The Real Tom Knox
He’s the man to beat in the mayor’s race. Unfortunately, the crusading outsider Tom Knox plays on TV bears little resemblance to the connected insider he is in real life
ON MARCH 13TH, at 2:06 p.m., a man calling himself Kevin Knox posted a message, written in capital letters, on the blog of TheNextMayor.com, a website devoted to the Philadelphia mayor’s race:
TOM KNOX IS MY UNCLE, AND ME AND MY THREE CHILDREN ARE GOING TO BE HOMELESS ON MARCH 16 DUE TO AN EVICTION. I ASKED UNCLE TOM TO LEND ME 2,000 DOLLARS TO AVOID THIS, AND HE DENIED ME BECAUSE I GOT HIGH ONE TIME SINCE BEING RELEASED FROM PRISON. MY KIDS ARE 8, 7, 4, HE SAYS THEY ARE NOT HIS BLOOD! THEY’RE MY KIDS. HOW AREN’T THEY HIS BLOOD? HE TOLD ME TO TAKE OUT LIFE INSURANCE AND KILL MYSELF SO THEY WOULD HAVE MONEY. MY UNCLE MIKE (his brother) DIED OF AN OVERDOSE, WHY WOULD HE EVEN SAY THIS TO ME. … HE’S JUST ANOTHER POLITICIAN WITH LIES! I HAVE ALOT MORE ON HIM. …
Included was the name and phone number of a friend whom Kevin invited readers to call in order to get in touch with him and learn more — his phone had been shut off. Kevin signed off with:
SORRY UNCLE TOM, YOU LEFT MY KIDS IN THE DIRT.
For good measure, the message was posted again at 3:02 p.m. the next day.
A few weeks later, Tom Knox, Democratic candidate for mayor of Philadelphia, confirms in his lavish office on Arch Street that, yes, the Kevin Knox who wrote that post is his nephew. Tom also points out — just in case it isn’t already clear — that Kevin is a very troubled guy. In fact, Knox says, Kevin is “a complete waste.” The latest snafu in his life was allegedly robbing a ShopRite in Bensalem of a large quantity of baby formula, which put him back in jail. If Kevin’s character is in doubt, Knox suggests that a call to Kevin’s sister Cindy will confirm just what sort of person his nephew is. He’s right. Cindy says her brother is a train wreck.
But what Kevin’s nasty reach-out made clear is something broader: how little we know about Tom Knox, a self-proclaimed outsider to city politics who made a fortune in insurance and banking. It seems possible that Kevin is sharing something we should understand about his uncle — but that’s exactly the point. We don’t know.
We do know Knox’s TV ads, on which he’s spent millions since December. They present a simple story: He’s a guy originally from the projects who saved the city from a budget crisis, back when he worked (for $1 a year!) for Ed Rendell. He’s also the guy who’s going to clean up a city government that, for far too long, has been run on the basis of giving people whatever they want in contracts and jobs if they contribute enough cash to the right places. Tom Knox can’t be bought, the ads suggest — he’s too rich. Rich enough to buy City Hall back, though not for himself. He wants to return the city to us, where it belongs.
It’s a direct and dramatic and large story, and it’s playing well in the Northeast, in West Philly, in Feltonville. In such places, the future of the city seems once again up for grabs, and they’re believing in Tom Knox. “I see,” one woman at a Knox West Philly community breakfast nods, approvingly, “that he struggled to come along in his day.” It’s why, a month before the primary, the polls have Knox in first place, even though four months ago, most Philadelphians had never heard of Tom Knox.
Such is the power of TV. Yet there’s a small problem with his message. Those who do know him, Philadelphia insiders who worked with Tom Knox for those 18 months during the Rendell years, or who know him from business, don’t recognize the guy in the ads. When you talk to 50 local insiders, Knox’s outsider story, the guy who wants to ride in and clean things up, has them scratching their heads. Or laughing. They present a different Tom Knox, and say there’s a huge gap between the guy they know and the crusader of his ads, the one who seems tantalizingly close to becoming Philadelphia’s next mayor.
