Power: The Next Howard Dean?

Joe Trippi almost turned an obscure governor from Vermont into America’s president. But his next trick may be even tougher: turning insurance salesman Tom Knox into Philly’s mayor

One day this fall, Knox and Trippi are sitting in Knox’s 27th-floor office on Market Street, which has a grand view of the city they hope to conquer. They’ve just returned from lunch, for which Knox paid with a $100 bill pulled from a thick money clip. Knox, wearing a monogrammed shirt with a pen clipped in its pocket, reclines in an armchair. He’s in his default manner, a slightly disarming state of mysterious reserve. Trippi, 49, is sprawled on a nearby couch, looking pale, rumpled and exhausted after a red-eye flight from California. But then, Trippi, with his bulging eyes and unruly hair, nearly always looks that way.

If ever there was a real-life Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, they are it. Knox is tortoise-like in movement and demeanor. When he speaks, he’s quiet and terse. And he prefers to listen. “You don’t learn anything by talking,” he says. He earned his fortune through a zeal for ruthless efficiency.

Trippi, meanwhile, is inefficiency defined. He’s a talkaholic prone to long digressions. He’s the kind of guy who thrives on chaos. Some say the only thing more amazing than the money he raised for Dean was his knack for wasting it on harebrained schemes. After Dean came up short in Iowa, Trippi was pushed out. His replacement spoke conspicuously of bringing “discipline and focus” to the sinking campaign — which everyone took to mean cleaning up wacky Joe Trippi’s management mess.

This seems a prescription for real trouble. But today, at least, Knox and his political magician are laughing at themselves. Well, Trippi is laughing, at least: When he tells some long campaign war story, Knox observes him with a quizzical look that’s somewhere between subdued impatience and mild bewilderment.

Trippi, meanwhile, seems braced for some serious henpecking. At one point, Knox notes that he likes to consult a range of people before making a decision. “I need a lot of opinions,” Knox says. “I get them from Joe, but then I like to reinforce them with a lot of other opinions.”

Trippi rolls his eyes. “I’m gonna have a lot of gray hair when this is over,” he says.

At another point, Knox describes his almost alarmingly fastidious reading habits. “I don’t read anything for pleasure,” he says. “Nothing. I read because I want information. People give me books on management technique and I read that, because that’s pleasurable to me.”

“He’ll drive you crazy,” Trippi says, with a weary smile.

This is an unlikely way for a man who was once dubbed the Democratic Karl Rove to reenter the political fray. Knox is the first candidate Trippi’s worked for, after all, since the Dean meltdown. “It’s been sort of a year where I was kind of pulled away from politics for a little bit,” Trippi says. Now the
household-name political consultant is beginning his career comeback on the local level, with a life-insurance executive whom almost no one expects to win. Why? One glaringly obvious theory is that the money will be great, although Trippi says his long-term salary has yet to be determined.

Trippi offers a more high-minded take: that Knox is just the sort of outsider candidate he’s always worked for — even before Dean came out of nowhere to sack the Washington Democratic establishment like a blitzing free safety. “I’m somebody who believes the political system is pretty messed up,” Trippi says. “With Tom Knox, you’re gonna get something different. He’s not a career pol, and he gets the job done, and that’s what attracts me to him.”

Knox certainly isn’t a professional pol. After growing up in a poor Irish/German Catholic family in Philly’s Abbottsford housing project, he left school following 10th grade and joined the Navy. Afterward, he fell into life insurance sales and earned his first riches by becoming, in his words, “the most prolific life insurance salesman in the United States.” In the 1980s and 1990s, Knox exponentially grew his fortune through a series of business ventures, including investments in a bank, a distillery, and a set of turkey farms.

It can hurt to be a rich guy in politics. But Knox and Trippi insist lower-income voters will relate to Knox’s humble origins. And they spin the upside of his fat money clip: His largely self-funded campaign means he won’t sell out to donors. His lack of higher political ambitions — “I’m not running again for anything after this,” he says — will keep him honest. And his business track record proves his knack for running an organization and taming a budget. It’s Michael Bloomberg, Philly-style.