THE SENATE APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE IS working late on a Monday night in Harrisburg, but there’s no halls-of-power glamour in this steamy, airless meeting room packed with staffers and reporters. As the Democrats push for heavier taxes on Marcellus Shale drillers, Farnese leans back in his chair at the end of a long conference table and doodles, sketching what looks like a Rubik’s Cube in a coonskin cap. To his right is fellow city delegate Vince Hughes, who reps North and West Philly and takes the lead in speaking out against a weak natural-gas-tax proposal, arguing it will cost the state upwards of $300 million in unrealized revenue. Farnese follows in blasting the bill: “I don’t know why we’re selling ourselves short!” In the end, it’s a lost cause.
Without Fumo at the helm or Dwight Evans in control in the House, the Dems, outnumbered by 10 votes in the Senate and 21 in the House, have little clout. Farnese, as a frosh, has even less juice; just making his voice heard sometimes seems like a triumph. Tops on the list of his accomplishments thus far is co-authoring the bill amendment that made state elected officials exempt from the DROP retirement plan, but from there, it’s a cliff dive—a lot of proposed bills that withered on the political vine. Upstairs in his office, his shirtsleeves rolled up, Farnese is still frustrated over the gas-tax issue. “This is probably one of the most significant failures of government to do what it needs to do,” he says between sucks on a lollipop. “Sometimes it’s Bizarro World up here.”
Farnese doesn’t discourage easily—a trait that’s essential for survival in the state capitol, where anti-Philadelphia sentiment runs high. State Senator Mike Stack compares Farnese’s tenacity to that of a gritty Flyers third-line forward. “He’s the guy who will go into the corners and throw elbows to get the puck,” says Stack, whose district covers Northeast Philly. “It’s not the most glamorous role, but it’s important.”
Farnese’s salt-of-the-earth attitude is rooted in his childhood in Drexel Hill. His grandfather, Andrew Farnese, was a teenage immigrant to South Philly who became a lawyer and the first Italian-American on the city’s school board (as well as a friend of a young go-getter named Vince Fumo). Larry Farnese’s own political aspirations—and his thick skin—date back to his junior year at Malvern Prep, when a teacher discouraged him from running for student council. “‘Politics, government—it’s not for you’” was the message, as Farnese recalls: “I remember watching the elections and wanting to be a part of it and saying, ‘Never again will somebody say I can’t do something.’”
Farnese studied at Villanova and Temple Law before forging a modest career as a litigator. In 2006 he saw an opportunity to take on aging State Representative Babette Josephs, whom he slammed for a lack of legislation and the middle-of-the-night pay raise she’d voted for the previous summer. At times, his campaign seemed held together with bubble gum and duct tape—his adviser, Tony Mannino, was a fellow attorney with no political experience; his manager, Ted Mucellin, was a Villanova law student who worked at Applebee’s. Farnese and Mannino had been neighbors at the Academy House, where Farnese still lives; campaign headquarters was split between Mannino’s apartment and Mucellin’s Saturn coupe. Still, their scrappy DIY operation gave Josephs, in office since 1984, her toughest race to date: Farnese lost by a heartbreaking 237 votes.
With encouragement from his staff and his parents, Farnese stayed in the game, helping the Liberty City Democratic Club, an LGBT political group, fight against Rick Santorum’s bid for the U.S. Senate, all the while prepping for a rematch against Josephs in 2008. Then a funny thing happened—Vince Fumo was indicted on 139 counts. To hear Farnese tell the story, his decision to throw himself into the state Senate race against Fumo, union leader John Dougherty and upstart Anne Dicker was a last-minute gamble. But retired City Councilman Frank DiCicco, Farnese’s political godfather, says that he and Farnese discussed the possibility shortly after Fumo was charged. It was a tense moment for Farnese; even with a federal indictment over his head, Fumo still loomed large. “He was like, ‘You can’t even bring this up!’” DiCicco recalls Farnese pleading. “‘I don’t even want to think about it.’ I just said, ‘It’s me talking, not Vince. We’ll keep this a secret.’”
A year later, with Fumo consumed by his legal troubles, DiCicco met with the outgoing senator in private and suggested Farnese as a successor. Fumo raised an eyebrow; to him, the kid was Andy Farnese’s grandson, nothing more. “Larry wasn’t part of Fumo’s inner circle,” DiCicco says. But with trusted Fumo lieutenants DiCicco and Jim Kenney as advisers, Farnese entered the race, knowing Fumo would step down. No one, including Farnese, doubts that without the considerable support of the Fumocrats—which translated into a six-figure boost in funding—he would have become a two-time political loser. Instead, he toppled Dougherty in a contentious primary.
Had he failed, Farnese admits, “I probably would have been in pretty bad shape.” Instead, with his parents, DiCicco and Kenney by his side on election night inside a restaurant on 16th and Passyunk, in the heart of Fumo’s base, Larry Farnese celebrated.