SOMETIME IN the mid ’90s, Bob Butera, the CEO of the Convention Center, got a phone call from Tom Knox. In fact, according to his account, he got several phone calls from Knox.
Butera knew Knox a little. Through his law firm, Saul Ewing, Butera had tried to get Knox as a client. Once, Knox had invited Butera out to Kasser, a distillery he owned, for lunch; he remembers Knox talking about some turkey farms he’d bought, what a great deal he’d made selling them. And Knox had invited him to the Morris Arboretum two or three times, charity events for what is now called the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia. That’s about it.
Now Knox was calling Butera because he wanted to be named the broker of record for the Convention Center’s hospitalization policy, held with Blue Cross. Butera recalls that Knox said that if he was broker of record — the go-to guy on the policy — the policy itself wouldn’t change, and it wouldn’t cost the Convention Center any more money; but he’d get a commission. Butera considered. He knew that Knox had worked under Rendell, and was now out of the administration. Something else: The Convention Center operates at a loss, which is picked up by the city. So keeping good relations with the city is important, and given that Knox was close to Rendell … It was a no-brainer, really. Butera told Knox yes, and Knox was made broker of record, which, Butera was recently told, put $28,000 a year in Knox’s pocket. What he actually did for that money, Butera has no idea.
Such is the quiet, easy way business is conducted among people who know people in Philadelphia, or, for that matter, anywhere. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with it, though Butera now says that if he had known Knox was making so much back then just for being broker of record, he would have called Blue Cross directly and negotiated a lower premium for the Center’s policy; in an indirect way, given that city taxpayers pick up the Center’s cost overruns, we, the citizens of Philadelphia, were paying a chunk of Tom Knox’s stipend.
Knox, for his part, denies ever calling Butera, and denies being broker of record of the Convention Center. It is curious, then, that Butera seems to remember Knox confronting him some time later; he checks his datebooks to confirm that it was at interior designer Karen Daroff’s 1999 Christmas party. “Why did you take that insurance business from me?” Knox demanded, according to Butera.
“For the same reason you got it in the first place,” Butera answered. “Someone else came along” — Sean Gormley, New Jersey State Senator Bill Gormley’s son.
Really, though, a few thousand dollars in Tom Knox’s pocket isn’t the point. The deal goes to the heart of his claim of who he is, how he’s presenting himself as he runs for mayor of Philadelphia. He claims to be beyond the realm of such politically connected phone calls and deals. It doesn’t wash.
There are many other examples of the Knox mix of money and power. After his 18 months in the Rendell administration in the early ’90s, Knox was tapped by Governor Bob Casey to be CEO and special deputy rehabilitator of Fidelity Mutual. The state was taking over because the insurance company was failing. Knox, who’d contributed to Casey’s campaigns, saw this as a stepping-stone to a CEO position somewhere, but he ran into a few problems. One was that trying to eviscerate the employee pension fund to pay off creditors resulted in a lawsuit the employees eventually won. (Judging from his remarks at a recent campaign event about benefits for city firemen, Knox’s heart is now in a different place: “If you make a deal with your workers, you have to live up to it. Your employer tells you he’s going to give you something, and then when you expect it, and he takes it back — that’s not fair.”)
Another problem was an accusation, in a letter from Fidelity’s former chief counsel, Rudy Bucus, to the Department of Labor, that Knox tried to bully two employees into doctoring the minutes of a meeting — they claimed he wanted to show that he took a vote on how to invest pension funds when, they say, he actually made the decision unilaterally. (One of those at the meeting, vice president and treasurer Anthony Balabon, who was fired a month after it took place, corroborates the accusation. Knox denies trying to doctor the minutes.) Finally, Knox resigned under pressure after it came to light that he had personally invested $25,000 in Presidential Life, a company that bought half of Fidelity.
