
“Let’s take a closer look at your ‘management strategies,’” Steers said, regaining his composure and raising his fingers to create quotation marks in the air as he said the words “management strategies.”
“Commissioner, a moment ago you said you thought you’d be able to collect the city’s trash with fewer men in the future.”
Watson interrupted him.
“Men and women,” she interjected.
“We employ a number of women who throw trash as well.”
“Very well,” Steers said, a little off balance from the unexpected correction. “Men and women. You’re probably not aware of this, being an outsider and still a stranger to Philadelphia, but this is a very strong union town and none of our unions are going to stand by while some outsider reduces their membership. They’ll strike and grind this city to a halt before they allow that.”
“Actually, councilman, the union is already on board with this plan.”
“I’ve met with Mr. Gilliam, the local’s president, and he’s on board with what we’re planning.”
“That’s not possible,” Steers insisted.
“Not possible yet nonetheless true, councilman. I’ve met with him several times to outline what we have in mind. He indicated that in consideration for certain recent management initiatives that he and his members strongly support, he’s willing to accept a minor reduction in workforce so long as no layoffs are involved.”
The councilman/trial lawyer thought he had the commissioner now.
“So you’re negotiating such matters outside the city’s collective bargaining process and current contract with the union?”
Watson paused for a moment, sorted through several folders, and then opened the folder she had brought to the top of the pile.
“Actually, councilman, in section fourteen, paragraph six of the collective bargaining agreement, on page 118, you’ll find a clause that specifically permits such side negotiations and agreements subject to the mutual agreement of both parties, legal review by the city solicitor, and written notification of city council through a stipulated process.”
“I never received such notification,” Steers bellowed indignantly. He looked to his fellow council members. “Have any of you?” His six colleagues all shook their heads from side to side.
“We delivered notice to council president’s office, with a copy to council’s counsel, more than two weeks ago. I have copies of signed receipts for the correspondence.”
“But council members haven’t been notified,” Steers declared. “This council will not tolerate such disrespect, young lady.”
“If you intend no disrespect yourself, councilman, you wouldn’t call me ‘young lady.’”
Steers was taken aback; the audience stirred and the reporters sat up and tried to pay attention.
“Notwithstanding your clear disrespect for me, councilman, I intended no disrespect of you and your colleagues. While the contract explicitly requires notification only of council’s president and chief counsel, we also notified the chairman of council’s streets committee in writing and separately, by email, we notified all fifteen other council members and their respective chiefs of staff.”
“I received no such notification,” Steers protested.
“You did,” Watson replied.
“Are you calling me a liar?”
“I have receipt notification from all thirty email recipients. I was pleased to learn that the city’s intranet offers such a feature. If the councilman would like to see copies…”
“Let’s move on,” Steers cut her off.
“Tell us about these contract savings you envision.”
“Very well,” Watson said.
“I’ve reviewed every contract our department has for services and supplies that expires at the end of the current fiscal year and discovered several for which, in my professional opinion, the city is paying far too much for what it’s receiving in return.”
“And you believe you can do better than our city’s award-winning procurement department?” Steers asked, referring to a department that had, in fact, won no awards and had never come across a city contract it could not find a way to rationalize awarding to a politically connected company.
“I believe I can, yes. I know vendors that will give us the same quality at a lower cost – and, in some cases, for a much lower cost.”
“And these vendors, they’re owned or run by friends of yours?” Steers asked sternly. He could not imagine directing contracts to parties that did not meet such criteria.
“Absolutely not, councilman,” Watson replied. “I would never permit a friend or relative to bid on a contract for any public operations in which I’m involved.”
“I doubt the savings are that great,” Steers suggested.
“Let me give you an example,” Watson replied.
“That won’t be necessary,” Steers said. He suddenly realized he might have made a mistake in raising the question of favoritism in awarding contracts because he knew that more than a few of his council colleagues and political associates benefited from such favoritism.
“Really, councilman, I think this is a useful discussion.
“Let’s take a look at the blue recycling buckets we provide for free to every city residence. Under the current contract we pay $4.18 per bucket, and we generally purchase about 55,000 buckets a year. That’s an annual expenditure of $229,900.
“When I put out a bid for similar buckets in Baltimore, $4.18 per bucket would have been the high bid, not the winning bid. The company we awarded the contract to was located in Alabama, and we paid $2.04 a bucket – less than half of what Philadelphia is paying today. So if we could get a similar contract here, we could save more than $100,000 a year.”
At this moment Steers could not help himself; he felt he had a point he absolutely had to try to make because all of his other attempts to embarrass Watson had failed so miserably. In so doing, he momentarily forgot that this was probably an issue better avoided.
“Yes, but isn’t our contract with a Philadelphia company?” Steers knew that it was. “And wouldn’t awarding it to a company in Alabama cost local jobs and essentially…” he paused just briefly before raising his voice to a higher volume, “take food out of the mouths of our some of city’s children?” Steers leaned back in his chair, a smile of satisfaction filling his face.
“That was my first thought, too, councilman, so I looked into it a little further,” Watson said.
Steers’ smile evaporated. He now remembered why he had had misgivings about pursuing this particular line of inquiry.
“The current holder of this contract is a Philadelphia company called Harrowgate Services,” Watson continued. “It incorporated two weeks after the city put out the bid for the bucket contract. Its owners are the city’s former finance director, the wife of a ward leader, and one of your law partners, councilman. According to city records, the company pays no wage taxes, which means it has no employees, so no local children are counting on salaries from parents employed by this company to keep them in Cheerios and chocolate milk. The business use tax it pays suggests that it has no revenue other than this particular contract. Clearly, this was a company formed by some very politically connected people who got together for the specific purpose of bidding on this contract and this contract alone.”
“That’ll do, commissioner.”
“I agree, but there’s just one more thing. Just to be clear that this price differential has nothing to do with the quality of the goods, the buckets that the Alabama company sold us in Baltimore two years ago were made at the same plant in China as the buckets Harrowgate Services is selling us now for twice the price. The buckets are identical.”
“I said that’ll do, commissioner.”
“But last year,” Watson persisted, “the Alabama company started manufacturing its own buckets, which means that in addition to producing a quality product at a superior price, it’s now creating jobs for American workers.”
“Minimum wage jobs, no doubt,” Steers harrumphed – as if thousands of his constituents, living in an area where the unemployment rate hovered around twenty percent, would not appreciate the opportunity to find any job, including one that paid minimum wage.
“Union jobs, actually,” Watson replied.
Committee chairwoman Amordella had seen enough. She struck her gavel and adjourned the hearing until the following morning.
Even as council members attacked Commissioner Watson in public, party leaders continued their private, behind-the-scenes attack on her background, her character, and her performance. A Philadelphia Gazette editorial illustrated that at least one aspect of their assault was falling on unsympathetic ears.
Streets Commissioner Shaniqua Watson’s spectacular performance before city council’s budget committee yesterday was no doubt discouraging to the pols who are doing everything they can to undermine her.
The latest in below-the-belt shots is a venal whispering campaign to question her qualifications to be streets commissioner. Philadelphia’s streets commissioners historically have been engineers by training, but there is no inherent reason for this to be necessary. True, streets design and traffic management work require the skills of engineers, but the department already has many talented engineers on its payroll. Meanwhile, the aspects of the department’s responsibilities that matter most to Philadelphians – trash collection, snow removal, and pothole repair – require outstanding management skills above all else.
In their wisdom, the framers of Philadelphia’s city charter understood this: unlike the position of managing director and finance director, for which they established specific qualifications, they set forth no such standards for streets commissioner. Many an engineer, in fact, has failed miserably in that job.
The proof of the pudding, the old saying tells us, is in the tasting, and while her tenure has been brief, Shaniqua Watson has proven to be up to the challenge of running Philadelphia’s most challenging government department. Instead of inexplicably trying to undermine Watson, city pols should be demanding of Mayor Norbert that he find more outstanding public servants like her.
When the hearing resumed the following day, council members deferred to Jack Goldblum, their colleague who was widely viewed as having the best grasp of the details and nuances of the city’s budget. Noting his colleagues’ failures when attempting to challenge Watson directly, Goldblum decided to try a more passive-aggressive approach.
“Commissioner Watson, I’ve been poring over the current year’s budget and for the life of me I can’t find a line-item for your television and radio commercials. Can you help me with this?”
“Of course,” Watson replied. “There is no line-item for the commercials in that budget document, councilman.”
Goldblum smiled over finding Watson out of compliance with the budget – and over the ease with which he got her to admit it.
“But then, there are no line-items anywhere in Philadelphia’s budget,” Watson then added.
Clearly, she had no more trouble with indirect challenges than she did with direct ones.
“As you know,” Watson explained, “Philadelphia’s budget has no line-items. It’s a lump-sum budget only.”
“But I have right here…”
“What you have right there is an advisory document of more than 1200 pages that represents a best-guess forecast of how the previous administration anticipated spending the lump sums presented in its official budget. The official budget council passed is about sixty pages and includes virtually none of the details found in the larger, advisory book. While mayors have traditionally provided extensive information about how they intend to use the lump sums, I’m sure you’re aware that the courts have found that the advisory book is in no way binding on the mayor or his administration.”
“So you took it upon yourself to take money away from how the mayor said you’d spend it and use it for your flashy media campaign instead?” Goldblum asked.
“As I just said, there’s no ‘taking away’ from an advisory document. I just exercised a normal administrative prerogative, like every single one of my predecessors and everyone who will have this job after me.”
“So you decided to deviate from how the mayor told council he’d spend the money.”
“How the previous mayor, not the current mayor, said he most likely anticipated spending it. And yes I did, to a degree.”
“You’re being evasive, commissioner.”
“Not at all,” Watson replied. “Not all of the money you’re asking about came from the budget, which was your original question. Some of the money came, as you characterized it, from the line-items you thought we were using. But much of the money came from other sources.”
“As I explained yesterday, we’ve already found a number of ways to save money, and when we do, that gives us access to new money.”
The councilman, who had been looking down, ostensibly taking a second look at the budget book that Watson had just told him was not worth a second look, lifted his head quickly and dramatically.
“Let me get this straight,” he said, leaning forward for effect. “You saved money and took it upon yourself to spend it elsewhere, regardless of the budget? Unbudgeted funds with no underlying authorization? Commissioner, isn’t that…” he paused, again for effect, before finishing his question, “…isn’t that stealing?”
“Not even remotely, councilman,” she replied. For the first time Watson sounded annoyed – and Goldblum noticed.
“This council is not interested in your sarcasm, commissioner. We will not tolerate your disrespect.”
“Then I’ll explain it for those of you for whom the explanation is not immediately and plainly apparent.”
“I warn you again, commissioner.”
“Three years ago, councilman, you personally wrote a bill creating a productivity bank within the budget for the mayor’s office. Under this bill, when a department saves money, eighty percent of those savings go back into the city treasury and the rest goes into that productivity bank account for future use by the department that was responsible for generating the savings. That bill was passed unanimously by council.
“Much of the money for the radio and TV ads came from the streets department’s share of productivity bank proceeds. The streets department earned that money, councilman.”
“And council anticipated being consulted on how department proceeds from savings would be used, commissioner,” Goldblum said.
“No, it didn’t, councilman.”
“Of course it did. I wrote the bill, so I should certainly know what it says.”
“And yet you don’t appear to.”
“Commissioner, we will not tolerate your disrespect of this council.”
“It’s clear, councilman, that if you wanted to be consulted, you would have specified that requirement in the bill that you yourself wrote, but you didn’t.”
“No, councilman, you didn’t.”
“Are you calling me a liar, commissioner?”
“Councilman, I read the bill myself and asked a lawyer in the city’s law department to do so as well and neither of us found anything even remotely resembling such a requirement.”
Shaken and suddenly uncertain about what was or was not in his own bill, Goldblum decided to change the subject.
“Commissioner, I understand that you took it upon yourself to withdraw from the city’s official web site.”
“I did no such thing, councilman.”
“But you’re running a renegade site of your own – your phillyfixitnow.com site.”
“Yes, commissioner, that. Did you forget about that?”
“No. Yes, we operate a supplemental web site, but the streets department remains on the city’s web site and continues to have a very strong presence there. Have you visited the city’s web site lately, councilman?”
Goldblum did not reply.
“Well, if you’ll look, you’ll find that we’re still very much there and that reports of our disappearance, to paraphrase Mark Twain, are greatly exaggerated. Also, you’ll find in the budget detail book that you have open in front of you anticipated expenditures for the streets department’s annual share of the city’s web site costs. We continue to pay 100 percent of our allocated share and the book is accurate on that matter.”
“And who pays for your renegade site?”
“I pay personally for what you refer to as our ‘renegade site,’ councilman.”
Goldblum, now standing, turned toward the gallery.
“We must be paying our commissioners too much money if they can afford to pay for such a web site out of their own pocket,” he declared, winking at someone in the front row as he finished. Council members were known to be very sensitive about department commissioners being paid more than they were and never missed an opportunity to air this grievance in public forums. They seemed incapable of understanding that many department commissioners were trained, experienced, and accomplished professionals in their area of expertise and that there was often competition for their services among other city and state governments as well as the private sector, whereas all that was required to serve on city council was a pulse – and even that seemed optional at times.
“$20 a year for the domain and $100 for the site won’t break me, councilman,” Watson replied. Laughter filled the room. Goldblum turned red.
“And the web design work?” Goldblum asked. “Do you have city employees doing this extra-curricular work on taxpayers’ time?”
“While I don’t view the site as in any way extra-curricular, the web work is actually all done by my fourteen-year-old nephew James. He’s doing it for free, at least for now, as a school project, although I imagine I’ll have to dig a little deeper for a really special Christmas present this year.”
Undaunted, Goldblum pushed on.
“So you’re taking work away from unionized city employees?”
“A minute ago, councilman, you were about to jump on me for using city employees to work on my site and now you’re jumping on me because they don’t?”
“Watch your tone, commissioner. This council will not be disrespected in this manner.”
“Let me assure you then, councilman, that no one has lost their job because my nephew is helping his auntie.”
“And what about your 800 number? Are taxpayers paying for that, commissioner?”
“They are, yes, councilman.”
“Aha!” he erupted.
“It’s in the budget,” Watson quickly explained. “Actually, the streets department always pays for a few extra 800 lines that it uses only occasionally, usually for special programs or when there’s some kind of emergency. We’re using one of those budgeted telephone lines for the program, at no extra cost to taxpayers.”
Goldblum returned to his chair. Alarmed by the silence and its hint of defeat, councilwoman Vivian Rivera rose from her seat.
“Commissioner, I’d like to talk about those $50 gift cards you’re offering if you fail to live up to your service promises.”
“The money to pay for any cards you have to issue…”
“…comes straight from our share of productivity bank proceeds.”
“And the stores that are participating?”
“What about them?”
“My constituents are usually neglected in such programs, and we’re significantly under-represented in your current list of participating stores.”
“You’ve been to our web site, councilwoman,” Watson remarked with a smile.
“No,” Rivera replied, “but I had someone from my staff downpour the list for me.”
“I see,” Watson said, smiling. Rivera was known to be computer-illiterate – and some people questioned her general literacy as well.
“I think it’s an outrage that my district is so under-represented and want to know why it happened and what you intend to do about it.”
“I agree that your district is under-represented, councilwoman. We haven’t gotten the level of participation we hoped for. Your district consists of ten percent of the city’s population, but according to our records it has only four percent of the participating vendors.”
“Maybe because no one informed me about this and asked for my help.”
“We thought it was too insignificant to ask for council’s help, but we did inform you about the program and the opportunities it offered for businesses in your district.”
“You did no such thing, commissioner.”
“But we did.”
“Are you calling me a liar?” This seemed to be a favorite question of council members when they were on the defensive.
“Of course not. I’m saying you’re mistaken.
“We’re very concerned about creating unreasonable expectations about this program because our goal, of course, is to do our job effectively and give out as few gift cards as possible. For that reason, we didn’t want to risk council members personally inviting constituents to participate and then getting angry calls from them because they weren’t getting any business from the program, so we turfed it to ward leaders.”
“Yes. We sent letters to the Democratic and Republican leaders of all sixty-six wards, telling them about the program and inviting them to enlist businesses in their wards to participate.”
“And you left council out of the loop entirely?”
“No. We sent a sample copy of the ward leader letter to every member of council. We hand-delivered the letters and got someone to sign for them in each office. If you’d like, I could look up who signed in your office. I have that information here, I believe.”
“That won’t be necessary, commissioner.”
There was a momentary pause; Rivera looked uncertain of what to address next. Then, her look of confusion changed to one of displeasure – her default look in life.
“Wait a second,” she finally said to break the silence. “Did you say you sent the letters to all Democratic and Republican ward leaders?”
“Why on earth would you send something like that to Republican ward leaders?”
“Because the streets department serves all Philadelphians, not just those who voted for the winning candidates in the most recent election.”
“That’s outrageous. Your boss is a Democrat and fifteen of the seventeen members of this council are Democrats. Republicans are to get nothing under these circumstances.”
The only Republican council member attending the hearing looked down so that his eyes would not meet anyone else’s. Rivera scared him, and he never even considered objecting to her comment.
“Until my boss tells me otherwise, councilwoman, I can’t do that – but you’re certainly free to take that up with him.
“Anyhow, as you’ve observed, some ward leaders took our letter and this opportunity more seriously than others. Some sent us a lot of referrals, some just a few, and some none at all. If you’d like, I can share with you a list of the participating vendors in your district organized by how they came to enroll in the program. That way you can see which of your ward leaders were responsive and which weren’t. I’ll send it to your office by the close of business today.”
“That’s all well and good, commissioner, but right now I want to know what you intend to do to correct this travesty of justice.”
“I think we’ll start by not referring to it as a travesty of justice,” she said.
Rivera slapped the palm of her hand on the surface of the desk in front of her.
“I warn you,” she said, her voice growing louder. “This council will not tolerate such disrespect from you.”
“Then I respectfully suggest,” Watson replied, “that instead of pointing the finger of blame at me, maybe you should ask your ward leaders why they let down you and your constituents by not doing more to promote the opportunity I was offering them.”
“I’m warning you again, Miss Watson.”
“Yes, councilwoman. But now that this problem has come to your attention, we’re counting on you to spread the word. All you have to do is direct people to our phillyfixitnow.com web site, where there’s a link for companies interested in participating. If they qualify, they’re in – that’s all there is to it.”
“What do you mean ‘if they qualify’? Are you setting some ridiculous requirements that no one can possibly satisfy, like some complex application forms that require an expensive lawyer or accountant to fill out or an endorsement from someone connected to the mayor?”
“Nothing like any of that. We have four pretty simple criteria for participating. First, the business has to be located in the city. Second, at least one of its owners has to live in the city. Third, neither the business nor any of its owners can be in arrears on any of their city taxes, either personal or related to the business. And fourth, they need to be able to receive transfers of funds from us electronically instead of by check. We’re doing that to keep our costs as low as possible.”
“One more thing, commissioner: how many times have you failed to keep your promise and been forced to turn over taxpayer money as a result of your program?”
“You mean six times a week?”
“No, six times overall since the program began. We’ve spent a grand total of $300 so far.”
“I find that very hard to believe.”
“I can share the records and paperwork if you’d like, councilwoman. I can have them to your office by the close of business today.”
Rivera did not reply; dejected, she returned to her seat. No other council members had any questions, so chairwoman Amordella gaveled the hearing to a close.
For the next two days, Philadelphia’s city council was a local laughingstock. Newspaper articles and editorials, letters to the editor, and opinion columns belittled the budget committee and its stumbling, bumbling members; television man-on-the-street interviews revealed a public surprisingly well-informed about the recent exploits of its council and highly critical of its behavior; and radio and television call-in programs crackled with the sounds of criticism and contempt.
And then – it snowed.
And just as suddenly as all of this talk had started it just as suddenly came to an abrupt end as the city turned its attention to how it would cope with this latest blast of winter.
Actually, it was hardly a blast or even a storm; instead, it was just a gently falling and surprising and rare mid-March snowfall consisting of large, soft, fluffy flakes, and when the last of those flakes landed, the official accumulation was measured at five inches – more than a dusting but much less than what reasonable people living in northern latitudes should view as burdensome.
But “burdensome” was a relative term, and in Philadelphia, five inches of snow bordered on the catastrophic. In recent years virtually any snowfall, no matter how modest, had come to be viewed as a potentially life-threatening event. Television weather forecasters warned incessantly of the storm to come; and then, when it arrived, of the storm falling; and finally, after the last flakes had fallen, of the storm just passed. Radio traffic reporters described treacherous driving conditions and implored would-be travelers to remain in their homes – all before the ground was even coated in white. Hundreds of schools in the region closed – led, as always, by all Philadelphia public schools.
Duly warned of the catastrophe to come, hordes of people fled home and office to make their final, essential preparations for the possibility of indefinite stranding. Tens of thousands of them descended upon supermarkets and convenience stores, stripping their shelves bare of milk, bread, and eggs, as if fearful that their ability to enjoy French toast might be interrupted if they became snowbound in their homes. Thousands more set out in search of rock salt, their destination hardware and home supply stores. Many lined up for shovels, as if this were the first time snow had ever visited the region. Left unasked was how those same people had cleared the three inches of snow that had fallen just two weeks earlier or any of the several other snowfalls the city had experienced earlier in the season.
And then the rumors started – rumors so incredible, so beyond the reach of ordinary imagination, that in the beginning most people rejected them as too fantastic to be worth even casual consideration. They surfaced first on the radio and on internet blogs – sources easily dismissed because they offered no visual proof, and because these were the kinds of rumors that absolutely demanded visual proof. They then spread to taverns and coffee shops, where they needed to be taken more seriously because those who shared them surely had seen for themselves. Still, it was hard to believe this could be anything more than the stuff of urban legend.
The rumors were too incredible to be credible: that just forty-eight hours after the snow stopped falling, every single street in Philadelphia had been visited by a city snow plow and was now clear for safe passage.
The skeptics could hardly be blamed for their skepticism: such an achievement, if true, would be totally without precedent in Philadelphia. For years the city had never come anywhere near clearing snow from all its streets; instead, it plowed only the major traffic arteries, the downtown, and the streets surrounding schools and hospitals. Even most of those roads, in fact, were plowed by state vehicles, not city workers. To critics of the city’s failure to clear residential streets, mayors for more than fifty years had all offered the same explanation: this was no failure. To the contrary, they insisted that side streets went unplowed because there had never been any intention of plowing them. Using this logic, they could not fail at something they had not even attempted; this they insisted with the straight face that only politicians, used car salesmen, and young children can muster.
In light of Philadelphians’ exceedingly low expectations of their government, it could hardly be considered surprising that after so many years of listening to this explanation, they had come to accept it – and even to defend it to non-Philadelphians who expressed disbelief over the city’s feeble snow removal efforts. More than a million people who demanded – and expected – very little from their government beyond child-warehousing public schools, indifferent police and fire services, ineffective traffic management, and erratic trash collection had come to believe that snow removal was not among the basic services they had any business expecting from their city’s government.
Shaniqua Watson, however, had higher expectations of her department. She had been appalled by its response to the first snowstorm of the season, and after that snow had been cleared in the customary manner and the effort declared a success by the managers who reported to her, she called those managers together and told them that she expected more: she expected her department – their department – to clear every street in the city. They looked at her incredulously and argued that it was impossible. She replied that it was not and appointed a committee to develop a plan to make it possible and charged it with presenting that plan to her within thirty days.
This unexpected late-season snowfall marked the first occasion on which this plan was put into action, and as Philadelphians were now seeing, it proved a great success. People found the quiet of their homes disrupted as they sat in front of their televisions, brooding over reports about the snow, by the sound of trucks large and small rumbling up their streets. When they opened their front doors to investigate they saw black asphalt on their streets instead of gray snow packed down hard by passing automobiles. Streets that had not seen a snow plow in years, streets that had not seen a snow plow in decades, and streets that had never, ever seen a snow plow were now cleared and salted and ready for safe pedestrian and auto travel.
The city was amazed – and grateful. Mayor Norbert, who knew nothing of Watson’s snow-removal aspirations, was also amazed – and appreciative, his confidence in and support for Watson totally vindicated. Norbert and Watson were the toast of the town, their praises sung in newspapers and on the radio and television, in corner bars, corner offices, and street corners, and in living rooms throughout the city. Watson was especially celebrated on television, where the news programs played and replayed footage of the commissioner herself driving a snow plow and proudly displaying her commercial driver’s license. Watson also had answers for those who insisted on attempting to pick the smallest of nits: no, she had not blown her department’s budget with this effort and yes, before she got behind the wheel of her plow, she had asked for and received the blessing of union president Fred Gilliam, who for once in his professional life was pleased to endorse a non-union driver directing a city snow plow – pleased because his workers were amassing vast amounts of overtime pay in exchange for labors far easier than their regular work.
