A passion for politics - PittsburghLIVE.com
: "A passion for politics
By Richard Gazarik
Sunday, July 31, 2005
After a dinner of crab cakes with Louisiana hot sauce and a long, sleepless night trying to pass a state budget, Sen. Vincent Fumo, of Philadelphia, was back at his desk the next morning, working the telephone and talking to aides.
In a hoarse voice, he said his stomach was roiling from the combination of spicy food, irregular hours and Gov. Ed Rendell's comments to a reporter that he'd support a legislative pay raise if lawmakers brought him a responsible budget. Rendell's remarks, he said, complicated the already complicated recent budget negotiations.
Fumo, who represents south Philadelphia, and Rendell aren't strangers. They worked together often during Rendell's two terms as the city's mayor.
"Ed can be very frustrating to say the least," Fumo said. "... He tells you what you want to hear just to get you out of his office."
Fumo said he's just the opposite.
"I don't give my word lightly," he added.
The 62-year-old Fumo is a brash, bright, outspoken political dynamo in Philadelphia and Harrisburg, where he holds sway over the state budget process as minority chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which controls the state's purse strings.
First elected in 1978, the six-term Democratic lawmaker can be a hard man to label.
The former high school biology teacher is a strange mix of liberal and conservative. He's a member of the American Civil Liberties Union and rails against the erosion of civil liberties since Sept. 11, 2001, and the war in Iraq. He's also a member of the National Rifle Association and believes in an individual's right to carry a gun.
A twice-divorced Catholic with three children, Fumo is somewhat of a Renaissance man, having earned an airplane pilot's license and boat captain's license. A licensed electrical contractor, he also can fix engines.
He grew up in the 1st District in South Philadelphia, the neighborhood he represents. "South Philly," at the heart of the city along the Delaware River, is populated largely by people of Italian, Irish, Asian and Hispanic heritage.
It has been home to various celebrities, such as singers Bobby Rydell, Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Eddie Fisher, Jim Croce and Chubby Checker. Comedians David Brenner and Joey Bishop, actor Jack Klugman and opera singers Marian Anderson and Mario Lanza also lived in the neighborhood.
The city's major sports venues are there, including Lincoln Financial Field, home to the Eagles football team; Citizens Bank Ball Park, home of the Phillies, and the Wachovia Center, where the Flyers hockey and 76ers basketball teams play.
South Philly is also known for its color: cheesesteaks, outdoor markets, soft pretzels, hot dog carts, street singers and wiseguys. It is a place where politics is a "blood sport," according to Zach Stahlberg, retired editor of the Philadelphia Daily News.
"Over the years it's been more intense than it is right now," Stahlberg said. "There was a period when Vince and (the late state Sen.) Buddy Cianfrani and ( former Councilman) Jimmy Tayoun and the forces of (the late) Mayor Frank Rizzo were allied with each other on any given day. It was a helluva lot of fun to watch."
Fumo said South Philly politics is competitive. In the past, it was violent. Voters expressed their loyalty for a candidate by settling disputes with their fists.
"People were getting beat up in the streets," Fumo said. "I said it had to stop and it did stop. Elections are fairer and cleaner than when I first started. The neighborhood has changed as well."
Depending upon who you talk to, everybody seems to have a different take on the relationship between Fumo and Rendell, two of the strongest personalities in state government. David Cohen, vice president of Comcast in Philadelphia, who served as Rendell's chief of staff when he was mayor, said the relationship between Rendell and Fumo is "generally productive but sometimes contentious."
"Both are passionate men. Both believe very strongly in principle," Cohen said.
"I think their political rapport is based on mutual respect," said House Minority Leader Bill DeWeese, of Waynesburg, Greene County. "They are such dominant intellects in their respective branches ... and come from the same proverbial neck of the woods. Certainly, they're bound to collide from time to time."
Former Philadelphia Councilman Jimmy Tayoun is more direct.
"He scares Eddie," Tayoun said. "He can deliver votes for Eddie, He can deliver legislation for Eddie, but you never know where he is on the bottom line."
Rendell's press secretary disagreed with Tayoun's description of the relationship.
"I would not at all characterize the governor as being scared of him by any measure," said Kate Philips, Rendell's press secretary. "Both are strong personalities. Both have strong opinions about what is right and wrong. They both have the good of the people in mind, but they're cut from two different cloths.
"I think they respect each other. They are both very powerful men."
In his role as minority chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Fumo's counsel and help have been sought by governors trying to get their budgets passed. In fact, Fumo said Gov. Robert Casey once dispatched a state airplane to return him to Harrisburg from vacation to talk about the budget.
"He's been the dominant budgeteer in the state for the past 15 years," DeWeese added.
Not surprisingly, Republicans think Fumo's influence is overstated.
Retired Sen. Richard Tilghman, of Montgomery County, who was majority chair of appropriations, concedes Fumo is "an able guy." However, he said Fumo's clout with GOP governors wasn't that influential because Republicans controlled both chambers.