Knox and his aide Jack Stollsteimer shared Walter Annenberg’s old office in the TV Guide building in Radnor — that’s where Fidelity was located. Stollsteimer watched as Knox cut staff, which Knox didn’t personally have to do. “He was really good,” Stollsteimer remembers. “A human being.” Though even Stollsteimer, who’s now the state’s safe-schools advocate in Philadelphia, says buying Presidential Life stock was, well, “dumb.” Not Knox, though, who’s still disgusted by the stink over a dinky investment: “Now, who is going to get rich on $25,000 worth of stock?” he wonders.
THE SIZE of the investment isn’t the point, of course. But that’s just the sort of thing — a tone deafness to how things appear, to how they play, regardless of whether they’re technically wrong or not — that got Knox into a lot of trouble during his 18 months under Rendell. In fact, the way Knox operates mystified a lot of people who worked with him in city government. He’s also a guy who’s tough to warm up to: “He has the personality of a dead trout,” says Annie Karl, who, as Ed Rendell’s assistant for special projects, got to know Knox well. In fact, she liked Knox — though she’s not supporting him. One of his campaign aides says Knox doesn’t relate to people other than his family. Presumably, the aide likes him too. But Knox made real enemies among the Rendellians.
Buzz Bissinger, whose book A Prayer for the City chronicles the early drama of Rendell and company saving Philadelphia from financial collapse (Knox doesn’t even rate a mention in the book), says Knox was called “The Obnoxian” because he conducted himself with the arrogance of a one-man band, as if he’d been brought in to personally redo city benefit contracts, get better rates for city office space, merge departments — in other words, to save the city from financial collapse. The wise old heads of city politics marveled at his naïveté; the realtors he clashed with over office space called their state legislators and City Council to complain, though Knox didn’t care, because their overcharging was “outrageous.” Eventually Knox had to be told that it was not his job to be the outrageous police.
He blathered prematurely to the press about deals; he had no idea about or taste for the process of politics, which involves, as Rendell has infamously put it, suffering fools gladly and spending a considerable amount of time down on one’s knees before the right people, satiating them with the idea of their own importance. That’s how you get what you want, how you get things done.
Knox rejects this game, which might not be such a bad thing. But the daunting criticism that the Rendellians level — that he’s awful with people, “the most arrogant guy in the administration,” in the chilling words of a senior administrator, with “the absolute worst political skills of any human being I’ve met,” says another insider — that’s damning stuff. They say he had good ideas but was terrible at getting them put in place.
Knox had met Ed Rendell in the late ’80s after Rendell’s first, unsuccessful run for governor. Rendell recruited him and Herb Vederman in ’92 — Knox had contributed about $50,000 to Rendell’s campaign and has given $120,000 to Rendell through the years — as $1-a-year deputy mayors, rich guys who could come in and give their time and expertise. Officially, Knox oversaw the Office of Management and Productivity, looking for ways to save money on real estate leases and insurance and employee benefits, and creating offices of fleet management and energy, among others. Everyone gives Knox credit for his ideas on savings both large and small. (He learned, for example, that various departments bought their own light bulbs, while another one paid for electricity; naturally, the various departments bought cheap, energy-wasting bulbs that cost the other department, not to mention taxpayers, tens of thousands of dollars). However, the Knox and Rendell-insider stories diverge sharply when it comes to just who implemented those ideas.
Walt D’Alessio, chairman of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation in ’92 (a position he still holds) and a real estate banker, was in meetings Knox convened to come up with ways to make the city run efficiently, and he found Knox overly impatient to get things done, to say the least. “Making government more efficient requires a real understanding of how government works,” D’Alessio points out diplomatically, then cites the basic lesson in civics that Knox didn’t seem to grasp: There are certain checks and balances in place to make it inefficient, relative to business; that’s the point of the three branches of government — to avoid too much power in one person’s hands. Knox has heard this sort of thing before, how he was a cowboy operating as he saw fit, but still doesn’t back off: “A child suffering because he can’t get admitted to a rehab center, can’t get detox, a mother waiting six months before she can get any help — does she think I’m operating too quickly? People think you’re operating too quickly if they want to keep the status quo.”