Shaniqua Watson was now viewed as a hero by almost everyone – almost everyone, that is, except the Democratic party politicians who were trying to persuade the mayor to remove her from office. Those politicians now realized that their nemesis’s success, and the highly visible nature of that success, would make ousting her more difficult than ever.
In the face of such overwhelmingly positive public sentiment about both the testimony of Shaniqua Watson before council and her surprising and unprecedented success in ridding the city’s streets of snow, logic suggested that rational, intelligent people who took a different view of Watson and who would like to see her removed from her position in city government would take some time to lay low, lick their wounds, regroup, and perhaps consider the possibility of changing their strategy in light of recent events.
But then, no one ever accused Philadelphia politicians of being rational, intelligent people.
Amazingly, they continued their campaign against Watson as if nothing had ever happened to create such a positive public perception about her in the first place. Three days after the snow had been removed – and less than twenty-four hours after a prominent radio talk show host suggested that Watson was the biggest hero the city had seen since Rocky Balboa – the council president and majority leader raised the subject of her continued employment during their weekly meeting with the mayor.
“You have to be kidding,” the mayor told them.
“We’re not,” replied council president Harold Miller.
“Well, you should be,” Mayor Norbert replied. “She’s doing a tremendous job. I went to hear the orchestra play last night and was besieged by people telling me what a wonderful job she’s doing. One of them – one of those society types – said that if we want to erect a statue in her honor, he’d be glad to raise the money for it.”
“That’s fine, but you’re not seeing the big picture,” Miller responded. “She’s good for government, certainly, but there’s more to running a city department than doing a great job.”
“There is?” the mayor asked.
“There’s the politics of the job,” Miller explained. “For you to be effective as mayor, for this council to be effective, we have to work constantly to do things for people so we can earn their loyalty and take care of business so they’ll vote our way on election day. That’s basic politics 101, Mr. Mayor.”
“And you don’t think the million or so people who live on streets that had never been plowed before Shaniqua Watson came along don’t think we did something wonderful for them and will be inclined to show their gratitude by voting for Democrats in the next election?” Norbert asked.
“No, Mr. Mayor, I don’t. As a matter of fact, I don’t think they’ll even remember it by the time the next election rolls around. Oh, sure, right now they think you and Watson are doing a great job, but the first time their trash is collected a day late or they get a flat tire when they hit a pothole, all that goodwill is going to evaporate and they’ll be back to ‘what have you done for me lately?’”
“So we’ll remind them,” Norbert replied. “That’s what campaigns are all about; that’s why we knock on doors in the first place – at least that’s what all you guys keep telling me.”
“It doesn’t work that way. We need to perform personal, one-on-one constituent service non-stop if we expect to retain the loyalty and support of the voters and we can’t do that if you have the government working so well that our constituents never need to come to us for help. Good government is not necessarily good politics.”
“Just listen to yourselves, gentlemen. You’re making the argument that we should fail to serve the citizens of Philadelphia so they’ll come to you complaining about that failure and request your help so you can get government to serve them.”
“Exactly,” Miller declared.
The next day two more council members met with the mayor and made the same argument. Two days after that he had an even stranger meeting with the only two Republican members of council and the chairman of the city’s Republican party.
“Let me get this straight,” Norbert said at one point in their conversation. “You’re coming to me, the mayor of the city and a member of the opposition party, to complain that city government under my leadership is working too well and doing too good a job?”
“This has been a one-party town, and that party hasn’t been ours,” explained the Republican chairman. “We need to be able to prove our worth to the voters through constituent service, and streets issues have always been our bread and butter.”
“Your bread and butter? You haven’t elected a Republican mayor in sixty years and the only reason you have any representation on council at all is that the city charter requires at least two of the seventeen people on council to be from a minority party. If you really think this is your bread and butter, I suggest you consider finding a new meal.”
To this point the mayor and his staff had heard only from local officials – council members, ward leaders, and party bosses – on the subject of Shaniqua Watson. Thus, they assumed that opposition to a can-do streets department was limited and therefore easily dismissed. Within the next few days, however, they were disabused of this assumption after a series of visits by members of the city’s legislative delegation serving in Harrisburg and even one of its members of Congress. The mayor had six such meetings over a period of four days, and in each, the message conveyed to him was the same: officials who owe their elected offices to the ability of party workers to turn out the vote for them would be in jeopardy of losing those offices unless they could perform services for constituents that engendered loyalty on election day.
At first Norbert did his best to listen respectfully to these arguments, but with each meeting that became more difficult. Eventually he began gently chiding those who came before him, insisting that good government was the ultimate in good politics and that dismissing someone who had become the symbol of good government in Philadelphia would be the ultimate in bad politics. The people to whom he expressed this sentiment did not understand Norbert and were convinced that he did not understand them. Norbert, for his part, was certain they did not understand them – but he stood firm on the continued employment of Shaniqua Watson as his streets commissioner.
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.
Mayor Norbert and his staff followed the progress of the legislature’s budget hearings closely – closely enough to be worried about the possibility that the draconian cuts proposed by the governor might actually be adopted this year. Again it took the intervention of Jon Ravelsky to calm them and remind them that the state’s budget process was a multi-part production in which the public events – the governor’s budget address and the legislative hearings – were little more than a show orchestrated for public consumption and to give newspaper reporters something to write about while distracting them from the behind-the-scenes maneuverings, negotiations, and intrigue that only occurred at the very last minute and that ultimately decided how the state would spend its money each year.
Even though Ravelsky allayed their anxiety, he reminded them that an important part of this process must be their public courtship of Michael Ianucci. Ianucci was a powerful figure in Harrisburg, he knew it, and he expected anyone who wanted anything from him in the state capital to show their respect and solicit his support diligently, ardently, and visibly.
During a staff meeting about the state budget, Norbert decided – over his staff’s objections – that he would take the lead on this assignment himself.
“I’ve done this my entire career,” Norbert told his staff. “If you want something from someone, you appeal directly and show proper respect. People who have power usually want their butts kissed, so if you want something from them, you have to kiss some butt. This particular butt is no different from the corporate butts I’ve kissed over the years. You hate doing it, so you just hold your nose and tell yourself that no matter how bad it smells, you’ll end up better off than before you puckered.”
All things considered, Norbert did not begin from an entirely disadvantageous starting point. True, in his run for office he had defeated Ianucci’s hand-picked candidate for the Democratic nomination for mayor, but at Ravelsky’s suggestion he had invited Ianucci to lunch the very next day at the Palm, a local restaurant that, while not particularly known for its food, was the place where politicians met with people when they wanted those meetings to be noticed by others and reported in the next day’s newspaper. At that meeting Norbert quickly made peace with Ianucci – and Ianucci, in return, promised to support Norbert in the coming election.
Both had lived up to their promises. Norbert made the maximum contributions allowed by law to Ianucci-supported candidates for council – incredibly, six of the seventeen members of council owed their positions almost entirely to Ianucci’s support and patronage – and provided ample cash to fuel Ianucci’s election day operations on the streets of Philadelphia. Ianucci’s political machine, in return, produced massive pluralities for Norbert on election day – in many cases, ninety percent or more of individual polling precincts’ votes.
Since the election, the relationship between the two men had been cordial, if not warm. Norbert had taken great pains to assure Ianucci that he had direct access to him at all times, and while Ianucci took advantage of that access only infrequently – it would have been viewed by others as a sign of weakness if he sought the mayor’s help too often – it was always there when he asked for it. They attended many political and civic events together, frequently sat together and talked, and appeared to enjoy one another’s company. Whereas the mayor’s staff took responsibility for the daily care and feeding of all other state legislators, Norbert always attended to Ianucci’s concerns himself.
Still, the two men did not know one another well and did not entirely trust one another. Norbert assumed that Ianucci’s political organization engaged in at least some illegal political activities, although he had no sense of whether Ianucci was involved with or even knew about such matters. Ianucci, for his part, was extremely leery of wealthy corporate leaders and especially large business owners, assuming that everyone who succeeded in the corporate world did so at the expense of working people. Despite their mutual suspicions they managed to establish a reasonable and productive working relationship that – only a few months into Norbert’s term as mayor – showed every sign of becoming an effective and productive alliance. Now, Norbert needed to put that alliance to the test.
With Ianucci’s budget committee about to take testimony from the state education secretary, Norbert decided that the time had come for him to convey his city’s concerns directly to the state House Appropriations Committee. In so doing, he made three excellent decisions.
First, he decided to testify himself – a surprise to many because over the years, Philadelphia’s mayors were not known for their willingness to work with the state legislature. For the most part, they only spoke of the legislature to criticize it, and Norbert not only refrained from uttering such criticism but also volunteered to testify before one of its committees. By choosing to testify, he realized that he would be setting himself up as a target for any criticism committee members wished to level at him and his city and that he would be compelled to respond to any potentially awkward and embarrassing questions they might ask – and they would be sure to ask such questions specifically to try to embarrass him.
His second good decision was to choose to testify about school funding. Technically, Philadelphia’s school budget was separate and apart from that of the city for which Norbert was responsible, and even if he testified successfully and persuaded legislators to restore 100 percent of the city’s school funding, that would not help the mayor at all with his city budget problem. Thus, his trip to Harrisburg would come to be seen, even by the city’s most ardent critics, as an unselfish act – even though, as mayor, it would still fall to him to fund whatever gap a loss of state funding left in the school district’s budget.
And Norbert’s third good decision came on the day of his testimony. Instead of riding to Harrisburg in a city car, he took a train that left Philadelphia from a station within walking distance of his home and arrived in Harrisburg ninety minutes later at a station that was a five-minute walk from the Capitol building. When he stepped off the train he immediately ran into several legislative staff members – people he had encountered in the past. He walked with them to the Capitol, and within minutes the building was abuzz with news that Philadelphia’s mayor had traveled to Harrisburg by train rather than limousine and that he had arrived alone, without the usual retinue of aides – a significant departure from past Philadelphia mayors.
The appropriations committee was scheduled to begin its hearing at ten o’clock, and members of the Philadelphia delegation had agreed that Norbert should be escorted to the hearing by Ianucci. Norbert and Ianucci were to meet at Ianucci’s office at 9:45, so Norbert, who arrived in town at nine, spent a few minutes poking his head into the offices of other legislators to say hello. He entered Ianucci’s office precisely at 9:45 and his host ushered the mayor into his office, introduced him to the few members of his Harrisburg staff he had never met, and offered him coffee.
“Isn’t Craig Marten with you today?” Ianucci asked.
“Who?” the mayor replied.
“Craig Marten – your Harrisburg lobbyist.”
“Oh, yes, I didn’t recognize the name at first.
“Actually, I don’t know him at all, never even met him. He was hired by my predecessor, and when his contract expired at the end of the year, I decided not to renew it.”
“So who’d you get to replace him?”
“You, actually,” Norbert said.
“Well, I have Harry Wheeler to keep an eye on things here for me, but Philadelphia has twenty-eight representatives in the state House and seven in the Senate. I figure that taxpayers are already ponying up plenty for all of you to represent their interests here, so you should be our lobbyists.”
“I like your style, Jim. Now let’s talk about your testimony and what kinds of questions you’re likely to face today.”
Ianucci summoned an aide, and for the next ten minutes – five in the office and five during the walk to the hearing room – they discussed state education policy, the Philadelphia school district, and Ianucci’s views on the vulnerabilities of that district in a public forum. When the three men entered the chamber, Norbert went to the area where the committee members were seated to introduce himself. For people who had been so uninhibited in expressing animosity toward the city he led, they were awfully civil when meeting personally with that city’s mayor, Norbert thought. The Philadelphia members of the committee, on the other hand, shook his hand only in a perfunctory manner, most likely still smarting from his refusal to deal with Shaniqua Watson as they had requested.
Norbert spent about ten minutes making an opening statement. He described the school district – how many students it served, how many buildings it owned and operated, and how many teachers and other workers it employed – and outlined the financial challenges the district faced every year. He described the academic progress Philadelphia’s public schools had made in recent years and the steps that would be necessary if the cuts proposed for the school district’s funding were not rescinded – steps, he said, that would quickly erase the academic progress he had just described.
The chairman then opened the floor to questions, allowing members of the Philadelphia delegation to go first. Despite their displeasure with the mayor, they viewed their disagreement with him as an internal matter and did not want him to look bad in front of their colleagues, so they asked him just a few easy questions, giving him an opportunity to provide simple answers before the real interrogation began. When they finished, the chairman opened the floor to other committee members.
The first to speak was Martin Coates, a Republican from Cambria County, which was 250 miles away from Philadelphia and, with fewer than 150,000 residents, had a population about ten percent of Philadelphia’s.
“Mr. Mayor, I find it troubling that you’re asking for more money for a school district in which the majority of students are scoring below the national averages in math and science.”
“I would find that troubling if I were you, too,” Norbert responded. “Fortunately, that’s not why I’m here and that’s not what I’m asking.”
“No. I’m here because Governor Clayton has proposed a three percent cost-of-living increase for 500 of the state’s school districts and a twenty percent decrease for the 501th school district – mine.”
“So you think we should just continue to throw more money at your problem?” Coates persisted.
“I haven’t suggested that. I’m simply asking that we receive no less consideration than every other school district in the state.”
“But the performance of Philadelphia’s schools…”
Norbert did not let him finish.
“The performance of Philadelphia’s schools is actually on a par with the Cambria County schools in the district you represent, Mr. Coates.”
“It most certainly is not.”
“But it is. Look at the numbers.”
“Look closer. Our highest-achieving schools dwarf yours in performance and our district-wide averages are almost identical to yours.”
“And how many percentage points are you stretching ‘almost’ to encompass, Mayor Norbert?”
“Well, actually, you’re right about that, Representative Coates.”
“Strictly speaking,” Norbert said, “our numbers are actually a little better than yours. We’re also sending students to college at a rate twenty-five percent greater than the school districts that serve Cambria County.”
“But overall,” interrupted Marjorie Sloan, who represented Northumberland County, which was 165 miles from Philadelphia, “Philadelphia’s schools do perform poorly on standardized tests, don’t they, Mayor Norbert?”
“Without question,” Norbert replied.
“Then I repeat Mr. Coates’s question: why should we continue to throw good money after bad?”
“I can give you several reasons, Representative Sloan.”
“First of all, we’re only asking for what everyone else receives – no more, no less. That, I believe, is a matter of inherent fairness. If nothing else, I want you to understand that unlike other Philadelphia mayors in the past, I’m not here today, hat in hand, asking you for more money and special treatment for Philadelphia. I’m asking for equal treatment. I’m asking you not to take out your displeasure with Philadelphia on the 163,000 children we serve.
“Second, I would point out that if you track the progress of every single one of the 501 school districts in Pennsylvania, you’ll find that we’re in the upper third in improved performance in the past five years. Not in the bottom third and not in the bottom half, but in the top third. That suggests that the resources you’re providing us are not being thrown away – not at all. To the contrary, it suggests that the resources you’re providing us are having a positive impact. Your money is making a difference – a positive difference.
“And third, if you cut our subsidy by twenty percent, as the governor proposes, that progress will disappear within three years because the only way to absorb that kind of dramatic loss of funding is to cut personnel, and that means teachers. At a time when we’re projecting a modest increase in enrollment, that would leave us trying to teach more children with fewer teachers. That’s a formula for disaster and failure, because as you all know, the experts say that class size is the single biggest influence on student performance, and while I don’t necessarily agree with those experts, that’s what they say, so cutting our funding could wipe out five years of slow but steady improvement in academic performance by our students.”
Representative Sloan looked sharply at Norbert.
“You don’t agree with the experts? What do you think you know that they don’t?”
Norbert smiled; he had been hoping that the manner in which he responded to the last question would elicit this one.
“No, I don’t agree with them entirely.
“During the course of preparing myself to run for mayor, I began to look at the performance of Philadelphia’s school system and to question why it was so much worse than most other school districts in Pennsylvania. As you might imagine, as the head of a large corporation, I had some pretty high-priced brainpower at my disposal, so I commissioned an analysis that I found very revealing.
“We decided to categorize every public school in the state, on a school-by-school basis rather than a school district-by-school district basis, according to the socio-economic status of the community in which the school is located. We eliminated charter schools and magnet schools because they draw from broader geographic areas and tend to attract more motivated students, which would have skewed our findings.
“Once we controlled for income, we found that Philadelphia’s schools perform on a par with other schools throughout the state. My schools in low-income areas perform the same as your schools in low-income areas – no better, no worse. My schools in working-class areas perform the same as your schools in working-class areas – no better, no worse. My schools in middle-class areas perform the same as your schools in middle-class areas – no better, no worse. Of course, we have a lot more schools in low-income areas, and that, more than anything else, is why our district-wide averages are so low.
“Overall, we found that after adjusting for income, there are only two significant differences between Philadelphia schools and others in the state: our drop-out rate among our low-income schools is nearly twice as high…”
“So, you’re failing those children,” Representative Sloan charged.
“Yes, but we’re working on that,” Norbert replied.
There was a moment of silence that ended when Representative Ianucci spoke for the first and only time during the hearing.
“You said there were two differences, mayor. What’s the second?”
“Thank you,” Norbert said, smiling.
“Among our low-income students – the ones we manage to prevent from dropping out – we send them to college at a rate nearly three times that of the state-wide average for students in their socio-economic strata.”
“I find this all very hard to believe,” Representative Sloan said. “I’d like to see that study.”
“As well you should,” Norbert replied. “I have a copy with me and will leave it with Representative Ianucci to share with you.”
“I’d like to turn your attention to administrative costs,” said Representative Willis Johns, who represented a portion of Crawford County, which was nearly 400 miles from Philadelphia. “Your district spends literally hundreds of millions of dollars running your schools.”
“Yes we do,” Norbert replied. “We spend a lot of money because we have a lot of students, a lot of employees, and a lot of facilities.”
“And you think that’s okay?” Johns asked.
“I do. The figure is high, without question, and our superintendent is doing a number of things to reduce it, but it’s not out of line based on the size of our school district, which serves one of out every ten public school students in the state, and I’m absolutely not apologetic about it.”
“I’m astonished and outraged to hear you say that,” Johns said.
“Don’t be,” Norbert replied. “It’s all a matter of scale. We have 163,000 students and 284 schools and more than 10,000 teachers. Someone has to order the books and crayons and heating oil, administer the benefits of 25,000 employees, develop the curriculum, maintain the facilities, and perform countless other tasks. With such a large number of students, employees, and facilities to serve, of course we’re going to spend a lot more on the business of schools, as opposed to the business of education, than other school districts. But if you’re willing to dig a little deeper, you’ll find that our administrative costs are about average nationally among public school systems with more than 75,000 students.
“But consider this from a different perspective, Representative Johns. Pennsylvania has sixty-seven counties and 501 school districts. That’s an average of more than seven school districts per county. Philadelphia is one county with one school district. Your home county, Crawford County, and its 13,000 or so school students are served in whole or in part by six different school districts. We have some schools that are bigger than a few of those entire districts. Nearly two-thirds of those 500 other school districts have five or fewer schools, yet those districts all have superintendents, all of whom are paid more than $110,000 a year. More than seventy-five of those superintendents employ at least one blood relative in a non-civil service position. About twenty of them employ at least one blood relative of a member of this legislature in a non-civil service position. If the rest of the state consolidated school districts along the lines of how we operate in Philadelphia, you could save the state tens of millions of dollars a year. We’re doing our part to cut our costs down to the bone. When will the rest of you do that?”
“How dare you tell us how to run our school districts!” Johns roared.
“But you’re telling us how to run ours.”
“Because yours is failing.”
“But it’s not failing. Would you like to compare the performance of my school district to those in your home county and then reconsider which one is failing?”
A number of committee members spoke at once to express their disapproval of Norbert’s answer and his attitude. The chairman understood what was happening – his members were about to be attacked insidiously by facts, of all things – and attempted to restore order in the room. Norbert sat back in his chair and worked hard to suppress a smile. Ianucci felt no similar inclination to hide his pleasure and smiled broadly. He had underestimated his mayor. With many people talking all at once, the chairman again struck his gavel, but to no immediate effect.
When the chairman finally managed to restore order, he did not want to allow Norbert to pursue his challenge to Representative Johns and quietly signaled to Johns that he was not to attempt to resume his line of questioning. Sensing that if Norbert raised the issue he mostly likely had facts to support him, the chairman had no intention of allowing facts to creep into his committee’s deliberations. Consequently, when the hearing was ready to resume and Representative Coates indicated a desire to speak again, the chairman called on him.
“Mayor Norbert, we’ve seen reports that suggest that your schools are confiscating growing numbers of handguns. What’s going on there in Philadelphia and what are you doing about it?”
Norbert allowed himself the slightest of smiles. This was another question he had hoped to be asked.
“It certainly is an epidemic, but as you note, we’re confiscating the guns. They’re not being used.”
“Is that the best you can do? Confiscate?”
“My predecessors have sought other tools to address this problem in the past, but they’ve been denied us.”
Norbert paused for effect.
“Philadelphia has asked the state legislature for the right to pass gun laws that would apply only within city limits, but you’ve rejected that request. Until that changes, all we can do is confiscate the guns and expel the students.”
“You’re damned right we rejected that,” declared Rep. Jack Hilton of Warren County, population 40,000, located 330 miles from Philadelphia. “The laws we make are good enough for the rest of the state and they should be good enough for Philadelphia, too.”
“That’s entirely your prerogative,” Norbert replied, “but then why complain about guns in our schools when we’re doing our job and confiscating them?
“Besides, notwithstanding your great concern about all the guns we confiscate, history shows that a gun is far more likely to be used in one of your schools with tragic results than in one of my mine.”
“What did you just say?” Hilton asked angrily.
“Look at the history: Columbine; Blacksburg, Virginia; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Conyers, Georgia; Springfield, Oregon; Granite Hills, California; and others. These things are happening in communities like yours, not mine. You don’t see urban students going around shooting randomly at kids they don’t even know inside a school building.”
Again the room erupted in an uproar. With so many people speaking – loudly – at once, it was difficult to make out anyone’s exact words, but clearly the prevailing sentiment among the members of the committee was one of indignation and outrage. It took several minutes for the chairman to restore order. When he did, a new speaker took the floor and pursued a new issue.
“I want to talk about your drop-out rate,” said Representative Paula Bentley of Potter County, population 18,000, located 275 miles from Philadelphia. “It’s very high.”
“Any idea why and what you can do about it?”
Norbert sensed that Bentley was not being confrontational, and this puzzled him. The last thing he was told to expect at a state legislative hearing was a serious discussion on the subject of the hearing.
“The prevailing theory seems to be that it’s the nature of our economy.”
“But we all face that challenge, Mr. Mayor.”
“I agree, but I’m referring to the difference between the economy of Philadelphia and the economy of the more rural parts of the state – and of the difference between the expectations of our respective residents.”
“Can you elaborate?”
“Certainly. I don’t know a great deal about the specifics of your district, but in general, my understanding is that in rural Pennsylvania, there’s a reasonable supply of jobs for people with just a high school education. It’s also widely understood that those jobs are there and that working in such positions is more or less what people in such communities do when they finish high school. Since it’s that way, kids who’re not terribly interested in school and don’t have any college aspirations understand that if they stick it out and graduate, they’ll probably be able to get one of those jobs.
“That’s not the way it is in Philadelphia. We have a higher proportion of jobs that require education beyond high school and those are the jobs that get all the attention, so our kids feel that if they’re not interested in school and don’t have any college aspirations, there can’t be much of a difference between dropping out at seventeen and finishing high school at eighteen, so they drop out.”
“What can you do about it?”
“It’s heart-breaking. We’re working on getting kids more interested in school and in the education they need to get those higher-paying jobs, but in the meantime, we continue working to develop an economy that will accommodate a low-skill, low-education labor pool. Look at all the effort Philadelphia has exerted over the past twenty years to make the city more of a tourist destination. What kinds of workers does that economy need? Baggage handlers at the airport, hotel housekeepers, waiters, retail workers. They’re not what you and I would consider highly desirable jobs, but they’re honest work for people willing to do them. We have to keep working to create more of these jobs even though, ideally, we’d rather aim much higher with our economic development dollars.”
“It’s sad that you have to do that, mayor.”
“Yes, it is,” he replied.
Seeing no other members seeking the floor, the committee chairman spoke again.
“Is there anything else, Mr. Norbert?”
“Yes, thank you, Mr. Chairman.
“First, I want to thank you all again for allowing me to appear before you today. I recognize and respect the important role that the state plays in setting education policy and paying for that education and think it’s important to have these kinds of exchanges periodically. I’m less than two hours away and am willing to come here for such dialogues any time you’d like.