Fumo himself admits he is not without faults.
He said he's blunt, has a temper and is prone to name-calling when he's angry. He said his temper may be due to a volatile combination of ancestry, noting he's half Italian and one-quarter each Irish and English.
"He knows as many four-letter words as I do and he uses them," Stahlberg said.
But Fumo doesn't hold a grudge.
"I do get angry at times," Fumo said. "Once I blow up, I get it out of my system. My biggest fault is that I'm too forgiving. I'm not vindictive. I'm too forgiving."
Fumo once called Republican Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer a "faggot" and then repeated the name several times.
"I've apologized to the gay community for that," Fumo added.
He once tore into DeWeese for failing to line up House votes for Rendell so Comcast could get a tax break.
"He was kinda stunned. I think his jaw dropped," Fumo recalled.
DeWeese couldn't remember details of the confrontation, although press accounts indicated the younger lawmaker admonished Fumo to "sit down, old man."
"My memory is fogged," DeWeese said diplomatically.
Records show Fumo was sued by a former court official who blamed him for the loss of his job. When Fumo won the case, he turned around and the sued the man for personal injury, later saying he recouped $300,000 for the state because the plaintiff had sued the state Supreme Court as well.
He also sued an official of the Transport Workers Union after a bus strike because the official accused him of taking a bribe.
"He implied I took a bribe. I went ballistic," Fumo said. "I sued him for that. I don't do slip-and-fall cases."
He sued a Teamsters union official in Philadelphia for accusing him of being a "spokesman for the Mafia in the Senate." That case also was settled in his favor, he said.
Fumo's behavior has earned him nicknames like "the Vince of Darkness," "Vince the Merciless" and "Vinnie Kilowatt." He's also been called "Senator R2D2" because of his interest in computers and technology.
He jokes that he had to hire an aide just to clean up his reputation. The nicknames, he added, come with the territory.
"I want him to turn me from Darth Vader into Luke Skywalker," he said. "He hasn't done his job. I am tough. I deliver. I keep my word and I don't lie."
DeWeese said Fumo's word is as good as gold.
"He is a dominant force in the General Assembly by anyone's standards," DeWeese said. "Vince brings a lot of fire up the turnpike each week. His word is good and that's the only species that counts in the capitol complex."
Philadelphia Councilman Frank Rizzo Jr., son of the city's late mayor, said he believes people are jealous of the senator.
"He's a wealthy man. He doesn't need politics. He doesn't need people to wine and dine him," Rizzo added. "I'm not ashamed to say it's never affected my relationship with him."
Stahlberg, who has known Fumo for about 25 years, said he's seen him operate on a political and personal level.
"He's a very, very sharp guy," Stahlberg said. "You can't help but enjoy being around him. At the same time, we would butt heads from time to time. He's got plenty of emotion and is willing to express it. I think it's not just passion. It's a combination of intellect and passion which makes for a very potent force. I can't think of anyone in public life who has that mixture."
During meetings, Fumo "usually is the smartest person in the room," according to DeWeese.
"There are moments when GOP members aren't brimming with affection for the gentleman from south Philadelphia .... he could care less if people aren't fond of him," DeWeese said.
"Vince has an agenda which very few of us go to watch and try to figure out," Stahlberg added. "One thing he is not is some type of cartoon character. He's not your typical tough-talking south Philadelphia pol. When Vince steps into something, he's not just stepping in or trying to get you an extra dime. He's stepping in with a tremendous arsenal of personal assets."
Fumo went to St. Joseph's Prep and graduated from St. John Newman High School, where he later taught. He has degrees from Villanova, Temple Law School and an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.
He's a wealthy lawyer, banker and businessman. He runs a banking concern that has grown from $1.5 million in assets to $500 million, sits on the board of directors of corporations and is associated with the Philadelphia law firm of Dilworth Paxson, he said.
He said he has a financial interest in at least 15 business partnerships and a mortgage company and is a landlord with real estate properties in Philadelphia and Harrisburg. He sits on the board of the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Authority, the Pennsylvania Public School Employees Retirement System, the Delaware River Port Authority, Independent Blue Cross and the Philadelphia City Board of Trusts.
Fumo said his late grandfather, a tailor, came to America from Italy through Ellis Island and became a real estate broker in Philadelphia. When Italian immigrants couldn't get loans to buy homes, he founded the Fumo Savings and Loan Co. The senator's late father, Joseph, also became a real estate broker and ran the company until 1976 when Fumo took over management.
Fumo's parents didn't want him to get into politics, so he enrolled in medical school to become an osteopath.
"In his first year, his father talks to the head of the school who also was a Republican ward leader and he says 'maybe you should get your son out of here,'" Tayoun recalled.
Medicine's loss was politics' gain, although some of Fumo's detractors now may wish he had become a doctor, confining his interests to the human body rather than Pennsylvania's legislative body.