But does his style work? One Rendell aide who worked closely with him calls Knox “an archetypical entrepreneurial CEO. He is in complete control — whatever he says, goes. It’s the ultimate monarchy approach to CEO status. And anything that required him to work with other people, or to get buy-in from other stakeholders or other constituencies, he was essentially incapable of doing.”
Buy-in is crucial, of course, when departments are being reorganized, or contracts with unions or health-care providers renegotiated, or leases broken. Or when — more Civics 101 here — you’re running a big city.
There were a few Knox-created messes to clean up, back in ’92. The Daily News reported that the city was buying the SmithKline building and moving 2,000 city workers there. Not true — that building was one of 25 under consideration. A Rendell aide called the paper, but couldn’t find out who the source for the story was. So a meeting of all the deputy mayors and the finance director was called, with one question asked: “Where the hell did this story come from?”
“I told them,” Knox said.
He was admonished for talking to the Daily News, and for jumping the gun on a decision that hadn’t been made yet.
“But it’s such a great opportunity,” Knox gushed. “I know we’re going to end up there.”
It didn’t happen. And it’s just the sort of process-be-damned mentality that makes Knox’s claim that he was principally responsible for making the city solvent in 18 months laughable to many in the Rendell administration. It’s an attitude Knox sported in the government office he decorated like a baron, with a finely turned cherry desk and handsome armchairs and fine oils on the walls, where he’d lean back and chat up Vederman on the great work he was doing. These days, Knox cites a 1995 Columbia University report on reinventing government that names some of the initiatives he was involved in as proof of his accomplishments. The report doesn’t mention him (or anyone except Rendell), though Knox says it should be obvious just whom Columbia was hailing, since he was head of the Office of Management and Productivity. “That’s why I get all the credit from Rendell,” Knox says. “Ask him if I did all this shit, and he’ll tell you yeah. The reason I don’t get any flak from reporters after I do my commercials is because they called him, the Governor, and asked him, and he said yeah.” Rendell does give Knox credit for helping to balance the city’s books. But as far as being the lead guy in saving the city — no. It was a team effort, the Governor says: “Tom doesn’t deserve ‘all the credit.’”
THEN THERE’S THE matter of what a Rendell aide calls Knox’s “private-sector ethical screen,” which will be severely tested if Knox graduates to the public life of mayor. The aide doesn’t think Knox crossed the line, ethically. “But I can tell you that Tom lived a lot closer to the line than anyone in public service should be comfortable with.”
One day, an anonymous letter arrived at the mayor’s office claiming that Tom Knox was still involved with Preferred Benefits, a company he’d founded that sold health-insurance and retirement plans. Knox was in charge of finding a company to administer $27 million in city retirement accounts, and Preferred was in the running. In fact, Knox had sold it in 1986, and it had been sold several times since then.
Knox had assured administration lawyers that he didn’t have any financial interest in companies doing business with the city. Now, Knox assured them that he had no remaining interest in Preferred Benefits. Knox was shown the letter. Well, he explained, he was, in fact, still holding a note from Preferred — the company was paying him out over time.
Suddenly, the task of finding a home for that $27 million was given to someone else, because Knox could not be awarding city business to a company that was sending him checks. Knox argued that he was going to get his money regardless, and Preferred Benefits was the best company to administer the plan. What he still seems oblivious to is the distinct possibility that a photocopy of a check made out to him and a copy of a new city contract awarded to Preferred could have ended up on the front page of the Inquirer — just the sort of embarrassing scrape government officials waste an inordinate amount of time trying to squirm out of. In fact, Knox was a defendant in a federal suit brought against the city by city employees over the handling of the retirement accounts. (The suit was eventually dismissed.) Knox, though, still thinks everyone is missing the point. “Should you take the highest bid or the lowest bid?” he demands rhetorically. “And their bid was a substantially lower bid.” Rendell administrators who worked with him just shake their heads over stuff like this, and wonder how he can possibly walk through the minefield of perception and reality that is big-time office-holding.