“Second, I just want to reiterate the main point I came here today to make: that there’s no justifiable rationale for cutting funding for Philadelphia’s public schools by twenty percent at a time when every other school district in the state is being budgeted for a three percent increase. Philadelphia is playing by the rules that this legislature and this governor established, and as I attempted to point out today, many of your perceptions about the performance of our schools are outdated. Contrary to what many people believe, the achievement of our students is in line with the performance of schools across the state and our management of our financial resources is on par with the management of resources for school districts of our size across the country. The quality of our pedagogy is actually quite high. If you look around the Philadelphia suburbs, you’ll find that many of the most highly regarded school districts are run by former Philadelphia school principals and administrators. Those suburban school boards have the money to recruit anywhere in the country, but they want our leaders, Philadelphia educators, to run their districts because they know how good our people are. That tells you that we’re on the right track. What also tells you that we’re on the right track is that in every major area, our performance is improving, and I believe there’s no possible justification for cutting our funding. I trust that all of you will act based on these facts and fund the school district of Philadelphia exactly as you would your own home school district, because we’re doing the same job as your home school district and performing just as well – still not good enough, I agree, but better than we have in years and showing constant improvement. I’m here today on behalf of 163,000 children who are counting on you to do right by them. Please don’t let them down. Thank you.”
The chairman struck his gavel, calling the hearing to a close. The members of the committee came up to the witness table to shake Norbert’s hand. Most of them smiled, and three asked the mayor about the possibility of joining him at one of his team’s basketball games the next time they were in Philadelphia.
When they all finished, the last two people remaining in the room were Norbert and Ianucci.
“You did great,” Ianucci told Norbert. “You really did your homework, and it showed. I was impressed and they were impressed.”
“So you think it’ll help?” Norbert asked.
“Oh, no, not in the least,” Ianucci said.
“But you just said…”
“I said you were great, and you were. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen witnesses as effective as you were. But it really doesn’t matter. The Republicans want to hurt Philadelphia and they still plan to try to do that. Some of the Democrats will, too, if the Republicans give them enough political cover.”
“Then what do we do?”
“’We’ don’t do anything. I do. I’ll take care of everything.”
“Yes, that’s what I do; I take care of business. Are you sticking around or heading back to Philadelphia?”
“I have meetings this afternoon.”
“Then give me a copy of the study you mentioned a little while ago and let me show you how to get out of the building and back to the train station.”
That evening Norbert was sitting in his private box, waiting for his basketball team to take the court. Surrounding him were a few friends, his wife, and his daughter. Glancing at his watch, he saw that tip-off was just minutes away and one of his guests had not yet arrived. He made his way back to the buffet and had just started putting a few crab puffs onto a china plate when Jon Ravelsky walked through the door. The two men exchanged greetings and Ravelsky excused himself for a moment, stepping aside to kiss Norbert’s wife and hug his daughter. He had just returned to Norbert’s side when the public address announcer asked the audience to rise for the national anthem.
When the music ended, Norbert and Ravelsky quickly loaded food onto their plates, picked up bottles of water, and took two of the oversized chairs to which Norbert directed them.
For a few minutes the men watched the game intently; both were avid fans. Occasionally they exchanged small talk, and when the first quarter ended, Ravelsky rose, carried his plate off, and returned moments later with a bowl of fruit and a bottle of beer.
“So, I understand Mr. Norbert went to Harrisburg today,” he said.
“I testified before the House Appropriations Committee.”
“And it seemed to go well. They asked questions and I had answers.”
“Were they hostile?”
“Pretty much, yes. They really do hate us, you know. The overall tone was mostly civil, except for two times when I pretty much pissed them off and they let me know about it. Still, I think maybe I changed a few minds, or at least gave some of them something to think about.”
“That’s what Cisco told me you said.”
“You talked to Cisco?” Norbert asked, referring to the head of the city’s law department.
“I had some business with him late this afternoon on behalf of a client. He said you told a cabinet meeting that it went very well.
“So I think you’re being naïve, Jim.”
Their conversation was interrupted by the roar of the crowd: a Philadelphia player had just executed a spectacular dunk. Thousands of fans – including the team’s owner and his close friend – rose to their feet, applauding and yelling.
“Naïve?” the mayor asked after both men had returned to their seats.
“Yes,” Ravelsky replied. “You went to Harrisburg with facts and figures to support your case, and you used them – and, according to what I’ve heard, you used them very well.”
“And that’s not good?”
“No, it’s very good, but it’s really irrelevant. You need to stop thinking about this like a debate you can win and that facts and figures will enable you to persuade the legislature to change its mind about the city’s appropriations.”
“But it can’t hurt.”
“No, it can’t hurt, and you need to do it because it’s a necessary step in this process, but you need to stop thinking that making an effective argument will help your cause, because it won’t.”
“Not at all?”
“No. Well, only to the degree that it signals that you showed up, showed you care, and showed your respect for the legislators and their process. But you need to understand that the substance of what you said today had no more of an impact on them than if you had gone there and read aloud from the phone book.
“You’re not serious.”
“I am, and we’ve discussed this, Jim. They’re going to do what they want to do, what they have to do, regardless of what you do or don’t say. The outlook for Philadelphia’s appropriations won’t change until a few weeks after the May primaries, when the budget talks actually get serious. These hearings are just for show; they don’t matter at all. In fact, the only reason that so many committee members even bothered showing up today is that Michael put out the word that he expected them to be there.”
“Then what am I supposed to do? Just wait until June and do nothing between now and then?”
“No, you did exactly what you’re supposed to do: you showed up. You showed respect. The next two months are about putting on a good show of concern and fear until the real budget business begins. You need to keep it up, and in the meantime, you also need to keep courting Michael.”
“I thought we got along pretty well today.”
“Are you kidding? It went better than well. You made a very important friend today.”
“I did?” Norbert asked.
“Yes. Michael was very impressed with you.”
“How do you know?”
“I just got off the phone with him.”
“We talk every few days – have for years.”
“And you say I made a friend?”
“Definitely. He’s never disliked you, just didn’t know you, but he was impressed today that you came to Harrisburg, that you came without an entourage, and that you showed your respect to the committee while still standing up to it. He liked that you had such good command of the facts.”
“You mean the facts that don’t matter?”
“Yes. I think you really made your bones with him today.”
“This is bizarre, Jon.”
“More bizarre than you know.”
“Because while it’s great that Ianucci likes you, in the broader scheme of things it doesn’t really matter whether he likes you or not.”
“Not at all. You see, any attempt to hurt Philadelphia is viewed in Harrisburg as an attack on Michael, and Michael takes attacks very personally. No matter what the attack, he has to fight it. Even if he despised you, he’d still be your best friend every spring. It’s great that he likes you and it’ll probably make the whole process go a little easier, but it wouldn’t matter if he didn’t. He’ll do your bidding this year and every other year you’re mayor because when it comes to state legislation and state money, you’re always on the same side.”
“You’re right. This is bizarre.”
“But there’s more.”
“You need to continue courting him even though he’s on your side.”
“What do you suggest?”
“I’ve already planned the next step.”
“He and his wife will be joining you here for your game on Sunday. He wants to meet the new president of the cable television company so he can reinforce his access to jobs there.”
“That’s Fred Griffin, right?”
“I don’t know him.”
“My firm represents them, so I invited him. He’ll be here with his wife next Sunday, too. So will I.”
“It’s Boston, Jon – I was really hoping to watch the game.”
“Your staff tapes every game from eight different angles. I’m sure they can provide you with whatever you need to see the game.”
Over the next few weeks Mayor Norbert kept in close contact with Michael Ianucci – the basketball game, dinner once, and several meetings in city hall and elsewhere to discuss issues of concern to Ianucci’s constituents, political allies, and contributors. Norbert was surprised to find that he enjoyed Ianucci’s company. He found the career politician bright, articulate, and well-educated. Despite his reputation as a peerless and at times vicious competitor in the world of rough-and-tumble politics, Ianucci also gave every impression of being a man of refined tastes: he knew a good wine from a great one, had a modest but tasteful collection of contemporary art by young painters, read widely and frequently quoted the ancient Greeks, and at one point confessed to the mayor that when he could not be reached on Thursday afternoons, it meant he had taken the train up to New York City to catch a matinee opera performance. The latter was the only time, he confided to Norbert, that he ever turned off his cell phone.
While Ianucci was still wary of Norbert – as he was of any wealthy man – he nevertheless found himself liking the mayor very much. They had almost identical family backgrounds, early education, and tastes. Norbert had not been rich long enough, Ianucci thought, to have lost touch with the common sensibilities of ordinary people. At his team’s basketball games, he bypassed wine in favor of beer and cheered with everyone else when something special happened on the court; while he was always responsive to Ianucci’s requests for assistance from city government, he seemed far more interested in matters that involved helping people than helping companies; and his tastes seemed almost too simple and down to earth, from the Ford he drove to the soft-soled shoes he wore to his tendency to buy hot dogs from street vendors whenever they walked together from city hall to a meeting in Philadelphia’s downtown area.
Every week or so, Ianucci assured the mayor that the financial peril posed by Harrisburg would be averted. The reality, though, was that he had not even begun to address that peril – it was still much too early to do so – but he had done this so successfully so many times in the past that he had not the slightest doubt that he would succeed this year as well.
Historically, contract negotiations between the city of Philadelphia and the four major unions representing its employees followed a time-honored script: the city budgeted no money for increased labor costs and then offered all four unions insultingly small pay increases, including no raises at all in the first year of a multi-year contract, while simultaneously demanding that its employees pay more for their medical benefits; the unions countered by seeking salary increases so large that they bordered on the obscene, dismissed the idea of paying more for their benefits, and asked for additional paid holidays; the firefighters’ union stopped negotiating almost entirely, allowing the police union to take the lead on behalf of all uniformed employees; the white-collar workers’ union negotiated quietly and infrequently, allowing the blue-collar workers to advocate very publicly, and usually quite obnoxiously, on behalf of non-uniformed city workers; and the process droned on inexorably toward the June 30 expiration of all four contracts until just hours before midnight that day, when the blue-collar workers would reach a last-minute agreement with the city, the white-collar workers would reach an almost identical agreement three hours later, and uniformed employees, banned by law from striking, would agree to binding arbitration, the result of which would be announced around Thanksgiving, nearly five months after their contracts had expired, resulting in police officers receiving an arbitrators’ award slightly more generous than that bestowed on the firefighters, which in turn was slightly more than what the non-uniformed workers had won at the negotiating table five months earlier.
But Mayor Norbert had upset the course of business-as-usual labor relations with his decision to put real money on the table before those negotiations even began. He had not explicitly set out to break from decades of precedent; he had only innocently attempted to act reasonably, as he had with the employees of his own business, and with so many non-Philadelphians serving in his inner circle, no one had known enough to step forward to warn him that his approach amounted to thinking outside the box in an arena in which people not only lived inside the box but worshipped the box.
But reason clearly had no place in public-sector labor relations in Philadelphia, and now, the leaders of the unions struggled to adjust and operate outside the comfort of their long-time, etched-in-stone negotiating strategy. They had already made one major mistake: failing to listen to the mayor’s budget address and then angrily criticizing him for something it turned out he had not done at all. That misstep had made them a laughingstock among newspaper editorial writers and columnists, radio talk show hosts and their callers, and virtually every Philadelphian sober enough to sit on a bar stool and pontificate about what was wrong with Philadelphia these days. Even some of the unions’ rank-and-file members were grumbling.
Things fared no better for the unions when negotiations began. The primary negotiation – the one that set the tone both financially and in belligerence – was with the blue-collar workers, and as soon as those talks began, the city’s negotiators continued the approach established in the mayor’s proposed budget by offering the union pay raises of two percent a year for three years. Again unprepared for anything other than the customary first-day offer of a multi-year contract with no raises in the first year, and failing to learn from recent experience, Fred Gilliam declared the city’s opening offer an insult to the hard-working men and women who, he insisted, were the backbone of the city’s workforce. The city’s negotiators, who had just taken their seats for the first bargaining session, looked at one another in disbelief as Gilliam rose from the chair in which he had barely sat and stormed out of the hotel room where the parties were meeting just moments after the talks began. His lawyer hesitated, and then, seeing that his client had departed, followed him sheepishly and hurriedly out the door and down the corridor.
Donald Decker caught up to his client at the elevator.
“Fred, what was that all about?” he asked. Decker felt he was on uncertain ground with his client. He had just been hired – much to his surprise, since he had never before participated in labor negotiations or practiced labor law. As far as he could tell, he had been chosen on the strength of the acquittal he had won for a trash collector accused of public indecency for urinating on his accuser’s lawn during work hours. Decker had won this case by raising doubts about the eyesight of the elderly accuser – solid lawyering, everyone agreed, but hardly a qualification for participating in very high-level, high-visibility public labor negotiations.
“What?” Gilliam asked.
“Why’d you leave?” Decker asked. “We just sat down, and they made an offer.”
“My people won’t accept a year without a pay raise,” Gilliam insisted as he pushed the “down” button on the elevator.
“They offered two percent a year for three years, Fred.”
“They offered a raise.”
“Damn. I was sure they were going to try to stiff us.”
“You have to listen, Fred. You already got burned once by assuming their next move. Don’t do that.”
“Yeah,” Gilliam replied.
“Do you want to go back?” Decker asked.
“No, we can’t.”
“It would be a sign of weakness.”
They exited the elevator and walked out of the building. As they did, they were spotted by television reporters who had come to witness the start of negotiations and were still packing their cameras into their vans. The reporters were astonished. Their cameras were not ready, but they surrounded Gilliam immediately.
“Mr. Gilliam, what happened? You couldn’t have been in there for more than five minutes.”
“What happened was an insult to my members,” Gilliam replied, raising his voice. “If that’s the best the city can do, it’s going to be a long spring and then a very long summer in Philadelphia.”
“But what happened?” another reporter asked.
“My client will have no further comment today,” Decker interjected. “Today was a bad sign, but negotiations have just begun and there will be days like these once in a while. Thank you.”
Decker grabbed Gilliam by the arm and led him down the street and away from reporters.
“Well done,” Gilliam said. “That ought to put the city on notice. But don’t ever touch me again.”
“On notice for what?” Decker asked, ignoring Gilliam’s threat. He was confused.
“On notice that they’d better take us seriously.”
“But they made you an offer,” Decker said. “You may not have liked the offer, but it was reasonable for the first day of a negotiation, I thought.”
Decker realized he was being presumptuous. After all, this was the first day of the first labor negotiation in which he had ever participated; he had no idea what constituted a reasonable offer on the first day of a negotiation.
“Whose side are you on?” Gilliam growled.
“Yours, of course,” Decker replied.
“Then act like it,” Gilliam demanded.
“So what do you want me to do now?”
“Wait a few hours and then call them and set up the next session.”
“And if they want to know what just happened?”
“Just tell them that you want to schedule the next session. You don’t owe them an explanation. If they ask, just ignore the question and get the day and time for the next meeting.”
Two days later Gilliam and Decker returned to the same hotel, where they again met with Francisco Estevez, the head of the city’s law department, and John Warren, a lawyer the city hired to lead its negotiating team. Warren had been negotiating labor contracts for the city, its school district, and its public transportation agency for more than twenty years.
“So, where were we?” Warren asked when the two labor representatives had poured themselves coffee and taken their seats.
“You were about to make us an offer that’s not an insult to my members,” Gilliam said defiantly.
“Fred,” Estevez started to say, but Gilliam cut him off.
“Don’t ‘Fred’ me, Cisco. Don’t sit there in your $700 suit and plead poverty. We know the city has money, and we want some of it.”
“You’re right, Mr. Gilliam,” Warren interjected. “The city does have money, and we’re prepared to give you a good deal of it. We’re offering all city workers raises of two percent a year for three years. That comes out to about $140 million in new money. So yes, we have money, and we’re offering it to you now. We’re not asking for any holiday give-backs or any new cost-sharing on benefits, even though cities across the country are asking for and getting both. We will ask for some work-rule changes, but nothing you’ll find terribly burdensome, I assure you. But understand this: I just put $140 million on the table, just like I did the other day, and if you get up and walk out again, the mayor will hold a press conference within an hour to announce to the entire city, including your members, that you walked away from $140 million without so much as even talking about it.”
Decker saw that Gilliam was about to speak and decided to interrupt.
“It’s a basis for further discussion, John.”
“Good,” Warren replied. “So let’s talk.”
And they did, but it did not go well. The city’s negotiator insisted that the mayor had put every available dollar on the table and that there was no more money; Gilliam insisted that past negotiations were proof that there was always more money, no matter how vigorously and vociferously the city argued to the contrary.
They went back and forth in this manner during four negotiating sessions over a period of ten days. John Warren did all of the talking for the city; Estevez was there to ensure that there was another body in the room and because he was formally a city employee. Fred Gilliam did almost all of the talking for the blue-collar workers. Decker’s primary role was to calm Gilliam when he lost his temper – which was often. Privately, Warren told Estevez that Decker was clearly out of his element, quite possibly even stupid – “a typical Widener law grad,” Warren joked, referring to a local law school well known for taking earnest, hard-working, ambitious, but mediocre people, putting them through years of unchallenging night school classes, and turning them into earnest, hard-working, ambitious, but mediocre lawyers. When Estevez suggested that this would undoubtedly work to the city’s advantage, Warren, experienced and ever-cautious, warned that it might not: Decker was so inexperienced in such negotiations and so utterly without the capacity to render reasoned judgments that he might be incapable of providing the rational, dispassionate counsel needed to offset Gilliam’s volatility. The key to a successful labor negotiation, Warren explained to Estevez – who was himself participating, albeit silently so far, in his first labor talks – was having at least one person on each side of the table who could recognize that his side had gotten everything there was to be gotten from the other side and that the time had come to settle. The other side in these negotiations, Warren feared, may not have that one person, which could mean endless negotiations with little hope of reaching agreement.
The sixth negotiating session demonstrated that the two sides remained far, far apart.
“Two percent a year for three years is a good offer, Fred,” Warren said. “We all know the city’s in a financial bind, so it’s somewhat of a miracle that we’re offering any raises at all. After all, you yourself were so certain that we’d offer you nothing that you put out a press release criticizing us for not offering you anything even though we did.”
Gilliam did not like being reminded of this blunder. Warren did not wish to dwell on it, but he had decided to mention it once a week as a counter-balance to the many times Gilliam rejected an offer and claimed it was “bad faith” – to remind Gilliam that when it came to bad faith, Gilliam was without peer.
“I don’t understand why you’re constantly seeking credit for putting money on the table,” Gilliam replied. “That’s what you’re supposed to do in contract negotiations.”
“And you’re not supposed to walk out when we do,” Warren said archly.
“John, you know the history of these negotiations,” Gilliam replied. “The city always ends up giving us more than its original offer. So why don’t you just cut to the chase and get to that part now and we can both go and tell our people that we’ve worked this thing out.”
“History is just that: history,” Warren said. “That was then and this is now, so let’s stay in the present. Two percent a year for three years. No give-backs. No additional cost-sharing on health care. And we won’t even ask you to give back that idiotic holiday.”
“How dare you!” Gilliam bellowed, slamming his palm violently on the table. “How dare you! One of my men gave his life in service to this city! How dare you begrudge us our negotiated right to remember him properly with a special day to pay our respects.” Decker, sitting alongside Gilliam, was both frightened and confused: frightened by the ferocity of Gilliam’s outburst and confused because he had no idea what his client was talking about.
Gilliam and Warren were sparring over Amos Wells Day, a paid holiday for the city’s blue-collar workers. In the mid-1960s, Wells, a city water department worker attempting to close an open fire hydrant that was blasting water into the street on a hot summer day, slipped on a wet pavement directly into the stream of water and was propelled by the sheer force of the jet of water into the middle of a busy intersection, where he was struck and killed by an ice cream truck. The city had given its employees a day off work to attend the funeral, and then, during labor negotiations a year later, a mayor facing a difficult primary election made it a permanent paid holiday for city workers when he realized that doing so would not cost the city any money but would help him reach a new contract agreement before that election, thereby helping him win the votes of satisfied city workers. That mayor won renomination by just a handful of votes and city workers had now enjoyed this paid holiday for more than forty years.
“First of all, I said we weren’t asking for it back, and second of all, I think it’s hardly begrudging your members to suggest that Amos Wells should not be mentioned in the same breath as Martin Luther King, George Washington, and Abraham Lincoln,” Warren said.
“It’s disrespectful even to mention it,” Gilliam replied. “Amos Wells gave his life for this city and deserves a day in his memory.”
“And what about all the police officers and firefighters who did the same?” interjected Estevez. The others looked at him, astonished that the heretofore silent city official had spoken.
“What about them?” Gilliam asked.
“Why a day off for a water department worker and not the dozens of cops and firemen who’ve died in the line of duty?”
Gilliam scoffed; Warren was not pleased with the possibility that Estevez might be giving Gilliam a new idea.
“If I was running their unions, you’d be damn sure we’d have paid days off for all of them – every single one. I can’t help it if the men they elect to run their unions were born with empty sacks.”
“Well, we’re not talking about that, Fred,” Warren said, “and we’re not asking you to give back Amos Wells Day. What we are asking you to do is to be serious about our offer: two percent a year for three years.”
“And I’m telling you that if that’s where you’re starting, it means there’s more you’re holding back and that all I have to do to get it is to wait you out.”
“There’s no more,” Warren replied. “You’ve seen the budget and you’ve seen the revenue projections. There’s no more.”
“There’s always more. Tell me: do you like the smell of trash piling up on neighborhood streets, John?”
“Our contract expires June 30, and by the fourth of July, uncollected trash is going to be sitting on curbs for four days. Add a little heat and a little humidity and you’ve got bugs, you’ve got rats, and you’ve got stench. And if it rains, god help us all.”
“It’s April and you’re threatening a strike in July – now? Talk about bad faith.”
“Let’s not pretend it’s not a possibility, John, because we all know it is. And this time around, we’ve got a lot going for us that I think will put the public in our corner.”
“Surely you jest.”
“Do I look like I’m jesting?”
“You think the taxpayers are going to support giving you and your members more of their tax dollars?”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Would you care to tell me why?”
Gilliam smiled for a moment and decided that the time had come to unveil the negotiating strategy that he was certain would pay huge dividends for his members this year.
“Here’s why: the people love us.”
“They love you?” Warren asked, fighting hard to refrain from laughing.
“Yes, they love us. We all know the most publicly visible of my people are streets department workers, right?”
“I’m with you so far.”
“The trash is being collected. Street repairs are now being made almost as soon as a problem arises. And to top it off, the last time it snowed, we clearly every single city street – every last one of them.”
“So we’re heroes. Read the newspaper. Watch the TV news. Or just ask your neighbors. People are happy with us, and we believe that when we take our case to the people, they’re going to be in our corner.”
“I see,” he said. “And you think one good winter is going to make up for years of the public hating you – a hatred, by the way, that we’ve never taken advantage of during past contract talks.”
“Oh, you’ve taken advantage of it. You don’t come right out and do it overtly, but you always count on the public backing your hard-line negotiating positions because you know they don’t like us. But now they do, and we’re going to take advantage of it.”
“We’re going to take our case right to the people.”
Decker turned to look at Gilliam; he was hearing this for the first time.
“We’re going to tell them that we’re getting the job done like never before, that they’ve told us that they’re happy with our work, and that we hope they’ll contact the mayor and their council members and tell them to be fair to us.”
“And the past twenty or thirty years of failing to meet that kind of high performance level?”
“You see, that’s where you guys have really helped us. You gave us Shaniqua Watson, bless her heart – a gift from heaven above. We’re going to tell the public that our men and women have always been ready, willing, and able and that our past failures were the result of poor leadership and incompetent management, and Shaniqua Watson is proof. You finally put a good manager in charge and now look at how good our work is. So our argument is going to be that the problem has always been you, not us, and that the last few months are proof of that. People should support us because we’re willing to do the city’s dirty work, their dirty work, and we’ve proven that when we’re given the right tools and the right leadership, we can do a great job.”
“Really?” Decker asked, excited about his client’s speech.
Gilliam glared at him; Decker looked down.
“You have a very high opinion of people’s capacity to forgive and forget,” Warren said after a moment’s pause.
“The public has the attention span of a gnat,” Gilliam replied, smiling.
“Well, Fred, that may be true, but what happens when we tell the public that you turned down $140 million in pay raises? Do you think they’re going to be on your side then?”
“I think they will,” Gilliam said, suddenly sounding not quite as convinced by his own argument.
“And what about when we tell them that the only way to pay you more than the additional $140 million we already offered is to raise their taxes? Do you think the public will be in your corner then, when you’re asking them to reach into their own pockets?”
Gilliam did not respond.
