A soaking rainstorm has descended upon Center City, but judging by the smile on Larry Farnese’s mug, this miserable December evening couldn’t be any sweeter. He’s enjoying a Stella Artois inside Butcher & Singer with the brain trust that helped him win Vince Fumo’s vacated state Senate seat and, he hopes, will lead him to reelection this year. Tonight they’re celebrating his new role as leader of the Eighth Democratic ward—a smaller victory, but no less meaningful. Five years ago, Farnese was a young attorney with a blank political résumé when he appealed to the Eighth for support in his race against State Representative Babette Josephs; they couldn’t show him the door fast enough. An hour ago, they raised champagne flutes in his honor.
Farnese’s rise—both politically and socially—is nothing short of Balboa-esque. Back in the late ’90s, he’d recently moved out of his parents’ house and had an unremarkable law career and not much of a social life. Now, at 43, he sits on Fumo’s throne, a seat that was once the most powerful in Philadelphia, second only to the governor’s in terms of statewide influence. And for a guy described by friends as being like Steve Carell’s character on The Office, or “neurotic, like Woody Allen,” he’s also proven surprisingly popular with some of the region’s most eligible bachelorettes, from Rittenhouse Square party girls to suburban arm candy. “A lot of eyes are on him because he’s single,” says Annie McCormick, an ex-girlfriend and a reporter for Harrisburg’s CBS affiliate. “When Vince Fumo was a bachelor, people were constantly wondering who he was with. It’s ironic that Larry is in the same position.”
Folded in Farnese’s wallet is a reminder of what motivates him—a well-worn copy of an Inquirer editorial challenging him to “take the next step” and restore honor to his office after he won the ’08 election. Corruption in the First District dates back to Buddy Cianfrani’s 1977 conviction on racketeering and fraud charges, which ushered in the Fumo era that ended much the same way. Both men were colossal figures with mythic reputations. But even after his victory, Farnese is still largely unknown. In many ways, the question leading into his reelection campaign is the same as it was when he first ran for office: Just who is Larry Farnese?