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

“I don’t believe Philadelphians are getting their money’s worth,” Knox offers, sitting in his office. “Nobody pays a higher wage tax than we do.” Population is down, Knox continues, and automation is up. But the number of city workers hasn’t changed.

“Where’s the money going?” he asks, before ticking off cutbacks to libraries, fire departments, trash collection, recreation centers, pothole-fixing and so on. “Instead of cutting back, we should be increasing services.” Knox says patronage and corruption are largely to blame. “When I take over, I’m going to take down the ‘For Sale’ sign on City Hall, end pay-to-play, and make sure Philadelphians are getting a square deal.”

Trippi seems nervous that Knox — who once referred to municipal budget surpluses as “profits” — is sounding like a cold-blooded bean counter. He wants Knox to stress the gain, not just the pain. After a Knox riff on inflated city office-space costs, Trippi gets antsy.

 “See, that’s what we have to get through to people,” he says. “Why are you spending $26 per foot when you can spend $11 per foot? And every time you spend $26 per foot, that’s 20 cops, or whatever, that you don’t have on the street.” Trippi turns to me, almost apologetically. “Tom, from his perspective, tends to concentrate on the cuts.”

“Well, I’m thrifty!” Knox protests.

Trippi will also need to help Knox come up with campaign themes more inspiring than penny-pinching. When it comes to schools, for instance, Knox doesn’t seem too interested in big issues like teacher quality or vouchers. Instead, he keeps returning to oddly picayune matters — like the condition of school bathrooms. “I mean, if you had a daughter, she’d never go into them. Young ladies like a clean, sanitary place to go,” he notes.

Or air-conditioning. “We put our kids on un-air-conditioned buses to an un-air-
conditioned school to eat lunch in an un-air-conditioned cafeteria and on back home,” he complains. “I’m going to change that. Every school in Philadelphia is going to be air-conditioned by the time my term is up.”

When I ask Knox later about school vouchers, he says he wouldn’t rule them out so long as they don’t harm the public school system. But, he continues, “[Kids] need to want to go to school. Give them a clean, safe, air-conditioned place, and they’ll do it. You wouldn’t come to work if you had no air-conditioning. I can call my assistant and ask her if she’d come to work if there was no air-
conditioning.” I don’t take him up on it. The next day, Knox interviews a potential campaign aide, who asks him about the city’s ongoing $1.5 billion school-construction program. “I think we need new schools, but you need air-conditioning in them,” Knox says. “The bathrooms are just terrible. They’re not sanitary. Girls don’t like that stuff. And I can’t get my employees to come to work without air-conditioning. We put kids on un-air-conditioned buses to an un-air-conditioned school. … ” And on it goes.

After one of these episodes, Trippi appears to sense trouble. “When Tom talks about air-conditioning, it’s just a quick line,” he says. “But we’re working on a plan, and we’re gonna put it out there. We intend to put bold ideas on the table. We understand that this campaign is going to be about ideas. I mean, his plan to fix schools is not going to be about air-conditioning.”