“We’re trying to be fair with you, Fred,” Warren continued. “Two percent a year over three years is fair. We think the public would absolutely support no raises in the first year, and we think they would support more cost-sharing on your health benefits, probably even a lot more cost-sharing, since most people’s employers started requiring them to do that a long time ago. We also think they would turn out in huge numbers for a parade celebrating a give-back of Amos Wells Day. But we’re not asking for any of those things. The mayor has run a huge international corporation and he’s never asked his employees to give anything back, and his marching orders to us are to treat you with the same respect. But if you think the public is going to support raises for you even if it means higher taxes for them, I suggest that you hire a pollster and ask them yourself because I think you’ve got another thing coming.”
The talks went on like this for the rest of the session, and a few others as well, until Gilliam concluded that he had reached a stalemate and needed help. For that help, he would turn where the unions always turned, and where the public never suspected they turned.
Two hours later staff members wandered, one by one, into Norbert’s city hall office. This was the mayor’s morning staff meeting, and the regular participants were Wilma O’Neill, the city’s managing director; Cisco Estevez, the city’s lawyer; Todd Dixon, the finance director; Rikki Johnston, the mayor’s press secretary; and Ed Williams and Larry Newman, two special assistants to the mayor. Joining them this morning at the mayor’s request were police commissioner Frank Ryan and Jon Ravelsky.
Once everyone was seated the mayor wasted no time beginning.
“What the hell happened last night?” he asked.
“As you read in the paper,” O’Neill began, but the mayor cut her off.
“I’d like to hear this directly from my police commissioner, please.”
O’Neill nodded and let Ryan speak.
“We’ve been watching these folks for nearly a year, and closely for about seven months. This was a major bust of a large, very high-priced prostitution ring.”
“I had no idea we cared about prostitution,” Norbert said.
“Normally we don’t, but it’s different when it’s flouted right in front of us, as it was in this case.
“We certainly don’t go searching for high-priced call girls. What little time we spend on this kind of thing is devoted to quality-of-life crimes, and that generally means sweeping up fifty-dollar hookers off street corners on Spruce and Locust and near the convention center when there are events in town. Otherwise, we don’t really care about it.”
“Then why this? Because you know we’re going to be asked.”
“Nearly a year ago there was a flood in the building where the operation has its headquarters and our licenses and inspections department had to clear the repairs before it could be reoccupied. The inspector found a few violations – pretty minor stuff, actually – but instead of just getting it fixed, Doctoroff tried to slip the inspector two hundred dollars. The inspector immediately called us.”
“I see,” Norbert said, paused for a moment, and then asked, “Wait a minute: licenses and inspections has an honest inspector who reported an attempted bribe instead of just pocketing it? Since when?”
“Yeah, who knew?” Newman interjected.
“Well,” commissioner Ryan continued, “this particular inspector’s father is a cop and two of his brothers are cops and the only reason he’s not a cop is that he took some shrapnel in Desert Storm, so he settled for L&I inspector. The family takes law enforcement very seriously.
“So we sent him back wearing a wire and a story that he would consider taking care of the violations but that whether he did or he didn’t, he still needed to measure and diagram the space to make sure the room configuration was the same as it was before the flood. We wanted to get them to offer him money again and for us to have our guys catch it on tape it when they did.”
“And Doctoroff wasn’t there when he arrived, so he started diagramming and measuring the rooms while the receptionist hunted down Doctoroff. The inspector became suspicious because he thought the place had way too many phone jacks for what was supposed to be an accountant’s office. At first we thought maybe Doctoroff was making book, so we decided to keep an eye on the place rather than take him down immediately for the bribe. Well, we saw pretty quickly that it was a decent-sized operation and that some pretty well-known people might be involved. We took our time gathering evidence because we figured that sooner or later we’d see a mob tie-in, which became our primary interest, and that once that surfaced, we’d move in on Doctoroff. We finally had what we needed late last week and moved in late last night.”
“Why wasn’t I told about this?” Norbert demanded.
“You don’t want to know about individual criminal investigations unless it’s in response to a visible public crime,” Estevez said. “It raises too many political complications down the road – especially in situations like this where you may be acquainted with some of the customers.”
“Am I?” Norbert asked.
“Yes. A lot of them,” Ryan replied.
“And Representative Ianucci is one of them?”
“A frequent customer?”
“Does it really matter?”
“And there’s no doubt?”
“Are you planning to prosecute?”
“The johns? That’s the DA’s decision, not ours, but I doubt it.”
“So I guess you have a problem in your department, Frank.”
“The leak. Somebody leaked Ianucci’s name to the press.”
“No sir. Doctoroff himself gave his name to Megan Malone of the Post.”
“You’re kidding. How?”
“One of my men overheard it. He did it with his one phone call. Instead of calling a lawyer, he called Malone and told her his story and a few more choice bits and then asked Malone to call his lawyer.”
“No, sir, that’s only the start.”
“Malone told me that Doctoroff told her that if the charges aren’t dropped within forty-eight hours he’s going to start giving her more names – one every other day. Each one will be someone prominent, and Doctoroff claims he can do it for months without repeating himself. Doctoroff apparently claims to have city officials past and present, other elected officials, the heads of some local companies, a few local TV and radio people, some prominent members of the clergy, some professional athletes, and even a few high-profile women who’ve been his customers and hired women from him.”
“Cisco, can he do that?”
“Probably,” the city solicitor said. “A judge could cut off his direct access to the press, but there are plenty of other ways to disseminate that kind of information.”
“Has he attempted to use this yet as a bargaining chip?”
“No, not yet,” the police commissioner said. “But his lawyer hinted at it last night. She’s meeting with the DA later this morning.”
Norbert turned to his press secretary.
“Rikki, how do we handle this?”
“’We’ don’t,” Johnston replied. “This is a police matter and the police and the DA should handle it. I’ll work with police public affairs to develop the overall strategy, if that’s okay with you, commissioner, but the one and only statement that should come from this office is that this is an ongoing police investigation, that you have no intention of commenting on it, and that you’re leaving the decisions about police work to the police commissioner and decisions about prosecution to the DA.”
“That sounds good, but I also want it to be the truth,” Norbert said.
“Frank,” Norbert said, turning to his police commissioner, “this isn’t a matter of an immediate threat to the public safety, so I don’t want to be involved in the decision-making unless something arises that’s different from what we already know. If that happens, you take it to Cisco and Wilma. Otherwise, I want an update of no more than one page sent to me, Wilma, Cisco, and Rikki every day by five. Those reports should include the status of prosecution plans as you best understand them. I’ll ask the DA to keep you in the loop on those decisions, but I have a city to run and I have no intention of getting bogged down in a criminal investigation – and of prostitution, of all things.”
The others in the room nodded.
“Thank you for joining us, Frank,” the mayor said to his police commissioner. Ryan took this as his cue to depart.
Norbert turned to Ravelsky.
“I have a feeling that’s going to be the easy part. So Jon, what does this mean politically?”
Ravelsky, who had been silent so far and had looked almost disinterested, leaned forward in his chair.
“The implications,” he began, “are enormous, and potentially catastrophic for the city and your administration.
“Unless Ianucci is vindicated almost immediately – something that sounds highly unlikely – he’ll lose at least some of his influence in Harrisburg, if not all of it.”
“Vindicated?” one of the mayor’s aides asked.
“Something bizarre, like maybe it was someone who looks a lot like him, or if it’s another Michael Ianucci, or if the evidence is lost. But that sounds highly unlikely, and what it means for you is that forces that have nothing to do with you personally are going to react in ways that are probably going to cause you a lot of pain.”
“No disrespect to you, but Michael’s the most powerful politician in Philadelphia and the most powerful politician in Harrisburg. If – no, when – he’s seen as vulnerable, everyone he’s ever beaten or hurt or just kept in his shadow is going to be looking for blood. People have been waiting for years for this kind of opportunity. The governor hates him. Council hates him. The legislature hates him. Even his protégés – the people who’d be writing tickets for the parking authority if it weren’t for him – they hate him, too. They’re going to try to hurt him, and one of the best ways to do that is to take advantage of his sudden and unexpected loss of influence to hurt the interests that are nearest and dearest to him.”
“And that is…?”
“Philadelphia, for one. First and foremost, at least in the state capital, Michael’s perceived as the city’s champion. He carries the city’s water there every year, and all these years, he’s beaten off every attempt to hurt the city. He’s been the guard at the door, and now he’ll be gone and the door will be unguarded.
“And the thing is, even hurt, he could still be formidable, but he’s going to be too distracted.”
“But Frank said he doubts they’ll prosecute.”
“That’s not it. First, there’ll be a lot of press attention, which Michael’s never really faced before. He and his organization have always pretty much flown under the radar. Those days are now gone. More important, he’s up for renomination in six weeks.”
“That’s never been a problem for him, and as I understand it, he has no opposition.”
“Now,” Ravelsky said. “But when this comes out someone will run, you can be sure of it. His political enemies will find someone to put up against him, and any such candidates will have important advantages.
“Like they weren’t caught with their pants down around their ankles in a whorehouse, Jim.”
“Yeah, I guess that matters.”
“It does. He could still win despite that, especially since time’s so short, but for the first time since he won the seat twenty years ago he’s probably going to have to work for it. He’s going to have to raise money and canvass and put his own organization to work for himself for once. He’ll have to take his opponents seriously, knowing that no matter what he says or does there’ll be people intent on going into the voting booth to cast their ballot for anyone but him.”
“So what do you think we should do?” Norbert asked.
“When your horse breaks down before the race begins, you have a choice: find another horse or sit out the race.”
“The latter doesn’t seem like much of an option for us, does it?”
“No, it’s doesn’t.”
“There’s no one person who can step in and replace Michael in Harrisburg. You’re going to need the entire delegation. Like everyone else in Harrisburg, they’re all ambitious – they want to be mayor or governor or chair one committee or another, and they’ve all felt held down by Michael’s overwhelming power over the years. They’ll see this as their big opportunity to step up and show what they can do without him. You’re going to have to take advantage of that and convince them, individually and collectively, that they can begin doing that now by showing that they can do what Michael always does: rescue the city from the anti-Philadelphia forces in Harrisburg.”
“How do I do that if they’re all competing?”
“You’re going to have to charm them and appeal to their ambitions. You’ll have to organize them, work with them to develop a strategy, and then help them execute that strategy. I’ll help you with that, and so will the chairman. The local Republican leadership will, too.”
“Absolutely. They’re the majority party in the legislature, but the local guys have never been able to protect the city’s interests. Michael’s always given them cover. If the city takes it in the neck in the budget, they know that people will look at them and complain that they couldn’t even successfully work their fellow Republicans. They don’t want to risk looking like the incompetent, impotent fools they are. Don’t worry; they’ll help.
“This is all going to cost you, though. The funny thing is, when Michael wins on your behalf, he never asks for anything in return – at least not right away. He just banks your goodwill until he needs it. These guys, though, have years of unfulfilled wishes and limited access, and they’re all going to have their wish lists. If you expect them to deliver for you, you’re going to have to deliver for them.
“What kind of relationships do you have with them?”
“Decent, I think,” Norbert said.
“Meaning that Ed and Larry both talk to them all every week, without fail. I check in with all of them every two weeks or so. It’s mostly courtesy calls, but they seem to appreciate it. My predecessor never gave them the time of day. I also let them know that they’ll always be able to get through to me without a hassle and that my staff has been instructed not to screen their calls.”
“And what do they want from you?”
“The usual – some jobs, a playground, a call to a potential donor, things like that. I think we’ve been pretty supportive.”
Wilma O’Neill, silent as always during political discussions, now interrupted.
“But not entirely supportive, Mr. Mayor.”
Norbert looked at her.
“What?” Ravelsky asked.
“You’ve given them all a lot, but there’s one thing they all want that you repeatedly refuse to give them.”
Norbert had no idea what she was talking about.
“What?” he asked.
“They want Shaniqua Watson. They want her out.”
The days following the Philadelphia police department’s successful break-up of the prostitution ring were frenetic and chaotic. Forty-eight hours after the arrests, the accused ring-leader, Eugene Doctoroff, made good on his promise to begin releasing the names of prominent customers if charges against him were not dropped. The first person he named was Freddy Logan, an outfielder on the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team. Logan was humiliated, an immediate object of derision for local pundits and barflies and even from women’s groups that made a great deal of noise even though the player was single – as if single men suddenly had no right to seek sex. His teammates were sympathetic: many shared his view that frequenting prostitutes was far safer, both medically and emotionally, than indulging in the groupies who appeared wherever players could be found. Some of his teammates, moreover, recognized that their own names could be next: the Philadelphia Escort Service, it turned out, was practically a preferred provider for local professional sports teams and the players who came to Philadelphia to compete against them.
When the revelation about the baseball player produced a large splash but not the enormous splash that Doctoroff sought – some people simply refused to be shocked to learn that a professional athlete would pay for sex – the accused modified his tactics slightly: instead of waiting another forty-eight hours to reveal the next name, he announced a schedule for his next five announcements. In two days, he said, he would name the patriarch of one of the city’s wealthiest and most prominent families; two days after that, he would name the CEO of a large corporation headquartered in the city; two days after that, he said, he would name a very prominent member of the local clergy; two days after that, an Academy Award-winning actor who had spent three weeks in Philadelphia filming a movie the previous year; and two days after that, a leader of what he described as “one of the most prominent family values organizations” in the eastern United States.
A media feeding frenzy ensued. On the days when it published – exclusively – the latest name, the Post’s circulation almost doubled; talk radio hosts encouraged their listeners to speculate on whose name Doctoroff might offer next; newspaper columnists alternately condemned the tactic and reveled in delicious anticipation of the next announcement; office pools materialized in businesses throughout the region; and Doctoroff – now free on bail – found himself besieged by television and newspaper reporters hoping to get a tip on the next name. This Philadelphia story quickly became a national news story: newspapers from across the country sent reporters to Philadelphia, internet blogs sizzled with speculation, and cable television talk and political programs devoted large portions of their broadcasts to the big story coming out of Philadelphia. Eugene Doctoroff immediately found himself a local celebrity and was followed so closely and persistently, everywhere he went, by both the news media and the simply curious that after a few days of near-constant harassment he retreated to his suburban home and essentially lived under a sort of self-imposed house arrest.
But Doctoroff’s telephone still worked, and he began receiving calls from former clients desperate not to be named publicly. Recognizing the opportunity this afforded – he was, after all, a man who sold sex for a living – he began offering his callers an opportunity to avoid immediate exposure. His legal defense, he told them, was clearly going to be very expensive, and he was a man of limited means who no longer had any means of earning a living. Anyone willing to contribute fifty thousand non-tax-deductible dollars to his legal defense fund, he told his callers, could be assured of four months of protection from revelation by Doctoroff himself. More than a few of these callers found such terms eminently acceptable, and within a matter of days Doctoroff had amassed a defense fund of $400,000.
Perhaps the busiest man in Philadelphia during this hectic period was Jon Ravelsky. Even before Norbert’s election, Ravelsky had long been viewed as the most politically connected private citizen in town. With his best friend now mayor, his cachet had grown even greater, and now, literally dozens of prominent Philadelphians who knew their names were on Doctoroff’s client list called him night and day, at home and at his office, desperate to be spared the public humiliation of seeing their photo on the front page of the local newspaper – and in the tabloid Post, of all places – for all the wrong reasons. Ravelsky knew he could not help them, so all he generally did was advise those among them who were married to speak to their spouses so that if they were named publicly, at least their families would be spared the surprise, if not the humiliation.
After two days of fielding such calls, however, Ravelsky thought he might know a way to soften the blow of public shame for these otherwise upstanding citizens – and possibly even prevent it entirely. With this in mind, he invited the mayor and his wife to dinner at his home. After eating, Ravelsky begged the indulgence of their wives for ten minutes so he could speak to the mayor in private. This was not an uncommon occurrence at such gatherings, and Ravelsky and Norbert retreated to the attorney’s study.
Ravelsky came directly to the point.
“Jim, this Doctoroff business is spiraling out of control.”
“I know,” Norbert replied, laughing. “It’s actually pretty funny, when you think about it.”
“No, it’s not, not really,” Ravelsky replied. “There are a lot of good people out there who’re afraid their lives and reputations are on the verge of being destroyed.”
“Maybe they should’ve thought about that before they started paying for sex,” Norbert replied.
“It’s not as simple as that, Jim, and you know it.”
“What’s the problem here, Jon? Surely you’re not one of them.”
“No, of course not, but what if I were? How would you feel if I were, and if I stood to lose my wife and my livelihood based on the whim of a pimp?”
“I’d be very sad, Jon, and I’d certainly stand by you, but what would you have me do?”
“I’m getting calls, Jim. Dozens and dozens of calls from a veritable who’s who of Philadelphia. Something like this could literally destroy the civic fabric of the town. These are people we all count on to be the leaders of our city. Not only do they contribute to our campaigns, but they also serve on our boards and our committees, donate their time and staff and money to our cultural institutions, and represent us outside the region. Some of them are the face of Philadelphia in some circles. And yes, some of them are my friends and my partners – and yours, too. Surely you’re getting calls.”
“I’m getting dozens. I’m amazed. We have to do something.”
“What do you want me to do? Ask the DA to drop the case?”
“No, but I was thinking…”
“Again, I’m just thinking, so hear me out for a minute.
“Let us assume, for the sake of discussion, that the DA’s case is solid and it’s not going away. Let us also assume that you’re not going to ask him to back off.
“Frank Ryan said there’s probably a mob connection to the prostitution ring. I’m assuming that you’re more interested in prosecuting the mob than you are in stopping call girls.”
“I’m not involved in that, Jon. That’s strictly the DA’s call, not mine.”
“Agreed, and I wasn’t suggesting otherwise. What I mean is that I’m assuming the DA is offering some kind of deal to Doctoroff in which he faces drastically reduced charges in exchange for evidence about the mob connection.”
“That sounds like a reasonable assumption.”
“Okay, and I’m also assuming that Doctoroff’s both afraid of giving up his mob connection for the obvious reasons and still confident that threatening to out his johns will get him off, and that as a result, he rejects any deal and continues outing some poor slob every other day.
“So if that’s the case, why don’t you preempt him?”
“I mean the police and the DA.”
“Tell me what you have in mind.”
“I mean that the DA tells Doctoroff that he has one last chance to give up his mob connection, and if he doesn’t, the city will preempt him and name the johns, he’ll lose all his leverage, and he’ll go to jail. If he doesn’t want that, he has one more chance to give up the mob connection, with a promise that if he does, the feds will put him into the witness protection program for the rest of his life.”
“What’s the point of doing that?”
“It gives the DA a new way to leverage the information you really want out of Doctoroff, and if he goes for it, the names remain private.”
“So how does this help the people worrying about being named?”
“If you threaten to name the names, he realizes that his leverage is about to disappear, which would make talking more attractive to him. If he deals, the naming names stops immediately. It wouldn’t be a threat, either. If Doctoroff rejects the deal, you reveal the names – just hand them over to the press.”
Norbert just looked at Ravelsky, astonished.
“What would be the point of that? What possible good would that do?”
“Look at what Freddy Logan of the Phillies and Skip Cathcart are going through. They’re being pilloried and ridiculed and humiliated, and their humiliation won’t end until we open the paper tomorrow morning and see the next name – a name, by the way, that’s not as well-known as theirs but is a lot more important.”
“I’m not telling you that.”
“Because if you’re ever asked, you never want to be in a position to confirm that you knew,” Ravelsky said.
“But it’s big?”
“So if Doctoroff doesn’t take the bait and deal, what’s the value of going ahead and releasing all the names at once?”
“There’s nothing we can do for the guy who’s being named tomorrow. When his turn comes, he’s going to be vilified for two whole days. Everyone’s going to be talking about him and nothing else. I know him, and I’m sure he’s going to feel that he should offer to resign as CEO of his company. I know his board, too, and they’re just stupid enough to accept his resignation. When that happens, this city will lose a major civic leader. And then the cycle will start all over again in two days.”
“So your idea?”
“If Doctoroff goes for it, the naming names ends immediately and a lot of otherwise good people are spared. If he doesn’t and you announce them all at once, no one has to withstand such intense public scrutiny all by himself. The attention is diffused, no one bears it all alone all at once, entire families aren’t humiliated as much, and you have more survivors.”
“It’s an interesting idea, Jon. It’s humanitarian, and even though the people it would benefit all did something they shouldn’t have done, they all deserve better than what’s going to happen to them in the days and weeks to come.
“But you know we can’t do it.”
“Come on, Jon. The courts would come down on the city like a ton of bricks, and accurate or not, everyone whose name we reveal would have grounds to sue us. Aside from maintaining that what we did was unconscionable and illegal, they’d all be in a position to say that there was no telling that their name ever would have been revealed. We just couldn’t do it.”
“I guess not,” Ravelsky conceded.
“Now there’s no reason,” Norbert said, “that the DA couldn’t try to run this as a bluff with Doctoroff. I can’t take the idea to him myself, because I’ve been clear that I’m staying out of the decision-making and only want to be kept informed of those decisions before they’re made public.
“But if someone else were to suggest something like this to the DA, I’m sure he’d at least consider it, because as a strategy, it could work. There’s certainly nothing to lose by trying.”
“Say no more, Jim. Let’s get back to our wives.”
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.”
On a chilly Saturday afternoon, Fred Gilliam bought a turkey sandwich at a stall inside Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market and negotiated his way through the masses to the public seating area, scanning the faces in search of his lunchtime appointment. After a few moments he spotted Harold Miller, the president of Philadelphia’s city council, sipping from a cup of coffee, a Post open on his table.
“Hey Harold,” Gilliam said, putting his sandwich onto the table and then pulling out a chair with one hand while extending the other toward Miller, who rose to greet him.
“Fred, good to see you,” Miller replied as he shook Gilliam’s hand and both men took their seats.
Gilliam and Miller were old friends: they had grown up in the same west Philadelphia community and attended the Dimner Beeber Middle School and Overbrook High School together. During their senior year of high school, Miller had been student government president and Gilliam vice president. They had run on the same ticket, and the only reason Miller won the top spot instead of Gilliam was that as seventeen-year-old friends they had agreed that jump shots from the top of the key would determine which one of them would run for president and which would settle for vice president.
For a few minutes they made small talk, asking about each other’s parents, wives, and children and exchanging notes on a number of mutual acquaintances. They also had a laugh at the expense of several local corporate executives, and a union leader with a reported penchant for wearing women’s pantyhose, whose relationships with prostitutes had recently been chronicled in the Post.
Eventually, Gilliam brought the conversation around to the purpose of this meeting: the progress – or lack thereof – in his union’s contract negotiations with the city.
Strictly speaking, Miller was a major part of “the city:” the second-highest-ranking elected official in Philadelphia and the head of its legislative branch of government. In theory, his sympathies should be across the negotiating table from Gilliam and his union. After all, labor contract negotiations inevitably resulted in increased operating costs for the city, and when they did, Miller and his council colleagues either had to cut other costs to accommodate that increase or raise taxes to pay for them.
In Philadelphia politics, however, theory bore little relation to practice. True, council played no public, visible role in labor talks. It was neither represented at the negotiating table nor consulted on strategy or terms by the negotiators, and except for a weekly briefing from a member of the mayor’s staff, it knew little and cared even less about the details or progress of negotiations.
Unknown to most Philadelphians, though – especially to the constituents who elected them – Philadelphia’s city council traditionally worked diligently behind the scenes against the city’s negotiators and against its taxpayers and on behalf of its unionized workers. It did so for the only reason council members ever did anything: self-interest.
Philadelphia viewed itself as a union town, and for most of the past sixty years, fifteen of the seventeen members of its council were Democrats – the maximum permitted by law. All fifteen of those council Democrats believed they owed their electoral success in large part to the support of organized labor – a tribute to a long-time Philadelphia tradition of union members voting for whomever their leaders tell them to vote without even knowing (or asking) why. The Democrats on council earned this politically valuable support from union leaders in a manner virtually invisible to the general public – and to the unions’ rank-and-file members. Council members would follow contract negotiations casually, and when the parties finally got serious and it seemed as if a relatively small amount of money separated the two sides, union leaders would turn to council for help and then council leaders would go to the mayor, point out how close the parties were and how unproductive and acrimonious further talks would be, and coax enough additional money out of the mayor to bring a new contract agreement.
The process of bringing council into the negotiations typically began only during the last days of June, right before the latest contracts were about to expire. This year, though, Gilliam felt he needed help earlier than usual, and that is what brought him to this April meeting with his boyhood friend. Miller, for his part, had no idea of the agenda for this meeting – although he knew that with Gilliam, there was always an agenda.
“So, have you heard about the contract negotiations?” Gilliam asked.