Being oblivious to appearances might be refreshing. On the other hand, Knox appeared quite content to squeeze every last dime in perks out of his $1-a-year gig. It so happened that actually paying the dollar had the city trying to issue checks for pennies, which made no sense, plus it made Vederman and Knox eligible for benefits, which wasn’t exactly the point of the symbolic buck. Vederman gave up his salary, but not Knox. No, he actually wanted his dollar. Because then he could use the city health insurance it entitled him to. Just as he wanted tickets to the ’92 Barcelona Olympics from Blue Cross — a reward for business he’d done for the company before he was deputy mayor — even though he was involved in renegotiating city health-care contracts.
Or consider another story involving USAir. Seth Schofield, the company’s CEO, paid a visit to Rendell’s offices early on in the mayor’s first term and offered VIP status to high-ranking members of the administration. His offer was turned down, because Rendell and company were uncomfortable accepting the perk. Two months later, a Rendell aide remembers, an embarrassed call came into the mayor’s office from Schofield, thinking maybe this was something they needed to know: A member of the administration, saying he was acting under authorization of the mayor, had demanded VIP status in the USAir reservation system. He wanted automatic upgrades to first class for himself and his wife, and preferential boarding, and while Schofield and USAir had no problem with it …
“Who’s making this request?” Schofield was asked.
“A deputy mayor by the name of Tom Knox.”
Knox denies this one, too. Why, he’s had VIP status since the ’80s, courtesy of his black American Express card, so calling USAir wasn’t something he’d ever stoop to.
When one senior Rendell aide thinks now about Knox’s tenure as deputy mayor, he has a sobering thought about the future of his city: “It is inconceivable to me, based on my experience with Tom, how government would work under him. Because government is about politics. It’s not about a monarchy.”
MAYFAIR, IN THE Northeast. This is a world Tom Knox, 66 years old, knows, given that his family moved up here when he was 16. At a spaghetti dinner in late March that his staff has whipped up for some 217 frustrated working-class folks inside a Knights of Columbus hall, he prefaces his stump speech by ticking off Orthodox and Rosalie and Torresdale and Calvert, the streets his family lived on. “I’m not sure if my parents were just gypsies, or they were skipping out on the rent, or they were just asked to leave — I’m not sure.”
The message is obvious, like his TV ads: I am one of you. And he gets a nice laugh, but he doesn’t look like one of them. Or act like one of them. Knox is wearing a dark, impeccably tailored suit. Before speaking, he works the crowd, sitting down at round tables of mostly older couples. He is quiet and regal and smiles often. At one table, Freda says, “Milton Street is running for mayor.”
“For City Council,” Tom clarifies. “Milton is messing things up for his nephew [Council candidate Sharif Street].”
“New Yorkers are buying and then renting the houses,” Freda says, moving on.
“Oh, yeah,” Tom says. “Section 8.” He smiles, and for a moment says nothing about a big problem, how minority renters might be changing the neighborhood. Then he says, “Yes, I understand.”
“There’s problems with ice on the steps and sidewalks,” Jim says.
“We are in the minority,” Freda says.
“There’s not a minority of complainers,” Tom says comically.
No one laughs.
Tom smiles. His teeth are very white. A minute later, he gets up, without a word — time for the next table.
In his speech, he talks cops and taxes and corruption and jobs. His passion for “bringing back the neighborhoods” and so forth is not entirely believable; even his staff admits that Knox is a work in progress in front of people.
