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?
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.
TWO WEEKS AFTER THE APPROPRIATIONS MEETING in Harrisburg, Farnese is sitting in what appears to be a more natural environment—Rouge, the Rittenhouse bistro where the moneyed crowd, scenesters, hangers-on and designer-clad train wrecks provide the city’s best people-watching. In a black puffer vest, jeans and Pumas, Farnese is relaxed and, as always, high-energy and smiling. In a suit, Farnese’s broad shoulders give him the look of a college fullback who’s not far from his playing weight; dressed down, he appears slimmer and even younger. The cute hostesses know him on sight, and find a corner table for him immediately. As he threads through the crowd, a stunning young brunette waves and says hello, as does a gushing Sharon Pinkenson. The ratio of women to men greeting the senator is roughly three to one. “No one’s beating down my door,” Farnese insists when asked about his newly acquired stud status. But gossip items tell a different story.
Beyond the public’s fascination with his private life, Farnese doesn’t have much in common with Fumo. While the latter was known for his ruthless streak—Congressman Bob Brady once likened him to Darth Vader—Farnese is more like an affable, hyperactive kid who’s short-cycling his ADD meds. When Fumo walked into a room, mayors and governors turned their heads; once, when Farnese was in a crowded elevator on the way to the Senate floor, his phone rang to the tune of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Hypnotize.” “They thought I was some staffer,” he recalls with a laugh. “I used to get that a lot.”
While seemingly in his element at Rouge, he’s almost as new to the boozy party circuit as he is to the power crowd. Farnese was a self-described “geeky guy” growing up, and his dates were mostly the result of setups from friends, not smooth pickup lines. When he’s not out politicking, he’s usually at home watching documentaries, or with Mannino and Mucellin for their long-standing Sunday movie nights, hosted by Farnese, the only single guy left in the posse. During downtime in Harrisburg, he’d rather catch a superhero flick than drink up at happy hour. “He’ll say, ‘We have to stay for the end credits because there’s a scene that’s going to set up the sequel,’” says Stack, his state capital cineplex buddy. “He likes action movies, especially any one about a comic book. He knows all the history.” Farnese might be the only appropriations committee member who unwinds by fighting crime as Batman on his Xbox.
Although being introduced as a senator works as a pickup line, Farnese’s political ambition is often at cross-purposes with his desire to settle down. “In ’06, I remember dating someone I actually had feelings for,” Farnese recalls. “She said, ‘Look, you’re gonna win. You might not win this time, but you’re not going to stop until you win. And this lifestyle is just not for me.’ And she bolted out of town. That’s happened before.”
Since then, his longest relationships—with McCormick, the TV reporter, and Jin Hee Park, a separated mother of two from Lafayette Hill—have lasted only a few months. Before anyone breaks out the violins, there have been a number of, ahem, much shorter-term companions, many of them the hot-bodied Pretty Young Things who populate HughE Dillon’s paparazzi photos. (Though tongues wagged when Farnese was seen at Rouge in proximity to adult actress Gina Lynn, Farnese says he just said hello. His folks read about his brush with porn in the Daily News: “My mom said, ‘I hope she’s Italian.’”)
Farnese doesn’t like to talk about his trysts—even though, to a woman, past paramours describe him as a nice guy who’s dedicated to his job, albeit maybe too much. When told that Farnese considers them to be people who understand who he is, both McCormick and Park are surprised. “I never knew where I stood with him,” says McCormick. “So I moved on. It wasn’t until months later that I even realized how he felt about me.”
Park met Farnese at a New Year’s party in Blue Bell last January—she wore a bronze Herve Leger dress, in contrast to his sport coat and “ugly blue glasses,” as she recalls. The attraction wasn’t so much physical; she was impressed by his chivalry and intrigued by his career. “I’m politically retarded,” she explains. “I asked him, ‘What does a senator do?’ That was definitely part of my interest.” The pair broke up after just four months. “He’s amazing at his job,” she says. “He was meant to do this. But he was constantly pushing me away.”
Park and Farnese still spend time together, and Farnese admits he hopes he can overcome his failings and settle down someday. “You catch yourself texting at the table or looking at emails, and you can’t do that,” he says. “This person is giving up their time to be with you. That relationship [with McCormick] was my fault. [With Park], I failed to realize that every time she was with me, it was a minute she could have been with her kids. When it comes to work stuff, I think I’m pretty good. Personal life has never been easy.”
One sexy ex-flame of Farnese’s who’s a regular on the Center City party scene says his problem is as old as politics itself. “He needs a senator’s wife, but he’s going after models,” she says, stressing that he’s “wonderful” and “a very sweet person.” “Nice guys are attracted to bad girls, and this is a time in his life when he can go after those girls. That’s not sustainable for him right now. He needs a Jackie O., not a Marilyn.”
Just as Fumo’s love life was the source of endless gossip, Farnese’s bachelorhood, combined with his longtime support of the LGBT community, has fueled persistent speculation that he’s gay—so much so that neither friends nor Farnese himself blanches when the rumor is mentioned. “They usually say that if you’re neat, thin and attractive,” Farnese says. “I’m 0-for-3.” The whispers began during his Senate race, and then grew louder—according to those close to Farnese, thanks to a well-known female political operative who sided with Johnny Doc. Some believe it was simply a dirty campaign tactic, while others think she was upset that Farnese wasn’t interested in romancing her. Either way, Farnese says, with a nod to Seinfeld, “It’s really not an issue for me. I’m not gay. Not that there’s anything wrong with it.”
A FEW WEEKS LATER, WE’RE UPSTAIRS AT WOODY’S, the best-known gay bar in Philadelphia. Here, all of Farnese’s worlds are colliding—the politics, the women and, by nature of the location, those rumors. It’s a private fund-raiser for Farnese’s reelection campaign that, at $100 a head, is low on muscle but close to his heart. These are the folks who stood by him before the Fumocrat machine kicked in. Park arrives, and she’s having dinner with Farnese later; it’s one reason folks think they’re still an item. Farnese speaks to the room, apologizing for legislators on either side of the aisle who don’t support same-sex unions. “I take that as my fault,” he says. “It’s my responsibility to educate them.”
This moment is as close as anyone will get to understanding who Farnese really is. He’s not just staying on-message when he talks about gay rights or natural-gas taxes. On the issues, you know where Senator Farnese stands. But Larry the single guy, the geek, the only child to Italian parents who’d really love some grandkids? He’s a cipher, a code that has yet to be cracked. That’s good politics, especially considering Farnese’s predecessors, whose spilled secrets led to their downfalls. Yet in this town, where politicians rank with athletes, chefs and TV newscasters as celebrities, his stance on the issues won’t be enough to sate the gossip hounds on the Square. Even if all Larry Farnese is hiding is a comic-book collection and a few one-night stands.