“Very little,” Miller replied. “I know about your screw-up when the mayor released his budget and I heard on the radio that you stormed out of the first session before your fanny ever hit the chair, but other than that, it’s been pretty quiet on my end. We’ve been busy not working on the budget. It’s way too soon for us to worry about you guys.”
“Well, I think it’s time,” Gilliam said.
“So early? Why?”
“Because they haven’t moved an inch – not an inch – since day one.”
“As I recall, it’s not a bad offer.”
“Come on, Harold,” Gilliam said.
“Two percent a year for three years and no givebacks is pretty damn good in a so-so economy, Fred. Council isn’t getting a dime, and every time we try to give someone on our staff a raise the Post raises holy hell and acts like it’s the end of the world because we’re trying to pay good people a living wage.”
“But two percent a year for three years was their starting point and they haven’t moved a dime. That’s not a negotiation; it’s an ultimatum.”
“That’s Norbert’s style, they tell me,” Miller explained.
“How do you figure?”
“Don’t you guys do your homework?” Miller asked.
“What’re you talking about?”
“Jesus, Fred, do you really go into your negotiations totally blind and unprepared? This is how Norbert operates; it’s why his people love and respect him. He puts all his cards on the table from day one and doesn’t keep any aces up his sleeve. If they’re telling you that the most they can afford is two percent a year for three years, that’s probably the most they can afford.”
“And you believe them?”
“As far as I can tell, his budget people have always been straight with us, and they keep giving us the same numbers and insist they don’t expect to spend any more on labor than what’s already in the budget because there’s no more money unless we either want to lay off police and firefighters or raise taxes – and you know we ain’t doing that, Fred.”
“But you and council always help us. We’re what keeps you in office.”
“And I’m not saying that absolutely, positively can’t happen this year, too, but right now, my council colleagues and I are feeling a little unmotivated.”
“How’s that?” Gilliam asked.
“As of right now, I believe you’ll find very little interest among my colleagues in helping you and your union negotiate a better contract.”
“And why not?”
“Come on, Fred, you know exactly why not.”
“What I know is that my people keep you and your colleagues in easy, high-paying jobs with great benefits, short work hours, summers off, and very little actual work, and all we ever ask of you is a well-placed word to the mayor every few years.”
As insulting as Gilliam’s statement might be, Miller found it impossible to dispute its accuracy and decided to ignore it and finish making his point.
“And we haven’t ruled out doing that again this year. It’s just that right now, we’re feeling a bit…underappreciated.”
“Because there’s only one thing we want from you, the only thing we’ve asked you for in years other than your votes, and you won’t give it to us.”
“We want Shaniqua Watson,” Miller declared.
“Again with Shaniqua Watson? You guys keep singing that same old song. What’s your beef with her?”
Miller rolled his eyes; he and Gilliam had already discussed this twice before.
“She’s an obstacle to council, an obstacle to ward leaders, and an obstacle to our delegation in Harrisburg. We want her out,” Miller said.
“So how is that my issue? You want her out, you go to the mayor.”
“So how’re your contract negotiations my issue? You want more money, you go to the mayor yourself.”
“Harold, my men love Shaniqua Watson. We’re making more money because of her.”
“Then maybe you’re just being greedy at the negotiating table if you’re already making more money without a better contract.”
“The people love Shaniqua Watson. She’s a hero in this town. Do you really think it makes political sense to try to bring her down?” Gilliam asked.
“And do you really think it makes political sense for us to let her steal our bread and butter, Fred?”
“She ain’t stealin’ nothin’ from you. She’s making you look good.”
“How do you figure that?”
“She’s making city government look good, look like an organization that gets things done.”
“Making city government look good is of absolutely no political value to council, Fred, and you know it,” Miller told him.
“You heard me. We don’t benefit in any way, shape, or form when she fills her potholes, fixes traffic signals, and plows streets without council’s direct participation.”
“When people are happy with government they vote to keep officials in office, Harold.”
“No, Fred, when people can’t get what they want from government on their own and have to go to their ward leader or councilman for help and we deliver, that’s when they vote to keep us in office. They vote because we take care of business for them.”
“You’re being naïve, Fred. We track every constituent request for help and keep a record of every time we’re able to deliver that help, and I’m telling you that requests are down fifty percent since Watson took over the streets department. If it keeps up that way, come election time, people are going to forget why they voted for us in the first place. They may even demand that other city departments be as responsive to their needs as the streets department.”
“So what’s wrong with that?” Gilliam asked.
“Are you out of your mind? City government can’t go around being responsive to the needs of the public. The only way it can work is if government is inaccessible and ignores the needs of the public so that ward leaders and council members have to kick government in the butt to do its job.”
“You’re crazy, Harold.”
“Am I? What’s a responsive streets department gotten you at the negotiating table so far?”
“Two percent a year for three years, and you don’t think that’s enough.”
“It’s not,” Gilliam insisted.
“Then what good has it done you to be efficient and effective?”
“That’s where you come in, Harold. You and council need to give an extra push for us.”
“And I’m telling you that the only way we can do that is if you join us in calling for the termination of Shaniqua Watson,” Miller declared.
“She’s good at what she does, the people love her, the papers love her, and my men love her. We’d look like idiots asking the mayor to fire her,” Gilliam replied.
“Well, you have a choice: you can settle for two percent a year for three years or you can risk a little egg on your face and join us in demanding that she be fired.”
“Deadly. We’ve had enough of Shaniqua Watson making this government responsive to the public’s needs. It has to stop, it has to stop right away, and you have to help us make it stop. The party can no longer afford to tolerate her kind of appalling competence. Either you’re with us in a very public way or you’re on your own at the negotiating table.”
Michael Ianucci had run unopposed in his three most recent re-election bids, and in the past six of those re-election years he had faced no opposition for the Democratic nomination. News of his unseemly involvement with prostitutes became public only two weeks before the deadline to qualify for this year’s primary ballot, and his sudden vulnerability led many to wonder whether someone might attempt the unthinkable: challenging the powerful incumbent even though so little time remained to mount a campaign.
The Post, in fact, shilled unashamedly for a challenger – any challenger – by publishing a series of flattering profiles of politically active people who lived in Ianucci’s district in the hope that it could entice one of them to step forward and run against him. So optimistic was the Post that this advocacy would produce an opponent that it even assigned an intern to stake out the office of the county board of elections, where candidates filed their nominating petitions, so it could report promptly on such a development. That intern, however, abandoned her post ten minutes prior to the office’s closing on the last day petitions could be submitted because she needed to use a bathroom and therefore missed the arrival of a tall, slender, gray-haired woman who slipped into the office with literally seconds to spare, handed over her nominating petitions, and was instructed to return the following Wednesday for the official review of her documents.
The woman, Kathleen O’Donnell, returned at the appointed day and hour and was ushered by the election commissioner into a conference room where she was met by four men who were introduced as interested parties: two, she was told, were members of Michael Ianucci’s staff; one was Denny McDougal, chairman of Philadelphia’s Democratic party; and the fourth was Guy Harris, who was widely regarded as the city’s foremost practitioner of election law.
“Why are all these people here?” O’Donnell asked the election commissioner.
Before the commissioner could respond, one of Ianucci’s aides interrupted.
“We’re here to challenge your candidacy and have your petitions thrown out, lady,” the man said.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because they’re fraudulent,” the man replied.
“You’ve seen them?” the woman asked.
“Oh, my,” the woman said. She opened her purse, removed a notebook, read briefly from it, and then turned away from the man and addressed the commissioner.
“It’s my understanding of this process that the petitions are to remain sealed until the official review, which is right now. Isn’t that so, commissioner?”
The lawyer arched an eyebrow.
“Yes, it is,” the commissioner replied.
“So let me ask you the question again, young man.”
The man shifted uneasily; there was something about this woman’s manner that summoned memories from his past in a curious, unpleasant, and as-yet unidentifiable way.
“Have you seen the petitions or did you just lie to me?”
“They’re fraudulent and we’re here to see them thrown out.”
“And you, Mr. Harris, who is your client in this matter?” O’Donnell asked.
“Representative Ianucci, ma’am.”
“And you feel no need to clarify the response of your client’s representative?”
“He’s free to say whatever he wants.”
O’Donnell reached into her purse.
“Excuse me a moment, gentlemen.”
She withdrew a cell phone, dialed a few numbers, and spoke just briefly.
“Hello. Yes, you were right. Thank you.”
Within moments there was a knock on the door and two men entered.
“I think it’s time we leveled the playing field, don’t you, Guy?” one of the newcomers asked.
The lawyer, the chairman, and Ianucci’s two staff members looked at one another: the speaker was Miles Patton, the second-most prominent election lawyer in Philadelphia. Ianucci’s men, his lawyer, and the party chairman knew Patton well: he was a close ally of several of Ianucci’s political rivals.
They now knew this challenge was something to be taken seriously.
“What happened, Mrs. O’Donnell?” Patton asked.
“That one over there said he’s seen my petitions and they’re fraudulent.”
“I see,” Patton said as he turned to face his client’s accuser. “So in that case, sir, either the board of commissioners permitted you to see her petitions, in which case you and one of them broke the law, or you lied and slandered Mrs. O’Donnell in front of witnesses and the tape recorder in her purse.”
O’Donnell, smiling, removed the tape recorder and waved it at them.
“So allow me to repeat the question, sir,” Patton continued. “Have you seen the petitions?”
Now it was Ianucci’s lawyer’s turn to speak.
“He doesn’t have to answer that, Miles.”
“No, he certainly doesn’t, but he can answer me or he can spend $20,000 on a lawyer and answer a grand jury. It’s his choice. Sir?”
“I didn’t see them,” the man admitted.
“Excellent,” Patton continued. “Commissioner, the soon-to-be former representative’s colleagues have gotten off to a very poor start, but I think we’re now ready to proceed.”
The commissioner sighed; it was going to be a long day.
The review process began with opening the sealed envelope with O’Donnell’s petitions. Most candidates were eliminated within minutes of this first step. 500 signatures – legally valid signatures – were required to gain a spot on the ballot, and most amateurs stopped once they collected 500. Inevitably, though, a few of those who signed the petitions did not live in the district or were not registered in the same party as the candidate or were not registered voters at all. If a candidate collected only 500 signatures and even one could be disqualified on such grounds, the candidate would not qualify for the ballot. The general rule, experienced politicians knew, was to collect three signatures for every one required, just to be safe.
The commissioner opened the envelope and withdrew a thick sheaf of paper. Ianucci’s supporters were not impressed: while a page had space for twenty-five signatures, it was not uncommon for some to have just a few.
The commissioner looked at the pages. Every single line on every single page was filled – the maximum of twenty-five signatures a page. The commissioner counted the pages and then, after a labored attempt at mathematics that involved extensive use of his fingers, announced, “One hundred pages, twenty-five signatures to a page. That’s about 2000 signatures.”
“2500, commissioner,” Patton corrected him.
“Yes, um, 2500,” the commissioner confirmed, accepting without question that the attorney’s mathematical skills surpassed his own.
“Commissioner, I’d like to officially challenge the validity of these signatures and request a formal review by the full county board of elections,” attorney Harris said.
Ianucci’s aides shook their heads in agreement; the commissioner was surprised – Harris had requested the review without even going through the motions of looking at the petitions. O’Donnell looked upset.
Attorney Patton spoke.
“I oppose that request, commissioner, unless Mr. Harris can show cause. As you know, he needs to cite proof, and he hasn’t done so.”
O’Donnell interrupted him.
“Excuse me, gentlemen, may I have a word with my lawyer for a moment?”
Everyone but O’Donnell, Patton, and the man who arrived with Patton left the room.
“Why not let him challenge?” O’Donnell asked. “It’ll be a public review, the press will be there, and since we know the signatures are valid, it’ll embarrass them and publicize my candidacy.”
Patton shook his head.
“In theory you’re right, but it’s too great a risk.”
“Because two of the three commissioners who would make the decision won election with Ianucci’s help and they owe him. On a matter of such importance to Ianucci personally, they would be under a lot of pressure to take his side and take care of business for him.”
“So we’d appeal.”
“Yes, to Common Pleas Court, where, unlike in most of the world, Philadelphia judges are elected. Almost all of them got to the bench with the party’s support, and in case you’re not aware of it, that’s the party chairman in the room with us, along with representatives of the only politician in town with more influence than him.”
“There are Republican judges.”
“Yes, but you can’t request a Republican judge, and even if you could, you wouldn’t necessarily want one.”
“The Republicans don’t want you on the ballot either, because in a one-on-one race against a Republican in a heavily Democratic district, you’d win easily. The Republicans are dying for a shot at a one-on-one race against Ianucci in November. They want Ianucci on the ballot in the fall, not you, so they won’t want to give you a chance to knock him off now.”
“I thought judges were supposed to be above partisan politics.”
“Are you kidding? Back in the seventies, I think, one judge stepped down off the bench and directly into a job as head of the city’s Republican party.”
“So we’d appeal to the Supreme Court.”
“For a case like this, an appeal would go to the state’s Commonwealth Court, where the president judge is Ianucci’s uncle and most of the rest of the judges owe their seats to the Democratic party.”
O’Donnell rolled her eyes.
“Your justice system,” she declared, “doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of justice.”
“This is ordinary, everyday Philadelphia politics,” Patton said. “Let me try to end this right here, please. Believe me, I know what I’m doing, and this is for the best.”
“If you say so.”
Patton stepped to the door and invited the others to rejoin them.
“So, Mr. Harris, you said these signatures are fraudulent. Would you like to point out some of the ones to which you object – keeping in mind, of course, that you’re going to have to prove that more than 2000 of them are fraudulent.”
One of Ianucci’s aides stepped up and began leafing through the pages. After a moment, he stopped.
“Look, right here, on page six. You can see that some of these signatures are in the same handwriting. Someone tried to mask it, but you can tell. It’s obvious.”
Ianucci’s aide was well-acquainted with this practice. Even experienced politicians like Ianucci had to be careful to review their own petitions for this very reason: sometimes, lazy volunteers, instead of collecting legitimate signatures, would simply fill in line after line with the names of people they assumed to be registered voters.
“Mr. Wilson,” Patton said, addressing for the first time the silent man who had arrived with him, “what do you think?”
Wilson examined the page for a moment.
“They’re written by different people,” Wilson said softly. “They all went to Catholic schools, where they really stress penmanship, and they do look very much like the basic Catholic school style of penmanship that they drill into you there, but I assure you they’re different.”
“So, who’s this, your handwriting expert?” one of Ianucci’s aides asked, laughing as he turned to his colleague.
“Yes, actually,” Patton said.
“Guy,” Patton continued, turning to the other lawyer and handing him a business card, “why don’t you call your office and have someone verify Mr. Wilson’s credentials.”
Harris looked at the card, sighed, and huddled with his clients. They spoke softly for a few moments, with Harris doing most of the talking.
Finally, Harris replied.
“We will defer to Mr. Wilson’s expertise,” he said. “We’re satisfied with Mrs. O’Donnell’s petitions and offer no challenge to their validity.”
“That’s okay,” Ianucci’s pugnacious aide added. “We’ll just beat the old lady’s ass on election day at the polls.”
O’Donnell turned to him.
“You’re a rude young man, but I guess I have to share the blame for that.”
“What’re you talking about, lady?” the man asked. He had been suspicious of O’Donnell from the start; there was something about her manner that seemed vaguely familiar to him – familiar in a way that made him very uncomfortable.
“Jimmy Conrad, is it not?” she asked him.
“Yeah,” he replied.
“You mean ‘yes.’ I guess you don’t remember me. I was your third grade teacher.”
“Couldn’t be,” the man said. “My third grade teacher was a nun at St. Jerome’s.”
“You mean Sister Theresa?” O’Donnell asked.
“Yeah, and you’re…”
“The former Sister Theresa.”
Conrad turned to his colleague.
“Mike’s running against a former nun.”
“Geez,” the other man replied, rolling his eyes.
“And you recognized me after all these years?” Conrad asked.
“Yes, I recognize all of my former students. I remember them, too.”
Conrad looked down and grew quiet.
“As I recall, your fingers were almost constantly in your nose. Judging from the dirt under your index fingernail and nowhere else on your hands,” she said as he hastily thrust his hands behind his back, “it appears that you haven’t entirely outgrown that nasty little habit.
“Well, gentlemen,” she concluded, “it’s been wonderful spending this time with you today. I wish you good luck at the polls, because I think you’ll need it. Commissioner?”
The commissioner smiled, declared O’Donnell’s nominating petitions to be in order and valid, signed and notarized them, and showed all of his visitors to the door.
Still facing charges of operating a prostitution ring, Eugene Doctoroff continued to make good on his promise to identify, every other day, high-profile clients of what he characterized as his “escort business.” He had been doing so for more than a month, yet when asked by a reporter if he was nearing the end of the list of clients whose names would shock and appall and entertain the city, he just laughed and declared “Not even close.”
Throughout the town, guessing the next john to be named had fast become a favorite local pastime. So far, the unmasked included corporate executives, city officials, the mayor of a prominent suburban town, a local television news anchorman, two well-known newspaper reporters, a clergyman, a radio talk show host, two professional athletes, and the coach of a local women’s college basketball team. Despite the regularity and frequency of the revelations, Philadelphia had not tired in the least of the spectacle of watching the very public humiliation of many of its most prominent citizens.
So absorbed were residents of the region in this vastly entertaining situation that it took a week – despite the Post’s earlier, avid interest – before the local newspapers even noticed that Michael Ianucci had a primary opponent. Even then, recognition came slowly because no one had ever heard of Kathleen O’Donnell and no one seemed to know whether she was a serious candidate or just one of those people who put their names on an election ballot on a lark. After a few more days, the press still knew little: all it reported was that she was fifty-three years old, taught junior high school social studies in the Philadelphia public school system, was active in several community groups but did not serve in a leadership position in any of them, and had never, as far as anyone could tell, been active in politics in any way.
But a week after candidates filed their nominating petitions they were required to file a campaign finance report, and when they did, it was clear that Kathleen O’Donnell was a candidate to be taken seriously. While she had raised virtually no money, her campaign committee included many prominent Philadelphia politicians: a U.S. senator, two members of Congress, two members of council who owed their elected offices to Ianucci and had clearly turned on their mentor, and every living former mayor of the city. Without question, Ianucci’s enemies, and even some of his friends, saw this an opportunity to defeat him at a time when his vulnerability was unprecedented.
The newspapers finally noticed. While reporters told the story, columnists speculated on its meaning. Clearly, they wrote, Ianucci’s enemies were stepping out of the shadows and hoping to dethrone him. Still, they speculated about whether this would be possible, even in light of the circumstances. After all, only three weeks remained until the election, and despite her impressive roster of supporters, Kathleen O’Donnell had not raised any money and was still virtually unknown; the newspapers, in fact, did not even have a photograph of her to run alongside articles about her candidacy.
Mayor Norbert was more concerned about the implications of Ianucci’s loss of power for his budget prospects than he was about the contest for Ianucci’s seat in the state House, but reporters eventually forced him to address the matter – sort of – publicly.
After he cut a ribbon to mark the completed restoration of a public library, reporters from two television stations thrust microphones into Norbert’s face as he returned to his car.
“Mr. Mayor, you’ve had a good political relationship with state representative Michael Ianucci. Will you be endorsing him in next month’s election?”
“I’m not endorsing any candidates, Lisa.”
“I’ve never endorsed any candidates in the past and I don’t see why I should start now.”
Failing to recognize that this was Norbert’s first year in office and that he had no past record when it came to endorsing or not endorsing candidates, the reporter simply accepted his explanation without question.
“What about Kathleen O’Donnell?” she asked.
“What about her?” the mayor replied.
“What do you think about her?”
“I’ve never met her.”
“Is that why you’re not endorsing her?”
“No, but that would be a pretty good reason, don’t you think? But actually, I’m not endorsing her because, as I just said, I’m not endorsing anyone.”
“Won’t you be pressured by both sides for an endorsement?”
“Pressured? I don’t think so. I imagine I’ll be asked, but I have no plans to make an endorsement.”
The reporters were growing frustrated.
“If you have no plans, does that mean your plans could change?”
The mayor sighed.
“How many different ways do I need to tell you that I’m staying out of it?”
“But if you had to make a choice…”
He cut off the reporter.
“I don’t live in Roxborough and won’t be voting in this election, so I don’t have to make a choice, do I?”
With that, the mayor climbed into his car and shut the door and seconds later was gone.
Mayor Norbert had more important things than endorsements to worry about – specifically, the status of his proposed budget. It was now late April, council’s budget hearings had been over for more than a month, and still, the group that one of his predecessors had once labeled “the worst legislative body in the free world” had not voted on the budget and had not given any sign that it was considering doing so anytime soon even though by law, the city’s budget had to be passed one month prior to the beginning of the new fiscal year on July 1.
Norbert and his staff did not understand this delay. The budget he had presented to council was balanced, as required by law, and although it included the disputed state funding, this was standard practice because the deadline for passing Philadelphia’s budget was one month earlier than the deadline for passing the state budget. In every other respect, this budget was unexceptional: it proposed no tax increases or cuts in any popular city programs, nor did it call for any lay-offs of city workers. It also included a generous $140 million for pay raises for city employees and therefore would not require any difficult or politically sensitive last-minute adjustments once agreements were reached on contracts with the unions.
Most of the budget hearings, the mayor and his staff felt, had gone well: council members had many questions and complaints, as they always did, but not a single one had gone unanswered by the mayor and his staff. The single biggest controversy had been over whether to fund significant and costly renovations for a beloved but deteriorating outdoor city-owned concert venue, but when a number of council members had expressed anger and outrage over the mayor’s failure to propose such renovations – even though, in the many discussions and meetings between members of the mayor’s staff and council members prior to releasing the budget, not a single council member had so much as even mentioned the old amphitheater – Norbert had immediately revised his budget to include the desired funding. Philadelphia mayors had long grown accustomed to councils that huffed and puffed and tried to blow their budgets down, but ultimately, Philadelphia city councils proved sadly asthmatic, their huffing and puffing eventually turning into wheezing and coughing as they passed proposed budgets in a timely manner so their members could move on to the far more important business that commenced as soon as they completed that task: their three-month summer recess.
But Norbert and his leadership team of mostly non-Philadelphians did not understand much of the underlying dynamic that caused this unexpected and unwelcome delay.
One of those underlying causes was bruised political feelings. Of the seventeen members of this dilatory council, seven harbored serious mayoral ambitions of their own, and now, more than five months after Norbert’s election and nearly a year after his primary victory in a city in which Democratic nomination meant automatic election in the fall, they were still grudgingly adjusting to the reality that they were dealing with a first-term mayor in his first year of office in a city that, no matter how incompetently its government performed, had not voted a sitting mayor out of office in nearly a century. Among those it had returned to office were mayors who had allowed party bosses to run the city; mayors who had significantly raised taxes; mayors who had seen top deputies indicted for public corruption; and even a mayor who had permitted his police force to bomb an entire city neighborhood to force a group of noisy and annoying but unarmed back-to-nature radicals out of their home.
These bruised feelings were serious. Two members of council had lost to Norbert in the Democratic mayoral primary, and one of them had insisted, to the bitter end and even afterward, that he had been entitled to the job because it was “my turn.” A third had been scared out of the primary by what he viewed as the insurmountable challenge of running against a rich man financing his own campaign. Two others still had not grown totally resigned to the sad reality that the next time the office would be available – Philadelphia mayors were limited by law to two terms in office – they would be in their seventies and too old to pursue their dream.
The mayor and his team also failed to appreciate council’s genuine resentment of what they considered to be his overly austere and unnecessarily responsible budget. The mayor thought he was doing the responsible thing by budgeting pay raises for city workers and finding ways to pay for his programs without raising taxes and without proposing a spending increase of even one dollar over the previous fiscal year. This infuriated council members when they found that some of their own pet capital projects were not part of the proposed spending plan. Even though the city’s current configuration of recreation centers, playgrounds, swimming pools, ice skating rinks, libraries, and ball fields had been developed at a time when Philadelphia’s population had just crept past the two million mark, back in 1960, council members still wanted more such facilities – more recreation centers, more playgrounds, more swimming pools, more ice skating rinks, more libraries, more ball fields – even though twenty-five percent of the city’s population had vanished in the ensuing fifty years. They wanted new facilities so they could smile proudly at ribbon-cutting ceremonies and point to their accomplishment – and they wanted those facilities because they knew that city tradition dictated that once they retired from office, one of those facilities would be renamed in their honor.
Council members, for their part, did not understand the mayor’s interest in fiscal austerity. They were not interested in responsible budgets, they told one another in private. To the contrary, they were Democrats: they felt they had been elected to office to spend the public’s money and to exercise the good judgment and iron will to spend that money regardless of whether there was money available to be spent and regardless of whether the public really wanted the programs or the facilities on which they spent it. In fact, they felt it was their solemn duty to stand up to those who demanded that they exercise financial responsibility merely for the sake of doing so. They were even willing to raise taxes to fulfill this obligation, if necessary, and they were mystified and more than a little disturbed by a Democratic mayor so uninterested in spending money and so afraid to raise taxes so he could do so.