Then someone asks a question about pensions, and he’s off: “The Philadelphia pension plan has 4.6 billion dollars in it — that was a month ago, now it’s got 4.3 billion dollars in it. … Last year, we earned 11.4 percent on the pension. But everybody else was earning 15.2 percent. It cost 161 million dollars last year. … In the last seven before that, we missed our benchmark every year, and it cost us 120 million dollars on average, and I’m just comparing Philadelphia against four colleges in the area, what they earn. I’m comparing it to Villanova, Penn, Temple and Drexel. They earn 7.6 percent, we earn 3.78 percent, which is a 2.98 difference. Call it three percent — three percent of four billion dollars is another 20 million dollars. … ”
It’s eerie, almost — Knox seems to slip into a private bubble, speaking faster, smoother, oblivious to the silent crowd. No wonder his staff doesn’t want him to talk numbers.
But as his younger son Brandon says, numbers are magic to Knox. Numbers were his escape; they brought him far.
After a hitch in the Navy, Knox went from selling insurance door-to-door in South Philly — during the first quarter he worked for Metropolitan, at the age of 21 in 1962, he sold 93 policies, more than the 16 other sales reps in the office combined — to an understanding of how tax codes and insurance regulations and policies are all about the magic of what numbers can do for you, if you control them. Knox would come home at night and plow through mounds of paperwork, working the numbers. It led to buying and selling some 15 companies; his net worth, Knox says, “could be a lot more than $100 million.” Magic. But there’s a limitation, too: Numbers guys — John Street is one, as was Wilson Goode, and Ed Rendell is not — tend to focus on minutiae at the expense of the big picture. At Knox campaign headquarters, you have to get permission to use the color copier; Knox pores over every bill that comes into the office. Numbers.
People, though, even people in the world he once knew so well, are a different story.
In Mayfair, after Knox takes questions from the audience, the event is over, but a group encircles him. A short, middle-aged woman goes on and on passionately. Her concerns are two-fold, and as she talks, Knox stares at her. She’s excited, a little on the edge. Her first issue is that our children reach the eighth grade and can’t read The Cat In the Hat. How is this possible? Immediately, she leaps into her next concern, which is more personal. Her daughter was let out of the mental hospital, and when she came home, she broke down the woman’s fence “and then came after me with an ax.” How can there be, the woman wants to know, mental hospitals that let out people who are crazy? It’s wrong. It’s terrible. It’s insane.
Finally, the woman stops talking.
Knox is still staring at her, his face blank. “Keep trying,” he says. Then he turns to the next person in the circle around him.
THERE IS BOB Brady, and then there is Tom Knox. Brady is the neighborhood guy who never left the neighborhood, which is patently clear one day in court in late March when he sets the mother tongue back a couple centuries as Paul Rosen, Tom Knox’s lawyer, grills him about pensions and filling out forms and complying with election law. Wearing another sharp suit, Knox has a ringside seat, and carefully files his nails as he listens. It’s classic hardball politics: Knox is trying to steamroll Brady off the ballot.
With this one, Knox’s money fails to bring victory, and so Knox and Brady remain as the two white mayoral candidates, both claiming to be men of the people. But after watching Knox in Mayfair, it’s clear that he has run as far from his own humble past — despite its usefulness in his ads — as fabulous wealth, a Rittenhouse Square address, a vacation home in Rehoboth, a taste for fine wine and dining (Knox is head of the Philadelphia chapter of the Confrèrie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs), and carefully filed nails can get you. Mayfair demonstrated not his closeness to working-class folks, but the distance from his past he still seems driven to widen.
Knox is always working an angle, as if he’s got to keep the wolves at bay. The $5 million — most of which he has sunk into TV ads — was a loan, which, post-election, meant that people of means would have the opportunity to pay back their new mayor directly. Gosh, that sounds sort of icky and … familiar, not to mention utterly at odds with the Knox party line of cleaning up pay-to-play, but Knox was nonplussed: What if, he wondered, the five mil was a donation and “I got hit by a truck? Then my wife loses $5 million, my kids don’t get $5 million. I’m not stupid. I’m a smart businessman.” In April, though, he changed his mind: Knox announced during a mayoral debate that he was officially giving the $5 million to his campaign.