Fumo, reflecting on his career, said he started out at the bottom of the political ladder.
He became a committeeman and served as Philadelphia coordinator for then-U.S. Rep. John Dent, of Westmoreland County, who challenged incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Joe Clark. After Milton Shapp was elected governor, Fumo became the right-hand man of the late Pete Camiel, a Philadelphia power broker and later head of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission.
Fumo was in charge of patronage under Shapp and went on to become deputy commissioner and then commissioner of Occupational Affairs in the Department of State.
Fumo learned politics at the feet of a master -- the late Buddy Cianfrani -- according to Tayoun. Fumo succeeded Cianfrani in the state Senate after Cianfrani went to prison on corruption charges.
"Buddy understood the political game," Tayoun said. "We all learned from Buddy Cianfrani."
Fumo agrees, to a point. He was related to Cianfrani by marriage, but he said he and Cianfrani had different views on how to accomplish things politically.
"My uncle was married to Buddy's cousin," Fumo said. "Depending on the day, he either was my uncle or didn't know me. I do think strategically. Buddy liked to shoot from the hip."
Laura Foreman, a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who was married to Cianfrani, said she didn't think Fumo and her husband were as close politically as some people thought.
"They knew each other all of Vince's life," she said from her home in New Orleans. "I think Buddy knew Vince was very bright. They had their differences along the way. Vince comes from a very political family. It's a very large family through marriage relationships and the world he grew up in."
Fumo said his worst career memory is of then-Mayor Wilson Goode, of Philadelphia, ordering the police bombing of a row house occupied by members of MOVE, a radical back-to-nature movement, which resulted in 11 deaths and the destruction of 61 homes in 1985.
"Wilson Goode had no Plan B," Fumo said.
Tayoun said he is amazed that the years have not damped Fumo's ambition and ability to think two or three steps ahead of everybody else. He recalled the ambition surfacing after Fumo was elected to the state Senate.
"He wins the seat. One day in the office, I'm on the phone talking to constituents and he said to me, 'I'll never be like you. I want to be a power broker. I want to put key people in key positions across the state.' He did that. He did it very successfully. He changed the way politics is played in this town."
Fumo's high profile has attracted law enforcement scrutiny from time to time.
He has been on the radar screen of prosecutors ever since he worked for the Shapp administration. He escaped one criminal conviction and now finds himself again under the scrutiny of federal prosecutors in Philadelphia.
"Vince always was a target for law enforcement. He always was the target of somebody's investigation," said a former Shapp official who knows Fumo. "I don't think there's ever been a prosecutor who didn't have a Fumo file close at hand."
In the early 1970s, Fumo, Camiel, Democratic Majority Leader Tom Nolan, of Turtle Creek, and Chief Clerk of the House, Vincent Scarcelli, were indicted for mail fraud and conspiracy for placing 33 "ghost" employees on the state payroll. A jury convicted them, but a federal judge overturned the conviction.
"Vince has been a very, very lucky man when it comes to court decisions," said Tayoun, who served time in prison for bribery, tax evasion, mail fraud and obstructing justice during his tenure as a councilman.
Earlier this year, a federal grand jury subpoenaed documents and witnesses in an ongoing investigation into Fumo's ties to a series of nonprofit organizations that received state grants. Prosecutors also have subpoenaed records of Verizon Communications, Ikea and Peco Energy Co., which donated $17 million to the Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, a Fumo-supported organization.
FBI agents in May also seized the computers at Fumo's Philadelphia and Harrisburg offices. In June, a federal judge rebuffed Fumo's efforts to block the seizure.
Fumo will not discuss the investigation, nor will he talk about the newspaper stories that have been published about him regarding the federal investigation. Despite the journalistic scrutiny, he said he gets along well with reporters.
"I think most of the guys like me. Lately, over the last two years, the (Philadelphia) Inquirer has had a tear on me. There's nothing I can do. I tried. It's interesting to note that the Inquirer, after vilifying me for about a year, wrote a glowing endorsement."
Fumo said he has a difficult time turning off the internal switch that motivates him.
"In many ways, Vince is a comparatively private individual ... he's not out backslapping and shooting the breeze because he's always working," DeWeese said.
Rizzo recalled a fund-raiser at the Philadelphia Museum of Art during which the street around the museum was closed to traffic so participants could drive go-carts around the block. Rizzo said Fumo, hands gripped on the steering wheel, was flying around the block, cutting off drivers and ramming others.
"These little cars went like hell," Rizzo said. "About 35 to 50 miles an hour around a course at the art museum."
Fumo chuckled as he recalled the story. He readily admits he has a difficult time relaxing.
"I have a home on the beach," he said. "I like watching the ocean ... but I can't sit on the beach. ... I'm not a person who's at ease when he's at rest."
Richard Gazarik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (724) 830-6292."