The mayor’s staff wanted to resolve its remaining budget differences with council so that council could pass the city budget, so one afternoon, the mayor’s chief of staff, Wilma O’Neill, met in her office with Roberta Belkin, chief of staff for council budget committee chairwoman Mary Amordella. The two women had a good working relationship, and over the course of nearly two hours they sat across from one another and, with no aides in the room and as they had on several other occasions in recent days, discussed and resolved more than a dozen of the specific complaints council had about the mayor’s proposed budget. This was a new list of council demands – the third such new list, actually. Every time the mayor and his staff thought they had satisfied council’s latest demands, council turned around and delivered an entirely new set of requirements that it insisted must be addressed before it could possibly act on the budget. Still more needed to be done but Belkin had another meeting to attend, so they agreed to resume work together the following morning.
As Belkin began gathering her papers, they continued talking.
“This went well,” O’Neill said. “I don’t see anything left on the list that strikes me as an insurmountable obstacle. We’ll need what, another two or three hours, but after that, I think we’ll be done.”
“For the issues on the list, yes, and assuming we can somehow get our money from the state,” Belkin replied.
“The mayor’s still confident.”
“Even without Ianucci to help?”
“He says he thinks the delegation will rise to the challenge, that there are several very capable people representing the city in the capital who’ve been waiting for an opportunity to show what they can do and now see this as their chance to shine.”
“Capable people in our Harrisburg delegation?” Belkin asked. Since when?”
“That’s what he says. Anyhow, we’ll be done soon, I think, and then council can vote on the budget.”
“Oh, come on, Wilma.”
“What?” O’Neill asked.
“You and I have been working on these individual budget issues for about eight hours now over three meetings and you’ve never once mentioned the 800-pound gorilla in the room.”
“What’re you talking about, Roberta?”
“Shaniqua Watson. I’m not saying that the stuff we’re working on isn’t important, because it is, but it’s the easy stuff. This delay is all about Shaniqua Watson, and until they work that out, the rest is all just window-dressing.”
“No, I’m not. Council wants her head, and I don’t think they’re going to pass a budget until they get it.”
“Roberta, she’s doing a great job. You’ve spent your entire career in the public sector. Have you ever, in all those years, seen a performance that even remotely approaches what she’s achieved in less than five months with our streets department?”
“She saves money, she improves performance, the public loves her, the press loves her, and even her workers and the unions love her. Everyone loves her.”
“Not council. They hate her.”
“Come on, they’ve been telling you and the mayor why for months now. They feel undermined. Calls and letters requesting constituent service are down fifty percent. They’re afraid voters are going to see them as irrelevant.”
“Because we’ve cut out the middle man and deliver services better than ever?”
“Don’t tell me, Wilma. You’re preaching to the choir. Her performance totally blows me away. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
“Look, I’m a budget person, not a political person. If it were up to me I’d clone her, but the politicians hate her. Council members hate her, and they spend half the day on the phone with ward leaders and other political types who’re complaining about her.”
“You would think they’d appreciate having the burden of the little stuff lifted off their shoulders so they could focus on the big picture of the city’s future.”
“You’re being naive, Wilma. These people are all politicians. They have nothing to offer Philadelphia. Can you think of even one person on council who has the capacity to address the big picture, to think through the city’s issues and help develop solutions to its problems? Can you think of even one time – just one time – when a member of council proposed something that didn’t seem, first and foremost, designed to get their name in the newspaper?”
O’Neill was silent.
“Of course you can’t, because it’s never happened, because council members like that don’t exist. Every single one of them is a small-time politician who got to where they are by taking care of business and outhustling other small-time politicians. It’s the only thing they ever, ever think about. They don’t care about tax policy; they care when their constituents complain to them about taxes. They don’t care about the flow of traffic in center city; they care about the lack of cheap parking because their constituents talk about that all the time. They don’t care about whether the hall for the orchestra is under-endowed; they care about whether they’ll get enough tickets to satisfy their constituents’ demand for tickets to free concerts in the park featuring washed-up R&B acts that practically need walkers and oxygen to get onto the stage.
“They only run for office once every four years and for ward leader once every two years. The only thing they have to keep score by and tell how they’re doing between elections is their constituent service numbers, and those numbers look worse than they’ve ever been and they all know it’s because of Shaniqua Watson. In almost any other department in city government she would be your biggest strength, but in the streets department, where most of the action is when it comes to constituent services, she’s your biggest political liability.”
“Unbelievable,” O’Neill said.
“I sit with them all the time. Why don’t they talk to me about this?”
“They see you as a policy person, a manager, like me, and not a political person. They talk about it to Larry and Ed all the time, and I know those guys tell the mayor about it. I also know that he laughs about it when they do. But if he doesn’t stop laughing and do something about Shaniqua Watson, he’s not going to be laughing when the budget doesn’t pass and city government grinds to a halt because he no longer has any legal authority to spend money to pay the city’s bills.”
The first Monday of every month, the Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia appeared on a program broadcast on an AM radio station. During the two-hour show the cardinal chatted amiably with a host who acted like a journalist but who was, in fact, a popular former local television reporter employed by a public relations firm. The low-key program focused on spiritual matters, with an occasional diversion from callers asking for their holy leader’s prayers for the Philadelphia Eagles football team.
The Friday before each Monday broadcast, the archdiocese put out a press release inviting the public to tune into the program. Every month it issued the exact same news release, changing only the date. This notice also was posted on the doors and bulletin boards of the region’s many Catholic churches as well as on the archdiocese’s web site so that parishioners would be reminded of the opportunity to spend two hours with their local spiritual leader.
This month’s release, though, for the first time that anyone could recall, included an additional sentence that was underlined for emphasis: “During the program, Cardinal Brannigan will offer a brief commentary on a civic matter of great importance to the Church.”
This, too, was unusual. The cardinal was widely regarded as the second-most influential person in the region, after only Philadelphia’s mayor – and in light of the area’s enormous Catholic population, many felt he was even more influential than the mayor – and it was a distinction that cardinals past and present did not take lightly or abuse. Unlike Philadelphia’s black Protestant clergy, which acted like an arm of the Democratic party, complete with opportunities to gain official endorsements in exchange for contributions and jobs, Philadelphia’s Catholic church rarely became involved in local politics, distancing itself from such mundane matters in favor of operating on a more spiritual plane. Because the President had recently nominated to the Supreme Court a federal judge who in the past had affirmed women’s right to an abortion, those who bothered to read the notice about the cardinal’s next radio broadcast assumed that he would ask the members of his flock to write to their U.S. senators and urge them to reject the President’s nominee.
The cardinal began his program with a ten-minute talk about a reinterpretation of the biblical story about the loaves and the fishes. He then spent fifteen minutes taking calls from listeners. The calls were serious and respectful, the cardinal’s responses sober and thoughtful.
After one call, the cardinal announced that “I would like to take a few minutes this evening to address a matter that has gained a great deal of public attention in recent weeks.
“As you have no doubt observed, our region is currently immersed in the spectacle of an individual of exceedingly low character spreading scurrilous information about prominent members of our community for his own personal benefit. While this individual is to be condemned both for the life he has led and the manner in which he is now conducting himself, we would be naïve to ignore the information presented to us. In most of these situations, all we can do is sit back and observe how society treats some of the people involved who have been leading less-than-exemplary lives.
“There is one situation, though, in which good people of conscience like you and I are in a position to do more than sit back and let events take their natural course.
“As many of you undoubtedly know, one of the men who reportedly has been involved in this immoral behavior is a prominent elected official. I find his actions to be the ultimate betrayal of the public trust. Our elected leaders have a moral obligation to rise above such behavior and above such temptation. While we may disagree with them on some of the issues of the day, there can be no disagreement with the assertion that these men and women must be role models for our community. That this man is Catholic, and from what I am told a regular participant in Mass, makes his transgressions all the more serious. The church simply cannot abide by his behavior.
“This man is now running for re-election to public office. It is inconceivable to me that we can even consider returning such an individual to a position of public trust when he has so flagrantly betrayed that trust. I do not know this man and I do not know his opponents or even if he has any opponents in this election. Regardless of these considerations, I urge all of the members of my flock to send a message to all public officeholders by denying him your vote. If he has opponents, vote for one of his opponents; if he has none, cast no ballot. This matter is of the utmost importance to the church, and I encourage you to consider my words carefully.”
A few miles from the studio from which the cardinal spoke, Mayor James Norbert turned off his radio and looked across his desk, where Jon Ravelsky sat looking at him. Ravelsky had called late in the afternoon to tell Norbert that he had heard, through his usual unnamed but unimpeachable sources – in this case, an employee of the same public relations firm that supplied the moderator for the cardinal’s program – that Brannigan was going to address the turmoil surrounding the prostitution scandal.
Ravelsky’s source, though, had not even hinted at the attack on Michael Ianucci, and Ravelsky had not imagined such an attack himself – not from a cardinal with no history of political activity in a diocese with no history of political involvement by its leaders.
“I’m astonished,” Ravelsky declared. “I never would have conceived of such a thing.”
“That makes two of us,” Norbert replied. “I’m not sure what’s endangered more by what we just heard: Michael’s chances of getting re-elected or my chances of getting our state aid fully restored. My budget is in deep, deep trouble.”
“As is Michael,” Ravelsky said.
Fred Gilliam was not a patient man; he was the kind of man who expected results and expected them quickly. Not a particularly bright man, either, he was not much interested in suggestions or advice; he kept his own counsel and believed that no one could possibly know his business better than he did. He also tended not to learn much from experience. A large man and a bully since his schoolyard days, he was accustomed to persuading others to see things his way – one way or another.
But after more than a month of utterly fruitless contract negotiations, even Gilliam had to concede that his usual approach was not working. His bullying tactics following the mayor’s budget address had backfired badly and embarrassingly; his bullying tactics at the negotiating table, followed by a month of stubbornness, persistence, and refusal to compromise, had failed miserably; and his usual ace in the hole, enlisting council’s support, had abandoned him in his hour of need.
Gilliam knew he needed a new strategy. He also recognized that he needed to give in on something important, which literally left a foul taste in his mouth – as giving in always did to him. Consequently, at the end of yet another fruitless negotiating session, he asked Cisco Estevez, the city’s lawyer and his favorite whipping-boy during contract talks, if he could arrange a ten-minute appointment for him with the mayor. Estevez resisted at first, insisting that Gilliam could not circumvent the negotiating process and bargain directly with the mayor. Fighting back his natural inclination to tell Estevez that no one told Fred Gilliam what he could or could not do, Gilliam assured his adversary that he needed to speak to the mayor about another, unrelated matter. Although suspicious, Estevez agreed to see what he could do, hoping that his show of good faith would earn him some goodwill at the bargaining table. Three hours later, Gilliam received a call inviting him to meet with the mayor the following morning.
The next day, as Gilliam climbed the wide spiral staircase leading to the second floor of city hall, he did so with mixed feelings. He knew what he had to do, knew that this conversation was in the best interests of his men. He also knew that his forthcoming actions would make him the subject of a great deal of criticism – from the public, which he did not care about at all; from the news media, which he cared about even less; and from his own men, who would not understand the bigger picture and would think only about the short-term impact of their leader’s actions.
Still, he needed council’s help to get the contract his men wanted and deserved, and if this was the only way to do it then this is what he had to do.
A receptionist led Gilliam directly into the mayor’s office. The two men exchanged greetings while Gilliam poured himself a cup of coffee.
“What can I do for you today, Fred?” Norbert asked.
“Mr. Mayor, I think it’s time that you ended your experiment with Shaniqua Watson.”
The mayor did a double-take.
“We don’t know each other very well, Mr. Mayor, but I don’t kid.”
“It’s just that I’m very surprised. From what I’ve heard, you and your men were thrilled with Shaniqua. She made you all more money and she made you all heroes in the eyes of the public.”
Gilliam hated this.
“No, she promoted herself at our expense. It’s all ‘Shaniqua Watson this’ and ‘Shaniqua Watson that,’ never about the men. She’s never been up in a cherry-picker replacing lights and I’ve never seen her lay a shovel of hot asphalt, but somehow, all the credit goes to her. That newspaper picture of her driving a snow plow was pure hot dog.”
“Excuse me, Fred, but I’m under the impression that after the photo was taken, she spent two hours driving that plow and clearing streets.”
“Yeah, well, we’re tired of it, and we’re tired of how hard she’s driving us.”
“From what I’ve seen, Fred, she’s constantly giving credit to you and your members. She’s very generous with the praise.
“She’s also very generous with the money. I know – I see the overtime figures. Your members have been able to pocket quite a bit of additional taxpayer money thanks to her. She’s given you the best kind of praise of all – the kind that folds and spends.”
Gilliam could hardly bring himself to continue speaking this way. He could taste the bile rising from his stomach.
“Well, the overtime is too much, my men are tired, and we want it to stop. She may act all nice in public, but in private she treats us like slaves down on the plantation and we’re tired of it. She’s got to go, and the sooner the better.”
Norbert was genuinely surprised. He had no idea this was a problem – and did not entirely believe what he was hearing. He momentarily pondered whether there might be another reason, an ulterior motive, but found none. That hardly mattered, though.
“Fred, if you came to me with a specific problem, I’d do whatever I could to help you. You and your members have done a tremendous job under Shaniqua’s leadership. You make a great team. But your members have been around for a long time and she’s only been here a few months, and the turnaround has been amazing.
“If you have a specific grievance, I’d like to hear it. If you want me to address it myself, I will. If you’d rather run it through the civil service commission, I’m fine with that, too. But you haven’t given me a single good reason to fire Shaniqua and I have absolutely no intention of doing so.”
Gilliam was uncertain how vigorously he needed to press his case in private. Making the request was probably enough – it was doing so in public, and with conviction, that really mattered.
“Well, you have to do what you have to do, Mr. Mayor, and I have to do what I have to do. My office will put out a press release later this morning announcing our demand and I’ll take questions about it from reporters after today’s negotiating session. We’ll wait for your public response to our demand and then we’ll decide on the most appropriate course of action to take.”
“Action? What are you going to do, strike to have your beloved boss, who showers you with praise and extra money and has covered you with glory, fired for excellence in office?”
“Nothing’s off the table, Mr. Mayor. We’ll do whatever labor has to do to get our point across to management.”
With that, Gilliam thanked the mayor for his time, shook his hand, and departed. As he did he felt guilty and a little nauseated. Norbert, on the other hand, felt only confusion.
The following morning, Norbert had breakfast with Jon Ravelsky. They had been doing this weekly for years, and they continued doing so after Norbert’s election. While Philadelphia politics and government were not the primary or even secondary purpose of this weekly ritual, such matters inevitably arose during their wide-ranging discussions of matters of interest to both of them: their families, mutual friends, basketball, business, their alma mater, future plans to vacation together, and more.
On this particular morning they were almost finished eating when Norbert asked Ravelsky if he had any idea why Fred Gilliam would want him to fire Shaniqua Watson.
“You mean you don’t know?” Ravelsky asked, an amused smile crossing his face.
“What’s so funny?” Norbert asked.
“You are, Jim. You mean you really don’t know?”
“You know, Jim, you have this great staff, I really mean that, but by having no local people in your inner circle, sometimes you really miss the boat on some very basic things, because for a guy who’s been elected to high public office, you have virtually no political instincts at all.”
“So enlighten me.”
“Well, you tell me first: how are negotiations going with his union?”
“Poorly. They don’t believe there’s no more money and in more than a month of negotiations, they haven’t given an inch.”
“That sounds about right,” Ravelsky said. “What Gilliam does is push as hard as he can, usually right up to the deadline, and when he thinks he’s gotten as much as he can, he goes to council for help.”
“Council? They’re not involved in negotiations, and from what Ed and Larry tell me, members don’t even ask about the talks when they brief them every week.”
“Jim, Jim, you’re leading such a sheltered existence.
“Council is the unions’ almost-silent partner in contract negotiations. You’d think that council would be on your side, on city government’s side, but it’s not. It sides with the unions because they represent a lot of votes. When the timing is right, a council delegation comes to the mayor and gives him a number and tells him that that’s what’ll produce an agreement.”
“Council working against the government of which it’s a part?”
“So what does this have to do with Gilliam asking me to fire Shaniqua Watson?”
“I can’t say for sure, but it’s my guess that Gilliam went to council like he always does but they gave him the cold shoulder,” Ravelsky explained.
“Because they want you to get rid of Watson and Gilliam has publicly expressed his union’s support for her.
“So tell me something: how forceful was Gilliam when he asked you to fire her?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, did he ask or did he demand?”
“Yeah, that sounds about right. Fred Gilliam never asked for anything in his life. He demands everything. My guess is that council told him that if he wanted help at the negotiating table he had to ask you to fire Watson and then say something publicly. He can’t possibly mean it, but he must’ve figured it was the price he had to pay to get council’s help. He’s also probably hoping that you won’t fire her but that council will be satisfied that he did as he promised and give him the help he requested.”
“No,” Ravelsky replied, rising from his chair, “Just taking care of business.”
That afternoon Norbert met with Harry Wheeler, his director of state legislative affairs. Wheeler was a popular, capable political insider whose job was to manage the city’s interaction with its legislative delegation in the state capital. For the past few months he had focused primarily on one objective: persuading the legislature to reject the governor’s proposal to cut Philadelphia’s state funding by $812 million.
Wheeler’s job consisted of several distinct kinds of work: he tracked legislation with potential implications for the city; he conveyed the city’s interests to its state legislators; he coordinated the response of the delegation to proposals, threats, and opportunities; and he ensured that legislators’ local needs in their districts back in Philadelphia were addressed by the mayor and his staff. Above all, he held a lot of hands, telling legislators that everything was all right and assuring them that the mayor loved and respected them.
Wheeler was meeting with the mayor on this particular day to update him on the progress of the state budget and the effort to defeat the governor’s proposal to decimate the city’s state funding. His message was clear: all was not well and members of the delegation were feeling neither loved nor respected.
“Does it matter?” the mayor asked. “Michael tells me he’s been working on it.”
“You’ve spoken to Michael?” Wheeler asked.
“Of course I have. You don’t abandon your friends when they’re in trouble, Harry.”
“I understand that, but you realize that he hasn’t been to Harrisburg since the scandal broke, don’t you?”
“I didn’t know.”
“Well, now you know. No one’s laid eyes on him since this all started. And I can tell you that while he may be working the phones, a lot of people aren’t returning his calls and aren’t going to be returning his calls.”
“Enough to be a problem?”
“Definitely. I’m pretty sure he’s going to be a non-factor this year, although I’m not sure he realizes that yet. It’s a good thing you thought ahead and started working on a plan B.”
The mayor had, in fact, been working quietly on an alternative approach to gaining restoration of the city’s state funding. While he hoped Ianucci might still be able to get the job done, he had quietly been courting the rest of the city’s Harrisburg delegation. It was a large group – seven senators and twenty-eight representatives – but he had been spending time with and talking to all of them far more often than usual since the Ianucci scandal broke.
“I guess. Right now, I think the best options to carry our water are Jenkins in the House and Lee in the Senate.”
“I agree,” Wheeler said. “They’re both in line for committee chairmanships in the next few years and it would really enhance their standing among their peers if they showed they could step up and tackle a challenge like this and produce results.”
“But can they, Harry? I mean, they both seem like capable guys, especially Jenkins, and they seem energetic and enthusiastic when I talk to them, but the rest of the delegation comes across as mostly unengaged to me.”
“Yeah, I know. You don’t have many people there who are capable of any heavy lifting. On top of that, they’re not very happy with you, and this is their way of letting you know about it.”
“Why? I’ve spoken to every one of them at least twice a month since I took office, which is a lot more than any of my recent predecessors, and I’ve stepped it up the past few weeks, to more like twice a week. They also get pretty much whatever they ask of me – and believe me, they ask for a lot.”
“Well, they feel neglected, so they’re pouting,” Wheeler noted.
“Neglected enough to stand by and do nothing while the governor does something that could really hurt their constituents?”
“Possibly. I think they could probably be motivated to act, in the end, if given the right incentive.”
“They need an incentive to help their constituents?”
“Most of them, definitely,” Wheeler said, laughing. “Helping their constituents doesn’t rate very high on their list of priorities. But the real obstacle is what they’re unhappy with you about.”
“And that is?”
“Your streets commissioner. They want her gone yesterday.”
“That again? Yes, I know. That’s not going to happen, Harry,” Norbert said. “It’s not on the table – not in any way, shape, or form. We’re going to have to find a better way to get them behind us on this.”
“If you say so.”
“I say so. We’re going to have to emphasize the importance of the state funding to their constituents.”
“That’s going to be a hard sell.”
“How can appealing to legislators to do something for their constituents be a hard sell?” Norbert asked. “It’s what they were elected to do, it’s what they promise to do in exchange for votes.”
“They’re not real worried about getting re-elected, Mr. Mayor. It’s very rare that a Philadelphia Democrat elected to the legislature faces a serious challenge for renomination, especially after he’s served a term or two, and I can’t remember the last time a Republican challenger beat an incumbent in a fall election. It could be thirty or forty years. Most routinely carry their districts with more than seventy percent of the vote.”
“So appealing to them to work with us on this for the good of the city and the good of their constituents can’t work?” Norbert asked.
“It’s not something that really appeals to them, but it can work,” Wheeler replied. “But maybe not when there’s something more important to them.”
“And that something is Shaniqua Watson?”
“Yes. Listen, let me read you something from my notes.”
Wheeler thumbed through a spiral notebook, turning several pages until he came to what he sought.
“Last week I met with Jack Leary and I made your pitch to him – the one about doing what’s good for his constituents. His response was so striking that as soon as I left his office, I sat down on a chair in the hallway right outside his door and wrote it down as best I could remember. Here’s what he said.
“’I do what’s best for me, not what’s best for my constituents. They have no idea what goes on here in Harrisburg, and what’s more, I don’t believe they care. I tell them what’s important, they don’t tell me. Do you think I give a damn about Norbert’s budget problem? Hell no. Right now, what’s important to me is the mayor doing what I want him to do, and what others want him to do, and that’s to fire this woman and let us get back to taking care of business the usual way. If he doesn’t, he’s the one who’ll have to explain to the public why he had to cut programs left and right and lay off people because he couldn’t get the money from the governor. No one besides the Gazette editorial board is ever going to ask me that question because the people are too stupid to see the connection between what goes on in Harrisburg and what happens in city hall in Philadelphia. They’re all going to be asking him, not me. When they do, maybe he’ll finally realize that he’s got to take us seriously and listen to what we want and do what we ask.’”
Norbert rolled his eyes.
Later that afternoon, Norbert was winding up his work for the day and preparing to go home when his secretary entered to tell him that Wilma O’Neill had arrived. Norbert nodded and asked the secretary to send her in.
This was a daily routine. O’Neill was Norbert’s managing director – the equivalent of a corporate chief operating officer – and he thought it made sense to check in at the end of every business day with the person who most had her finger on the day-to-day pulse of city government. Throughout the day the two of them might participate in any number of meetings together, but this end-of-the-day ritual was just the two of them catching up on the day’s events, with O’Neill filling the mayor in on anything that had arisen that he might need to know about. As often as not, these meetings lasted no more than five minutes.
O’Neill apprised the mayor of a few of the day’s highlights: a police officer who tripped while chasing a nine-year-old shoplifter had sprained his ankle, was treated at the hospital, and had gone home for the day; a construction crew had ruptured a city water main while digging a hole to make an underground plumbing repair, and the owner of the company had promised to pay for repairs within twenty-four hours of whenever the city presented him a bill; and the health commissioner reported that the waiting time for an appointment at the city’s health centers had fallen from six to weeks to five.
“I hope he’s not bragging about that,” Norbert said.
“No, he’s still on board with our goal of getting it down to three days. He says he’ll need more help to succeed, though.”
“Well, we have money for more staff for him in the budget,” Norbert said. “Most of those people who’re waiting for a primary care doctor can be served just as well by a nurse practitioner, and he projects that adding nurse practitioners at each center will make a huge difference.”
O’Neill agreed, then added, “Speaking of the budget, I’ve finished meeting with Roberta Belkin, of Councilwoman Amordella’s office. We hashed through the rest of council’s latest wish list, so everything on it has now been addressed to their satisfaction.”
“Excellent,” the mayor replied. “That budget should’ve been passed weeks ago, and now, presumably, they can finish the only thing they’re actually required by law to do.”