Much has been made over the so-called payday loans that Crusader, a bank Knox owned, was making back in the ’90s. Knox continues to point out that charging exorbitant interest rates to indigent people who tended to roll the loans over into more loans, spiraling their debt, was serving a “need.” That is, what if a mother strapped for cash needs to get a prescription for her child — where does she turn? Anyway, the idea for the payday loans was brought to Crusader by Ballard Spahr, “one of the largest law firms in the city,” Knox points out. “They presented it in great fashion. They said this helps poor people.”
Always working the angles: When Mr. Outsider is challenged on whether he used political connections to ramp up the sales of his Kasser Distillers products to the state Liquor Control Board back in the late ’80s, he laughs at the stupidity of the accusation; who else, in Pennsylvania, is a distillery allowed to sell to other than the Liquor Control Board? No, in this case Knox was trying to grease the skids in the other direction, hoping to get a government position based on business inroads he had made. In fact, in the flush of Ed Rendell’s election as governor in ’02, Knox was telling people that he was going to be appointed head of the Liquor Control Board. But this, too, was Tommy-jump-the-gun, because naming Knox was an idea Rendell never seriously considered.
Recently, the Daily News discovered that Knox and Vince Fumo, who knows a little about the collision of money and power, teamed up over a possible Knox mayoral run in ’99. A Knox spokesman said no way, that Vince and Tom were enemies. When the Daily News pressed a little harder, the Knox camp shifted the relationship to “Tom did know Vince when he was exploring his run for mayor in 1999, but that became a non-issue because of the residency requirement.” Later, Knox himself clarifies the relationship for us: “The feud goes back to 1990 — I was trying to become president of Blue Cross, and the son-of-a-bitch shot me down.” That didn’t stop Knox from seeking Fumo’s help last fall as the mayoral campaign got under way.
All of this is a little like Knox’s strangely tone-deaf 18 months in the Rendell administration. The problems he caused and his bloated idea of what he accomplished back then don’t add up to something dark in his past so much as a warning about our future: If he becomes mayor, oh boy. And the hints of Knox chummily using his connections in politics are, likewise, maybe not so awful in and of themselves, especially given how anyone with a long career in insurance and banking with the success Knox has had almost certainly stumbles over a few ethical lines along the way. But what they both tell us — his time in the Rendell campaign, his career in business — is that the Tom Knox of his campaign ads, a guy who was front and center in saving the city once and now wants to change the way the game is played in City Hall, is a fiction.
GIVE HIM THIS much: Tom Knox has come a long, long way from horrible beginnings. In an accident at work, his father was hit in the mouth with a large industrial hook when Tom was 14 or 15, and thereafter, when he drank something, part of it would spill down his shirt, out the hole that could not be closed. He stopped working, drank heavily, and physically abused his family. Tom escaped into the Navy, and then escaped further into wealth; one of his brothers succumbed to drugs. This is part of the reason why fighting drugs is high on Tom Knox’s agenda.
Tom Knox did help out his nephew Kevin — he paid his rent, gave him money for Christmas presents for his family, though Kevin, Knox says, apparently squandered the money and was a no-show for Christmas. Tom has stopped taking Kevin Knox’s phone calls. Some people are so incorrigible, they can’t be helped. And perhaps, if they’re not willing to finally help themselves, they don’t deserve to be helped. Is there any point where you just give up on someone? That’s a hard question. Tom Knox has an answer.
He did not tell Kevin to take out a life insurance policy and kill himself. (With suicides, insurance doesn’t pay.) But Kevin, Tom says, did call with the question: “Can I get a life insurance policy and kill myself — will that pay off?”
“Kevin, you can do whatever you want,” Tom answered. “But don’t get me involved. I don’t want to be involved with you.” Then Tom Knox hung up on him.