“If only it were that easy,” O’Neill replied. “When I was talking to Roberta, she made it pretty clear that you can have your budget any time you want as soon as you fire Shaniqua Watson.”
“Again with Shaniqua?”
“What do you mean ‘again?’”
“This morning, Jon Ravelsky told me that the reason Fred Gilliam asked me to fire Shaniqua was so council will help him with contract negotiations – even though Fred doesn’t really want me to fire her. Then, no more than two hours ago, Harry Wheeler told me that with Michael out of the loop, the Harrisburg delegation will pull behind us and fight for our state funding if I fire her. And now, you’re telling me I can have my budget if I fire her.
“Am I wrong, Wilma, or is this insane?”
“No, it’s definitely insane, sir.”
“I mean,” Norbert continued, “every single person and every group of people that wants me to fire Shaniqua knows that she’s doing an amazing job that’s absolutely unprecedented in this city’s history. She’s managed to do more with less, to make the public happy, and to drive her workforce to previously unimagined levels of productivity with her workers’ enthusiastic support. And despite all that, all of these people who are part of government, and who were elected to serve their constituents, want me to fire her.”
“Am I wrong, Wilma? Should I give in? Should I give them what they want to get what I want in return?”
“You shouldn’t have to.”
“But do I have a choice? Am I the one who’s being unreasonable here?”
“No, you’re not. But if it’s the only way…”
“I don’t think so – at least not yet. I think there are probably more things you can try before you seriously consider giving in.”
“I don’t know. I think you need to find a way to rally the public behind you, but I’m too new to Philadelphia to know the best way of doing that. I think you should talk to Ed and Larry, since they’ve been around forever, and maybe Jon Ravelsky. They understand the local politics better than I do.”
“I will, that’s a good idea, but only to consider alternatives. I’m not giving up Shaniqua for any reason under any circumstances.”
Despite securing a place on the primary ballot and boasting a campaign committee that amounted to a veritable who’s who of Philadelphia politics, Kathleen O’Donnell kept a determinedly and puzzlingly low profile, appearing at no public events, issuing no position papers, and giving no interviews. With less than two weeks remaining before the election, she appeared to be banking on being swept into office on a wave of “anyone but Ianucci” sentiment. To support her candidacy, her campaign did no more than place lawn signs and window placards throughout the district in which she sought election.
This strategy appeared to be having a positive effect. Unknown the day she filed her nominating petitions, a poll commissioned by the Post showed that O’Donnell now was supported by eighteen percent of the registered Democratic voters in her district – an enormous increase over a very short period of time, but an increase that, even if it continued at its current rate, would not enable her to defeat Ianucci in the upcoming primary election. Some people thought O’Donnell’s poll numbers were significant; others rejected the suggestion that they represented an “anyone but Ianucci” sentiment at all, maintaining instead that they reflected only an “anyone but the incumbent” sentiment – two very different sentiments, they insisted.
By making no public appearances, O’Donnell proved to be an elusive target for newspaper and television reporters. Once day, though, a television news crew camped outside the front door of the public school at which she taught and – because no one knew what she looked like – asked people exiting the building to point her out to them. When they finally identified and approached her she was hesitant to speak but eventually was coaxed into a brief exchange with the reporter.
“Mrs. O’Donnell, how’s your campaign going?”
“Very well, thank you,” she replied in a stern schoolteacher’s voice. “I’m sure you’ve seen the recent poll; we’re gaining on my opponent.”
“Yes, we’ve seen that. What do you plan to do to close the gap between you and Representative Ianucci between now and election day?”
“More of the same, I believe.”
“But you’ve issued no positions on any issues and haven’t made any public appearances to share your views with voters.”
“Our strategy is to let voters know they have an alternative to the disgraced incumbent. We have plenty of lawn signs throughout the district and will be mailing two brochures: one went out today and the other will go out the Thursday before the election.”
“What will they tell people about you?” the reporter asked.
“That I’m an alternative to the incumbent.”
The reporter felt stymied and decided to try another approach.
“As I’m sure you know, Governor Clayton has proposed cutting the city’s share of state funding by more than $800 million in the upcoming year. How do you feel about that proposal?”
“I’m against it.”
A look of dismay came over the reporter.
“You’re against it?”
“Yes. I’m definitely against it.”
“Well, what about more state aid for Philadelphia in general?”
“I’m for it.”
“If you’re elected, what would be your legislative priorities?”
“Representing my constituents.”
“I’ll talk to them, learn what they want, and then try to do what they ask.”
This approach, too, clearly was not working for the reporter, so he decided to try yet another.
“If you’re elected, how will you feel about giving up teaching?”
“Why would I do that?” O’Donnell asked.
“Well, the legislature meets in Harrisburg about twenty-five weeks a year for two or three days a week and that’s 100 miles from Philadelphia.”
“Really?” she asked, looking surprised.
“Yes. You’re aware that you’re seeking a job that’ll take you out of town somewhere between fifty and seventy-five days a year, aren’t you?”
“Yes, I guess I am. Yes, I am.”
“I understand that you have three children school-aged children. Where will they be while you’re away?”
“I’m sure other women who’ve served in the legislature have figured out that kind of thing, so I imagine I will, too.”
“Mrs. O’Donnell, we were down at the board of elections office earlier today and learned that you haven’t voted in the past three elections. Why is that?”
“Well, I guess I’m not a very political person.”
“Yet you’re running for political office now.”
“Yes, isn’t it interesting how that worked out?”
The reporter was stumped. Everything he tried had failed.
“Thank you for your time, Mrs. O’Donnell.”
“You’re quite welcome.”
Mayor Norbert and his staff decided that even though the deadline for passing the city budget was now less than two weeks away, the state budget was far and away the more pressing concern. Without restoration of the $812 million in threatened state funding for the city and school district, they knew, any budget council passed, regardless of whether it passed on time or after the legal deadline, would be irrelevant.
So decided, Norbert and his state legislative director, Harry Wheeler, began calling members of the city’s delegation in Harrisburg with renewed intensity. After two days of such calls, Norbert decided to travel to Harrisburg to meet in person with members on their own turf. There, he and Wheeler talked, they entreated, they even came close to begging, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. One conversation the mayor had in Harrisburg, with state senator Jake Cooker, was typical of what they encountered.
“Jake, this poses a huge threat to the city, and to your constituents,” Norbert said.
“It most certainly does,” Cooker agreed.
“So you’ll help us work the Senate?” Norbert asked, encouraged.
“I most certainly will not,” Cooker replied.
“It’ll hurt your constituents but you won’t do anything to prevent it?”
“That’s correct, Mr. Mayor.”
“May I ask why not?”
“Several reasons. First of all, you have your boy Ianucci working on it, don’t you?”
“I don’t know about the ‘my boy’ part, but yes, I do.”
“Well, mayors have never wanted or needed or asked for our help before when they had Ianucci on the job for them,” Cooker said.
“You’re talking about other mayors, Jake, not me. I’ve been working with the entire delegation since the day I took office, and you know it. This is also my first budget.”
“Makes no difference to me.”
“Also, you know how seriously Ianucci has been compromised. He’s not going to be able to get it done this year by himself.”
“So you need all of us to help, right?”
“Exactly,” Norbert replied.
“Of course you do. But if we pitch in now and get it done, Ianucci’s going to get all the credit.”
“I don’t think that’s the case at all.”
“Of course he will. You know it and I know it.”
“I don’t think that’s true. Who would give him any credit at all under these circumstances?”
“Well, I think he will, and I know my colleagues feel the same way. Only the press goes around giving credit for such things, and as far as the press in Philadelphia is concerned, Michael is the only person representing Philadelphia in Harrisburg. The rest of us don’t even exist as far as they’re concerned. On the other hand, if you don’t get the money, everyone will know that Ianucci failed and has been knocked off his pedestal, which will open the door for the rest of us to climb to more important positions here in the legislature.”
“If Michael even gets re-elected,” the mayor noted.
“We’re assuming he will,” Cooker replied. “If he’s not, that would just be icing on the cake.”
“And what about your constituents? The ones who’ll lose city jobs or lose access to city services if we lose all that state money?”
“That’s really not my problem, Mr. Mayor, now is it?”
Norbert was astonished.
“You can’t possibly mean that,” Norbert said.
“But I do. With all due respect, Mr. Mayor, you and your elite staff of people who don’t know a damn thing about Philadelphia have a very incomplete grasp of Philadelphia politics. The people who matter – the voters, not your friends at the chamber of commerce and the Union League – associate you, the mayor, and to a lesser degree council, with city jobs and city services. They don’t see any connection whatsoever between those jobs and those services and my work here in Harrisburg. No connection whatsoever. So if and when that happens, they’re going to be turning to you for explanations, not me.”
“What do they think you do?”
“I think they have no idea what we do in Harrisburg.”
“But what about serving their interests?” the mayor asked.
“I can’t take care of their business unless I continue to get re-elected, and what you’ve come here to ask me for won’t help me get re-elected. In fact, my constituents may be better served by my not helping you.”
“How do you figure that?”
“No budget, Ianucci gets knocked down a peg, and I move up in my committees because Philadelphia would get more high-ranking representation to compensate for his fall.”
“No, that’s the way it is.”
“Well, I don’t agree with you and don’t understand your thinking at all, Jake, but I appreciate your time. Thank you.”
The mayor rose and extended his hand. Cooker rose with him and took it.
“And maybe next time, Mr. Mayor, you’ll listen to us when we talk to you about some minor thing we want, like Shaniqua Watson.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“No. When we ask you to do something like that, we expect you to do as we ask. Some things aren’t negotiable, and this is one of those things.”
Norbert reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a notebook, and flipped to a page that had been prepared for him by his staff.
“Jake, let me tell you something. We’ve fixed 600 street lights in your district, repaired four ball fields that weren’t even slated for work in this year’s budget, and cleared the snow from every street in your district for the first time ever. More than 20,000 of your uninsured constituents get free health care at a city clinic that’s on the top of our list of clinics to close if we can’t get our funding restored. Nearly 6000 of your constituents are employed by the city or school district and nearly 1000 of them would lose their jobs if we don’t get our funding restored. Every single time you and your ward leaders have called us seeking some kind of help on behalf of a constituent, we’ve come through for you – every single time. That’s about 1500 calls with a perfect score. And you’re telling me that you won’t help me – help the city and your constituents – because of the one single thing I didn’t do for you?”
“That’s exactly what I’m telling you .”
Although mayor of Philadelphia and ostensibly the leader of its Democratic party, Norbert had relatively few party responsibilities or obligations. Unlike most elected officials, he was not a career politician. He had run for mayor of Philadelphia because he felt he could help the city, but he aspired to no other public office. His wealth, his excellent reputation in the business community, and the success of his basketball team had enabled him to circumvent conventional politics on his path to becoming mayor, and once elected, he made it clear to conventional politicians that he posed no threat to their positions – their fiefdoms, really – or to their ways of doing business. In fact, he had publicly stated to those conventional politicians that he would focus on running the city and allow Denny McDougal, chairman of the Democratic party, to run their party.
Recognizing the tension of recent months between the mayor and elected officials and party people, McDougal, despite his unhappiness over the mayor’s refusal to address the Shaniqua Watson situation, invited Norbert to join the party faithful for a long-time political ritual: gathering together to watch election returns. Norbert welcomed the invitation and, shortly after eight o’clock on election night, departed from his city hall office, accompanied only by a single plainclothes Philadelphia police officer, and walked the three blocks to the hotel ballroom where the party regulars were gathering.
Democratic primary elections in Philadelphia were decidedly uninteresting and uncompetitive – and none were less interesting and less competitive than primaries for the party’s nomination for seats in the state legislature. Seldom did incumbents face challenges, and it had been nearly two decades since one of those challenges had succeeded. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, moreover, election to the legislature was almost akin to gaining tenure at a university: incumbents might, under rare circumstances, be slightly vulnerable for their first few years in office, but after that, they generally enjoyed their positions for life, absent some remarkable misadventure in office such as an inconvenient but not especially rare conviction for public corruption. Incumbents who faced token opposition for renomination generally received at least seventy-five percent of the votes; in the fall, facing Republicans who had no real chance of winning, any Democrat who failed to collect at least seventy percent of the votes was the subject of good-natured ribbing from his peers.
Based on this well-established history of electoral politics in Philadelphia, no drama was expected on this election night. At the same time, Democratic party boss Denny McDougal thought it offered a good opportunity to attempt to defuse some of the tension between the mayor and the party regulars. While he shared their fervent desire that the mayor remove Shaniqua Watson forever from the public payroll, he knew this issue would eventually be resolved one way or another and that when it was, they all needed to be able to work together again. For this reason, McDougal thought that inviting Norbert to join them for what promised to be a low-key evening might help thaw the deep freeze that had set in between Norbert and the party for which he was the public standard-bearer.
The mayor arrived shortly before eight-thirty – less than a half-hour after the polls closed. Despite the rancor that many felt toward him, he was generally received warmly as he worked the hotel ballroom and shook hands with everyone he encountered. In one rear corner of the huge ballroom a string band played local music familiar to all Philadelphians; in the other rear corner were a bar and a dining area where sandwiches were served. Adopting his ‘man of the people’ manner, the mayor picked up a bottle of beer and continued circulating throughout the room.
At the front of the room stood a small makeshift stage and podium. To either side of the podium were large-screen televisions mounted on the walls. Both sets were tuned to the most popular local television station, but at this early hour, that station was still broadcasting its regular programming while awaiting election returns.
Shortly before nine o’clock the station broke into its regularly scheduled program and began sharing early returns – generally, with only about twenty-five percent of the voting divisions reporting their results. Once the well-known anchorman came onto the screen, someone immediately turned up the volume and the people milling about the ballroom turned to the front of the room and the large television sets.
The early returns, the gray-haired anchorman reported, suggested that virtually all of the incumbents would easily win renomination. One race, though, deserved closer attention, he noted.
“We have a potentially interesting battle brewing in Philadelphia’s fifth legislative district this evening, where embattled state representative Michael Ianucci is facing a challenge from political newcomer Kathleen O’Donnell. Ianucci has been hurt by his alleged involvement with a local prostitution ring, but despite that, he’s been widely viewed as a shoo-in for renomination. Polls taken as recently as last Friday indicated that Ianucci had a comfortable 70-30 lead in this contest.
“But as you can see from the first numbers of the evening, with just twenty-two percent of precincts reporting, political newcomer Kathleen O’Donnell is within thirty-five votes of the ten-term incumbent Ianucci. We’ll continue to keep an eye on this race, but for now, we return you to our regularly scheduled programming.”
A buzz circulated throughout the room. Some people were happy about what they had just heard, some were unhappy, but everyone was keenly interested. The mayor found himself surprisingly indifferent: he had grown to like Ianucci personally, was appalled by his lapse in behavior, but realized that regardless of the outcome of this primary, he was going to have to win restoration of Philadelphia’s state funding without Ianucci.
Twenty minutes later the anchorman returned to the two big screens that served as the podium’s bookends.
“It now looks like we may have an upset in the making in Philadelphia’s fifth legislative district. With forty-three percent of the votes counted, challenger Kathleen O’Donnell now has a lead of nearly 1100 votes and a margin of fifty-eight percent to forty-two percent over the incumbent, Michael Ianucci.”
A roar went up in the ballroom – some of it pleasure over this news and some in dismay.
“Joining us now in the studio is Albright College political science professor Martin Jones, a veteran observer of Philadelphia politics.
“Professor Jones, are you surprised by these developments tonight?”
“Absolutely, Ken. It makes sense that Ianucci would be vulnerable to a challenge under these circumstances, but this challenge seemed entirely inconsequential. O’Donnell didn’t campaign and only barely advertised, and she never shared her positions on any issues. Both the Gazette and the Post endorsed her despite this, but the last-minute nature of her campaign made this seem like an insurmountable challenge. No one knows anything about her, she didn’t campaign, and she made no real effort to become known, but apparently, all the voters of Roxborough needed to know was that she’s not Michael Ianucci, and it appears that they cast their ballots accordingly.”
“Thank you, Professor Jones.
“We now have some new numbers: with fifty-six percent of the votes now counted, O’Donnell’s lead has stretched to 1250 votes and her share of the vote has increased from fifty-eight to fifty-nine percent. This appears to be one of the biggest electoral upsets in Philadelphia political history.”
An hour later, ninety-nine percent of the votes had been counted and O’Donnell had defeated Ianucci with fifty-nine percent of the vote. As Mayor Norbert left the hotel for the seven-block walk home, he called the deputy managing director on overnight duty in his office and asked her to arrange a meeting of his senior staff at eight o’clock the following morning to discuss what they should do next to address the city’s impending budget crisis.
“Is there any new business?” city council president Harold Miller asked from his seat – actually, it was more like a throne – overlooking the large chamber in which Philadelphia’s city council conducted its official business.
His question elicited no response.
“Motion to adjourn?” he asked.
“So moved,” a voice called out from below.
“Do I hear a second?” Miller asked.
“I second the motion,” another voice responded.
“Then I declare the May 29 meeting of this council to be adjourned. Our next meeting will be on Thursday, June 6 at ten o’clock in this chamber.”
With that, he rapped his gavel twice and the people gathered in the chamber – council members and staff, Ed and Larry from Norbert’s staff, the press, and spectators – rose from their seats.
This was the final council meeting before the legal deadline of May 30 to pass a city budget. During the ninety-minute session, council had honored six high school seniors who were about to graduate without missing a single day of school in thirteen years; commended the residents of the 1300 block of Tasker Street for their day-long “community clean-up;” and passed resolutions honoring a minister for thirty years of service to his flock and declaring the week of July 13 “Philadelphia soft pretzel week.” It also enacted an ordinance providing for stop signs at four busy intersections and another ordinance endorsing the city’s application for federal community development funds.
But council did not pass a budget for the coming fiscal year. It did not vote on a budget. In fact, it did not even discuss that budget – nor did it do so in the ten-minute preparatory meeting that council members held in their caucus room right before the official meeting began. In so doing, it became the first Philadelphia council in more than fifty years to fail to pass a budget by the legal deadline.
A local radio reporter greeted council budget committee chairwoman Mary Amordella outside council’s chamber immediately after the meeting.
“Councilwoman Amordella, why didn’t council pass a budget today?”
“We haven’t worked out all of our issues with the mayor yet.”
“Would you say there are a lot of those issues or just a few?”
“Just a few, but one of them is certainly the revenue gap of more than $800 million between what the mayor says we can count on from the state and what the governor says he’s giving us.”
“But hasn’t council routinely passed budgets in the past with state funding still unresolved and then addressed any discrepancies with amended budget ordinances in the fall?”
“It would be irresponsible of us to do that, and this council will not act irresponsibly.”
“But you did it two years ago, and the year before that, and two years before that.”
Recognizing the undeniable accuracy of the reporter’s assertions, Amordella said nothing.
Amordella again chose silence, so the reporter had little choice but to change the subject.
“Is there any truth to reports that the major stumbling block to a budget deal between council and the mayor is his continued employment of Shaniqua Watson as streets commissioner and not the questions surrounding state funding?”
“I don’t know where you get such misinformation.”
“Does that mean it’s not the problem?”
“It means I don’t know where you get this stuff,” Amordella replied.
“Will council take its three-month summer vacation if a budget isn’t passed?”
“It’s not a vacation, young lady, it’s a recess, and council members work just as hard during our recess as we do when council is in session.”
“On what, councilwoman?”
“We meet with constituents, provide constituent service, and work on legislation for the fall session. We’re hard at work the entire time.”
“As you know, councilwoman, last year the Post visited council’s offices every day during the three-month vacation…”
“Recess,” Amordella interrupted.
“Yes, recess,” the reporter continued. “And it found council members in city hall only about thirty percent of the time.”
“You don’t need to be in the building to be working on council business.”
“Like writing legislation?” the reporter asked. “They don’t need to be in their offices to write legislation?”
“Exactly,” Amordella replied.
“Councilwoman, according to council’s own records, eight of council’s seventeen members haven’t been the primary author of any legislation at all since this session began in January. Are you suggesting that these members are among those working on legislation for the fall?”
“Especially them, yes. They have to make up for lost time.”
“Councilwoman, the city controller has indicated that he’s going to direct the city’s personnel department to withhold the paychecks of council members until you pass a budget. What’s your reaction to that?”
“First of all, he can’t do that during the current fiscal year, which still has another month to go. Second of all, if he does, we may never get a budget, because if we’re not getting paid, we can’t very well be expected to work, can we?”
“Are you suggesting that under such circumstances, council might consider walking off the job?” the reporter asked.
“That would be an option, yes,” Amordella responded.
“Do you mean council could go on strike?”
“I wouldn’t call it that.”
“What would you call it?”
“I would say we could conceivably find ourselves walking off the job.”
“And that’s not a strike?”
“Calling it a strike would not be an inappropriate way of describing it.”
“What about your constituents?”
“What about them?”
“Don’t you think your constituents would be unhappy if the entire legislative branch of their city’s government went on strike?”
“I’m sure our constituents believe that council should be paid for its work, and I’m confident they would support us.”
“Even if not having a budget results in closing city recreation centers, pools, libraries, health centers, and many other city programs and laying off hundreds or even thousands of city employees?”
“I’m confident that our constituents would walk in solidarity with us on this matter. This is, after all, a labor town, and the seventeen members of council are laborers.”
“With salaries of $105,000 a year, a personal staff of four to six people, fully paid health care benefits, large pensions, and city cars, you consider yourselves laborers?”
“Absolutely. We’re laborers, just like our constituents.”
As the day drew to a close and he finished a few pieces of work, Mayor Norbert was worried. More than 15,000 city employees were threatening to strike in less than a month if he did not give them large raises in pay; the city budget, which would have to cover those raises no matter what their size, still had not been passed even though the legal deadline for doing so had now come and gone; and the state budget, which called for $812 million in cuts in funding for the city and its school district, was still not the subject of serious talks in Harrisburg because with the deadline for passage of that budget still more than three weeks away, officials there reportedly were at least two weeks away from developing a sense of urgency about addressing the matter.
The entire process made no sense to Norbert. He had built one of the largest and most successful businesses in the country, starting literally with an office in the basement of his parents’ home; employed more than 150,000 workers around the world; participated in IPOs worth tens of billions of dollars; and negotiated numerous complex financial deals, including bonds, loans, and lines of credit that reached into the billions. This experience, he had told himself when he was preparing to run for mayor, should be strong preparation for the job of overseeing a city government that, despite its obvious complexity, was far, far smaller than his business. Compared to managing his business, he thought, managing the city’s finances should be easy.
He had thought wrong.
It made no sense, he realized, to be required by law to propose a budget in February – a budget that had to include personnel costs and that, also by law, had to be passed by May 30 – when contracts with four unions representing more than 20,000 city workers expired at the end of June.
But even worse than that, Norbert told himself, his budget proposal relied heavily on state revenue – but the state budget, also proposed in February but with a deadline for passage of June 30, was never passed before the city’s budget deadline of May 30.
In essence, Norbert concluded, he was expected to propose a budget, and lead council to its passage, without knowing his labor costs, which accounted for roughly seventy percent of his total budget, and without knowing how much money the city would receive from the state.
And amid such thoughts, Norbert sadly concluded that his proposed city budget, carefully crafted by dedicated people working hundreds of hours, was not worth the 600 or so pieces of paper on which it was written.
The question now, though, was where to devote his energies to try to do something about this disaster in the making.
On the labor negotiations?
On the recalcitrant council?
On the state legislature?
He immediately ruled out getting involved in labor talks. Although the unions were threatening to strike, history had shown that their contracts were seldom settled until within twenty-four hours of when they were to expire. Besides, his personal involvement at this stage would probably increase the unions’ public posturing and make the talks even less productive than they already were.
He did not know what to do about council but considered seeking advice from his wife. In the early years of their marriage she had taught kindergarten, and he thought she might be able to shed some light on council’s childish ways.
Finally, there was the legislature. Of the three, he thought this was the most pressing, because of the amount of money at stake: the $812 million that the governor had proposed stripping from the state’s financial support for Philadelphia. Without that money, his budget would collapse – and without Michael Ianucci, who was now clearly out of the picture, Norbert was also without the long-time solution to this very problem.
But how best to overcome these obstacles? That was the challenge Norbert now faced. Whether it was the unions, the legislature, or council, the problem, as the mayor saw it, was that no one was taking seriously these threats to the city’s financial health. Most of the ways he might go about trying to rally public interest in these problems, he decided, would be taken personally by the people he needed to engage to get what he desired. What he needed, Norbert concluded, was a way to do that, to get his point across clearly, publicly, and visibly but without further antagonizing the people whom his message was really intended to challenge and to get the public and the media behind him. Right now, though, he had no idea how to go about doing that.
It was nearly six o’clock and he was still in his office, so he turned on the television to see the local news.
And then he knew.
“Good morning, and welcome to a very special edition of Sunday Morning Philadelphia. I’m Ken Emery. We’ve given our regular panelists the day off today so we can spend the entire half hour with Philadelphia Mayor James Norbert. Good morning, Mr. Mayor.”
“Good morning, Ken.”
For the next few minutes the television anchorman made small talk with the mayor – about his transition from running a business to running a government, about the changes in the mayor’s life, about his basketball team’s recently completed season. Eventually the discussion turned to the reason Norbert had offered to come on the program: the city budget.
“Mr. Mayor, you seem to be facing an unusual and imposing series of budget challenges this year: difficult labor negotiations, an uncooperative city council, and an apparently mean-spirited attempt by Harrisburg to strip Philadelphia of a significant portion of its normal state funding. Is this a matter of bad timing, bad management, or just bad luck?”
“I think it’s a combination of all three, Ken,” Norbert replied. “There are things I could’ve done better, but there do seem to be some people pushing pretty hard against us this year.”
“Who and why?”
Norbert knew he had to be careful here. His advisors warned him not to cite the demands of political leaders for the firing of Shaniqua Watson as the reason for this resistance. Doing so, they feared, would be taken as a direct attempt to embarrass them that would only cause them to dig in their heels even harder.
“Well, you know the story, Ken. City employees want more money, which is entirely within their rights, and we think we’ve made them a very attractive offer. In the end, I’m confident we’ll come to an agreement with them.”
“But last week, blue-collar workers’ union president Fred Gilliam said that his union had already begun strike preparations and was ready to close down the city if they have to.”
“What else do you expect a union leader to say in the heat of contract negotiations?” Norbert replied.
The anchorman never even considered pursuing a more complete answer.
“And what about city council?” Emery asked. “Why the delay in passing a budget? Historically, city budgets are passed by the end of April, a good month ahead of the legal deadline, and now it’s early June, past the deadline for the first time that anyone can remember, and there’s still no apparent movement. What’s the hold-up?”
“Just a lot of details, most of which have already been worked out. We’re almost there.”
Ever uninquisitive, the anchorman dismissed the possibility that his viewers might be interested in learning about some of those details, again accepting the mayor’s response at face value and moving on.
“And the state budget? They’re threatening to cut Philadelphia’s funding by more than $812 million.”
“The usual Philadelphia-bashing, I think, Ken, plus testing the new guy – me.”
“Can you get it done in Harrisburg without state representative Michael Ianucci?” Emery asked.
“Michael’s still on the public payroll, Ken, and there are thirty-four other very capable members of the Philadelphia delegation in the state capital, too. We’ll get it done.”
It never occurred to the anchorman to ask how. He had something far more interesting to ask.
“Is there any truth to the rumor that the major point of contention in all of this is streets commissioner Shaniqua Watson?”
“I don’t think so. At first, I think a lot of people who are involved in constituent service were concerned that her innovative programs were taking away their usual work, but I think people have come around to the idea that Commissioner Watson’s programs represent a huge step forward for Philadelphia’s government and should be applauded and supported.”
“And if it doesn’t all work out the way you think it will?”
Norbert was relieved. This question – and the answer he was about to give – was the entire point of his appearing on the program. His next words, he knew, would be headlines in tomorrow’s newspapers, the lead story on all of the local television news programs, and one of the primary subjects on local talk radio for the next few days.
“We’ve made a careful and intentional point of avoiding any talk about specific cuts in jobs and programs, Ken, because I hate the idea of crying wolf or trying to scare people, but now, I think, the time has come to lay it on the line so Philadelphians will understand where we stand and what’s at stake.
“Let’s start with the school district. They’re in the process of doing budget contingency planning right now, and here’s what they’ve come up with.
“If the state cuts our school funding by $400 million, as currently proposed, the school district would lay off a little more than 2000 teachers and 700 non-teaching personnel. That would increase class size from the current maximum of thirty-two to around forty, which would put Philadelphia back to where it was around 1965 and wipe out nearly forty-five years of progress.
“But there’s more. If they cut us by $400 million, there’ll be no summer school this year, which means that every student who would have attended summer school – currently projected to be around 29,500 children – would be held back a year.
“We would eliminate all extra-curricular activities. There’s no possible justification for ordering dessert when you can’t afford dinner. Among those programs cut would be football. Unfortunately, a number of our football stadiums are used by city Catholic high schools, but we would stop anything more than bare-bones maintenance of those facilities, so they’d have to find other places to play unless they’re prepared to pay for one hundred percent of the stadium maintenance.
“We would end all-day kindergarten and close two-thirds of our school libraries. Schools would be partnered up so that one library would serve three schools.
“There’ll be more, but they’re still ironing out the details.”
“That sounds like a huge step backwards for a school district that seldom takes any meaningful steps forward, Mr. Mayor.”
“That’s about the size of it, Ken.
“Now let’s turn to the city,” Norbert said.
“The state legislature is considering cutting our health care funding by $65 million. If that happens, we’d close four of our twelve district health centers. Approximately 75,000 uninsured Philadelphians would lose their access to care. That, in turn, will send a lot of people running to hospital emergency rooms – so many, in fact, that we think this onslaught of uninsured patients could threaten the solvency of two Philadelphia hospitals.”
“I’d rather not say. We don’t want to scare their bondholders or destroy their ability to borrow money.
“The governor is talking about cutting our recreation funding by $10 million. If that happens, we won’t open any of our city pools this summer and our playgrounds won’t offer any recreation programs. We’ll also have to lay off our entire staff of summer recreation leaders and cancel our summer jobs program for inner-city youths.
“They’re talking about cutting our community development funding by $35 million, our infrastructure funding by $15 million, our highway repair funding by $35 million, and our convention center subsidy by $8 million. To compensate for these losses, we’d be forced to lay off 1500 city employees, close five fire stations, and close half of our public libraries. Trash would be collected every other week instead of every week so we could lay off 600 of our 1200 trash collectors.
“We’d also lay off 400 police officers. They’re also proposing to eliminate the $25 million in annual funding that we were promised for two more years so we could hire an additional 400 officers, so without that money, we would lay off the 400 officers hired under that state program as well. We have 100 new recruits scheduled to start training at the police academy in July, but we’ve already notified them that we’ll probably have to cancel that class.
“The final piece involves our labor negotiations. Our offer of two percent a year for three years is our best and final offer; that’s all we have to spend. Just so people understand, for every quarter percent extra we have to spend to buy labor peace, we’d have to lay off an additional 225 city workers. If we want to make up the difference without layoffs, then for every quarter percent extra we’d pay city workers, we would need to raise the city wage tax one tenth of one percent.
“There’s more, Ken, but I think you get the idea.”
The veteran anchorman, normally poised and calm, was momentarily speechless. The program’s director, standing behind the camera, frantically waved his arms, urging his anchorman to speak. Finally, he did.
“What you’ve described would be devastating, Mr. Mayor – truly devastating. Virtually every Philadelphian would be affected.”
“I think that’s a fair assessment,” Norbert replied. “But we’re hoping it doesn’t come to that. We expect the unions to be reasonable, for council to pass a budget, and for our Harrisburg delegation to persuade their legislative colleagues to restore Philadelphia’s usual funding. It’s important to keep in mind that we’re not asking for even a dime more than we got last year from Harrisburg. All we want is what we got last year, which is less than what everyone else around the state is getting.
“We have a terrific group of legislators representing Philadelphia in Harrisburg. Working as a team, they’ve gotten the job done for Philadelphia time and time again in the past, and I have every confidence that they’ll do so again this year as well.”
A few minutes later the program ended and the mayor immediately left the studio to spend the rest of the day with his family. As he departed, he felt he had accomplished everything he had set out to do on the broadcast. Now, though, he and his staff needed to plot their next step – and whatever it was, he knew it had better be a good one.
At the request of Mayor Norbert, Jon Ravelsky arranged a meeting at his law firm’s office between the mayor and council’s three leaders: president Harold Miller, budget committee chairwoman Mary Amordella, and eighty-two-year-old Leonard Goldberg, a venerable figure who was now serving his tenth term on council. Norbert originally proposed inviting the group to his office or even his home, but Ravelsky counseled that meeting on neutral ground might be more effective.
Norbert knew that council was obsessed with being respected – an obsession driven by the utter disdain with which most Philadelphians viewed the legislative branch of their city’s government. Even the most ill-informed Philadelphians could matter-of-factly cite numerous reasons for their low regard for council: the numerous fistfights in which council members had engaged – on the floor of council, during official meetings – over the years; the thousands of dollars that several of them owed to the city-owned gas utility; the many relatives they put on their staffs; the contracts they accepted to lobby public agencies that relied in part on council for their funding; the free clothes and furniture they received, the home repairs performed for them, and the discounts they received on automobiles from local companies seeking their favor; the junkets they took to Las Vegas for conventions for local elected officials at which they were photographed at casino slot machines at the same time that they claimed to be attending workshops; and much more. The one reason that Philadelphians cited most frequently, however, was council’s impressive record of having at least one of its members convicted of political corruption in every four-year term that councils had served since the late 1950s. So accustomed were Philadelphians to the idea that the people they elected to council would break the law that throughout the city, lobbyists participated in high-stakes office betting pools in which they tried to pick the latest term’s most-likely-to-be-indicted member.
Mindful of the inferiority complex inspired by council’s actual inferiority, Norbert made a point of arriving very early to ensure that the meeting did not get off on the wrong foot with council members agitated because he had kept them waiting. When Ravelsky ushered the council delegation into his conference room, Norbert greeted them and stepped to a side table where refreshments were arranged and offered to serve the newest arrivals.
After a very brief period of small talk – idle conversation was awkward and hardly seemed worth the effort because Miller had to work hard to be civil to Norbert and Goldberg refused even to try – the four public officials got down to business.
“We need a budget,” Norbert said gently. “In two weeks the city will lose its authority to spend money. When that happens, not only will we not be able to pay our employees, but we also won’t be able to pay our bills and then our suppliers and contractors will threaten to cut us off. We also run the risk of defaulting on our bonds. I don’t think we’re that far apart, and I’m hoping we can put our heads together – just us, no staff – identify the issues that are standing between us and an approved budget, and either work them out now or lay a foundation for working them out in the next few days.”
Council president Miller agreed and immediately presented the first issue: capital projects. According to an analysis by council’s staff, he said, thirty city capital projects were more than two years behind schedule, and twenty-four of those thirty projects had no timetable for work even to begin.
Norbert was surprised: endless delays on capital projects had long been a problem in Philadelphia, but he also knew that his staff had addressed and solved it within thirty days of his taking office. Further, this was the first time council had raised this matter – and now, at the very start of a meeting at which he felt he needed to be as respectful and deferential as possible, he had to tell council leaders that they were mistaken about these projects – and that they were mistaken because they had not bothered to read key city reports that documented the resolution of this problem.
“Actually,” he explained, “my understanding is that the city usually runs fifty to sixty projects at least two years behind. We’re doing a pretty good job: we’ve cut that number in half in less than six months. According to the capital projects office, every single project, even the ones that are still behind, now has a schedule for when design will be finished, for bidding, for project start, and for project completion. We’ll be completely caught up by the end of the next fiscal year for the first time in more than fifty years. The information you’re working with is outdated. I wish you would’ve raised this sooner, because we would have had an opportunity to set your minds at ease about this.”
“You’ve kept this information to yourselves, you spring it on us now for the first time, and we’re supposed to believe you?” Councilman Goldberg asked.
Norbert was momentarily taken aback by the directness – and the inaccuracy – of the councilman’s challenge.
“Mr. Goldberg, we didn’t go public with this in a big way because even though we now have this plan for catching up completely, we thought it would be ungracious to brag publicly about cleaning up another administration’s mess. But we haven’t been hiding it, either. It’s all spelled out in the city’s capital plan, and I know you’ve all received copies of that plan. You have my word that we’ve now got this totally under control, and while I realize I’ve only been in office for a few months, I think I have a pretty good record of living up to my word.”
“Your word means nothing to me,” Goldberg spat back at Norbert.
“I think what Leonard is saying,” Councilwoman Amordella interjected, “is that the projects that are behind schedule have been promised for years and our constituents have been expecting them for a long time. We keep going back and asking them to be patient, but they’re losing patience. We don’t want to go back to them empty-handed again. We need a way to pacify them until the projects get started.”
“That sounds reasonable,” Norbert replied. “What do you have in mind? I’d be glad to join you when you talk to your constituents about these projects and help explain. If you want to set up some kind of community meetings or something, tell me when and where and I’ll be there.”
“We’ve employed a different approach in the past,” Amordella explained. “When the big projects are delayed, we try to do some little things to tide our constituents over.
“You may not have noticed,” Amordella continued, “but the current year’s budget, like its seven predecessors, has seventeen miscellaneous appropriations of $400,000 in the community development budget for unspecified purposes.”
“I noticed that, actually,” Norbert replied. “When we couldn’t figure out what they were for we eliminated them, saving $6.8 million in the process.”
“What do you mean ‘I noticed that’?” Miller asked.
“When I was reading the budget,” Norbert replied.
“You read the budget?”
“Why would you do that?” the council president asked, an incredulous look on his face.
“A chief executive should always know where the money’s coming from and how it’s being spent,” Norbert replied.
The three council members looked at one another in astonishment; Goldberg smirked.
“Be that as it may,” Amordella resumed, “we’d like those appropriations restored.”
“But what are they for?” Norbert asked. He was annoyed; yet again, this was the first he had heard of this matter – another council surprise.
“They’re for council’s discretionary projects,” Miller explained.
Norbert paused for a moment.
“Of course,” he finally said, “seventeen appropriations, seventeen members of council. They were sprinkled throughout the community development budget, but I should have made the connection.”
“If you had any local or party people in your budget office,” Goldberg said, seizing the opportunity to raise another sore subject, “you would have known.”
“So, the funds?” Amordella asked.
Norbert was taken aback; they were asking for a $400,000 slush fund for each member of council.
“That’s $6.8 million. We’d need to find offsets,” Norbert said.
“Find them,” Goldberg snapped.
“$6 million will do,” Miller interjected. “I never understood why we gave any of this money to the Republicans on council in the first place.”
“To the victors go the spoils,” Goldberg added.
“I’ll get back to you on that, okay?” Norbert asked.
“Of course,” Miller said, adding “but let’s not take too long. As you said, we need a budget.”
“Forty-eight hours,” Norbert promised.
“Excellent,” Miller said, “So now let’s talk about the parking authority, the housing authority, and the school district.”
“What about them?” Norbert asked. None of these entities were formally part of city government or included in the city budget and the mayor did not run or even oversee them. Technically, the two authorities were actually state agencies, not city offices.
“We want 100 jobs at each,” Miller declared.
“What do you mean?”
“They’re not civil service and we need jobs to reward our people.”
“I don’t run the authorities or the school district and that’s Denny McDougal’s area,” Norbert explained, referring to the well-known division of responsibilities he had engineered between himself and the party’s chairman.
“We’re making it your area,” Miller said.
“They’re all overstaffed right now,” Norbert said. “Even though I don’t run them, I’ve been leaning on all three to give me plans for how they’ll reduce their staffing by at least ten percent in the next eighteen months. We need to cut jobs in those organizations, not increase them.”
“Unacceptable,” Goldberg practically shouted. “You can’t just throw people out of work.”
“That’s why I gave them eighteen months,” Norbert said. “They should be able to achieve most if not all of their cuts by attrition.”
“And if they don’t?” Goldberg asked.
“Minimal lay-offs – last hired, first fired, the only fair way.”
“We think there’s a better way,” Miller said.
“What’s that?” Norbert asked.
“Fire everyone whose employment was sponsored by Michael Ianucci and everyone whose employment was sponsored by Republicans,” Miller explained.
“You’re kidding, right?”
“To the victors go the spoils,” repeated Goldberg.
“That’s correct,” Miller added. “You fire them, you let the attrition thing run its course, and then you give us at least 100 jobs at each.”
“What happened to ‘You can’t throw people out of work?’”
“We were talking about people we actually care about,” Miller replied. “But we don’t care about any of the people I just mentioned.”
“We can’t just do that. We’ll get sued,” Norbert objected. “The days when you can fire patronage employees just because their patrons lost their power are long gone.”
“We own the judges,” Miller said. “We paid good money for them, in fact.”
“You don’t own federal judges. These kinds of suits are now considered civil rights cases and go to federal court,” Norbert replied.
“You’re a lawyer now?” Goldberg asked.
“You don’t need to be a lawyer to know this. It’s all over the public sector trade journals.”
“The what?” Amordella asked.
“The journals – you know, Governing, Nation’s Cities Weekly, the National Civic Review – the magazines about issues in local government that we all read.”
The three council members just looked at him for a moment – and then looked at one another.
“We have no idea what you’re talking about,” Miller said, making clear that members of Philadelphia’s city council were not, in fact, among those who read professional journals about their field of endeavor.
“Take my word for it,” Norbert said.
“We’ll do no such thing,” Goldberg replied.
“Fine. I’ll talk to Cisco and get a formal opinion from the city’s law department.”
“Quickly,” Miller said.
“Forty-eight hours,” Norbert again promised.
“Our third issue,” Amordella said, changing the subject, “is the union contracts. You need to increase the offers. They’re unacceptably low.”
“Mary, you know the numbers as well as…”
“You will address the councilwoman with respect,” Goldberg bellowed. “How dare you disrespect her like that.”
“It’s okay, Lenny, the mayor didn’t mean anything by it,” Amordella interjected. “We’ve been friends for years: I call him Jim and he calls me Mary.”
“It is not okay, Mary. This council will not be disrespected in this manner.”
“My apologies, councilwoman.”
“Really, Jim, it’s not necessary. But the raises are. You need to do better.”
“You’ve seen the numbers, councilwoman. There’s no more money. Even assuming we get full restoration from the state, there’s still no more money.”
“There’s no current money, you mean,” council president Miller corrected him.
“The only way to get more money would be to raise taxes,” Norbert said.
“If that’s the only way,” Miller replied.
“You’re kidding, right?” Norbert asked.
“Do I look like I’m kidding?”
“Do you think your constituents will be agreeable to paying more taxes so we can give city employees bigger raises than we’ve already offered?”
“Spoken like a true capitalist,” Goldberg said. “You’ve always taken grotesque advantage of labor, young man. You built your empire on the backs of the working man and now that you’re pursuing the new, fashionable gentleman’s hobby of running a city, you’re continuing to do it just for sport.”
Prior to his election to council – and then on a part-time basis through his first three terms in office – Goldberg had worked as a union organizer. In his many years of work in that capacity, he managed the extraordinary record of never succeeding – not even once – in persuading any workers anywhere to join forces and unionize.
“The facts suggest otherwise, actually,” Norbert responded. “My company has had numerous union votes yet neither a single defeat nor a single ruling rendered against us by the National Labor Relations Board. You know our secret, Lenny?”
Norbert knew he had just baited Goldberg – something he had specifically tried not to do. The temptation, however, had proven too powerful, and now, he watched Goldberg turn very red in the face.
“I treat my employees well. I pay them fairly and I treat them with respect.”
Councilwoman Amordella interrupted, fearing that Goldberg’s anger and reddened face could cause the octogenarian to have a stroke.
“Seriously, Jim, we need to treat our city workers better, even if it means raising taxes.”
“I ask you again,” Norbert said. “Do you think your constituents want to pay higher taxes to give raises to people who already have better jobs than they do?”
“We don’t care,” Miller interjected.
“Excuse me?” the mayor asked.
“You heard me. Our job is to make city policy and make the city work, not to do what our constituents want. If we consulted them on every little matter that came before us we’d never get anything done, now would we?”
Norbert could not quite believe what he was hearing.
“And you don’t think raising taxes would hurt you the next time you’re up for re-election?”
“Now you’re the one who has to be kidding,” Miller replied. “I’m in my fourth term, Mary’s in her fifth, and Lenny’s in his tenth. We raise taxes at least once every term, and occasionally twice. It’s never hurt us before.”
“But times are changing,” Norbert said. “All across the country, legislators who vote for taxes are being voted out of office. You’re not worried at all about that?”
“May I ask why not?”
“Because our constituents are fundamentally stupid, that’s why,” Miller explained. “We serve four-year terms. If we raise taxes during the first two years of those terms, they’ve forgotten by the time we run for re-election.”
“And your opponents won’t be all-too happy to remind them?”
“The only people more clueless than our constituents are the Republicans in this town,” she said. “They couldn’t find a decent candidate if their lives depended on it, and even if they accidentally stumbled onto one, they wouldn’t have a clue as to how to run a half-decent campaign. It’s been years since anyone who’s served more than one term on council has lost a bid for re-election, Jim. Our constituents don’t follow what’s going on and don’t read the newspapers. They step into the voting booth and vote for the names they recognize, and those are our names. Last fall I got ninety-two percent of the vote in my race. Do you think I need to worry? We’re not in any way responsive to them on matters like this because as long as we continue to take care of their business, they continue to vote for us. We can raise taxes, make bad decisions, even break the law and they still support us, so if we need to raise taxes to keep the city workforce happy and willing to vote for us, we raise taxes. That’s all there is to it.”
After a few more minutes of discussion, the three council members concluded that those were the major issues they needed the mayor to address, and the four participants agreed that the mayor would contact council president Miller within two days with his response to those concerns. The next move clearly was Norbert’s.
So the meeting ended. Goldberg quickly and abruptly departed without so much as acknowledging the mayor, showing surprising agility for a man in his ninth decade. Amordella and Miller shook the mayor’s hand at the door and were about to leave when Miller asked Amordella to go on without him because he wanted to have a brief word alone with the mayor.
When Amordella departed, Miller spoke.
“It’s a lot, Mr. Mayor. The community development money, the jobs, the taxes for the pay raises.”
“Yes, it is,” Norbert agreed.
“And it may or may not be possible.”
“At least you acknowledge it,” he said.
“Of course I do. We all do – even Lenny.”
“He’s quite a character.”
“The last angry man,” the council president said, laughing.
“But I can make this a whole lot easier for you,” Miller continued. “I can make it incredibly simple. You can make those three problems go away without your having to lift a finger and get your budget at our next meeting on Thursday.”
“Yes. We can do without the discretionary funds and the jobs and the city workers can fend for themselves or accept your perfectly reasonable contract offer. We can do without any of it.”
“It’s easy,” Miller said. “Give us Shaniqua Watson and you can have your way on everything else.”
With those words, Miller shook Norbert’s hand and departed.
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.
“Take your seats, please. We’re going to begin in a minute.”
So spoke Rikki Johnston, the mayor’s press secretary. She was in the mayor’s reception room, and reporters were gathering, talking quietly among themselves and trying to guess what the subject of this hastily convened press conference might be. Only two of the four local television stations that broadcast news were present, and their camera operators were making one last check of the lighting.
“Okay, everyone,” Johnston announced from the podium, “here’s Mayor Norbert.”
Norbert strode purposefully into the room and approached the microphone.
“Good morning, everyone.”
He began speaking – without notes.
“As you all know, we’ve enjoyed tremendous success with the re-engineering of our streets department under the extraordinary leadership of Commissioner Shaniqua Watson. With her guidance, that department has reached an unprecedented, and some would say unimagined, level of performance. Commissioner Watson has demonstrated to us all what a tremendous difference one person can make.
“We have many city departments, though, but we haven’t been able to find any more Shaniqua Watsons, so I’ve concluded that she’s much too talented a public servant, administrator, and leader for us to limit her influence to just one city department.
“For this reason, I’m pleased to announce that effective immediately, I’m promoting Shaniqua to the new post of deputy mayor for productivity and performance. In this role, Shaniqua will work closely with managing director Wilma O’Neill to identify new and better ways for city government to deliver services to the people of Philadelphia. Deputy commissioner James Van Impe will step up and take over as the streets department’s commissioner.
“Do you have any questions?”
The Gazette’s city hall reporter, Gene Dowler, was the first reporter to leap to his feet.
“Mr. Mayor, are you making this change at this particular time for political reasons? I ask because there are reports that you’ve been under a great deal of political pressure to fire Commissioner Watson and that this pressure may account for the budget problems you’re having with council, Governor Clayton, and the state legislature.”
“There’s nothing to that, Gene. How could anyone have a problem with better public services?”
The next questioner was Rochelle Adams, a radio station reporter.
“Mayor Norbert, will new Commissioner Van Impe retain Commissioner Watson’s innovative programs, like her telephone and internet hotlines and her twenty-four-hour service guarantees?”
“That’ll be up to the new commissioner. I don’t tell our managers how to run their operations, so that’ll strictly be his call.”
Norbert looked down, and for a brief, fleeting moment, a look of sadness and disappointment crossed his face. He sensed this and quickly forced a smile and looked up in anticipation of the next question.