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

 You can doubt Knox’s knack for sound bites. But his business acumen is another story. Consider the turkeys. In 1989, Knox was selling insurance to a man who ran turkey farms in North Carolina. Sensing that the farms weren’t meeting their potential, Knox bought 23 of them for around $640,000. Then he went to work computerizing the feeding and breeding. “I was able to figure out how to get those turkeys to market three days earlier,” he says. Twenty-one months later, Knox sold the farms for $5 million — or a profit of around 700 percent. Pass the gravy!

Knox tells this story on the patio of La Terrasse, the upscale University City restaurant he owns. Here, it’s possible to see his hands-on management style in real-time. He frowns when the patio lights are switched on before sunset. “Can you get them to turn those off?” he asks a startled young waitress. During dinner, he calls the chef out for a friendly chat, which turns into a gentle scolding. “I don’t know if I like this cheese,” Knox says, picking at a tuna salad. He’s not happy with the rolls, either. And his bouillabaisse? “Too beefy.”

Knox never stops running the numbers. He has a Rain Man-ish capacity for mentally crunching figures. He says he used to look at dense life insurance policies, adjust one small variable, and see the new premium appear in his head. “I just knew,” Knox says. Scanning his wine list, Knox recites the profit margin for several different bottles and summons a manager to adjust some of the prices. (Knox is a wine aficionado who belongs to the
Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs gourmet society. “You wear black tie with a ribbon” at the group’s annual event, he tells me. Attention, opposition researchers!) And he’s especially pleased with the restaurant’s slick new black tabletops, which, he notes, save $700 to $800 a week on linens.

Knox counts his fortune in the tens of millions of dollars, so it’s hard to dispute his knack with money. Whether his skills are suited for government is less obvious. Knox makes much of his role, from early 1992 to the summer of 1993, as a deputy mayor for “management and productivity” under Ed Rendell. Those were emergency belt-
tightening years, and Knox, who drew a token $1 salary, was tasked with rooting out waste and inefficiency.

For an efficiency freak like Knox, seeing the city budget from the inside was probably like Martha Stewart’s first visit to the prison cafeteria. He was appalled at how tax dollars sloppily sloshed around. He claims to have squeezed some $7 million in annual savings from renegotiating awful city real estate leases, which he pushed down by about half from $23 a square foot. He also saved $7 million a year through better management of the city’s vehicle fleet, and “millions” more on electricity costs. Knox speaks of himself as an integral part of Rendell’s amazing budget turnaround. “Seven days after we balanced the budget,” he says with satisfaction, “I resigned.”

Rendell says Knox brought a businessman’s attitude to the job. “One of the problems with big government bureaucracies is that most bureaucrats say, ‘Gee, there’s no way we can do that,’” says Rendell. “Tom’s attitude was, ‘Yeah, we can do that. We’ll find a way.’” But not everyone who was around City Hall at the time remembers Knox as a driving force behind the mayor’s success. Some Rendell allies bristle at the credit Knox claims for minor achievements or the results of team efforts.

“One thing that is offensive to a lot of people is him running around saying ‘I did this and I did that,’” says one person who worked in the Rendell administration. “I have heard him take virtually solitary credit for the restructuring of the city’s health-care plan. Maybe he gets five percent of the credit.” Knox helped crunch the numbers early on. But in terms of politically selling and implementing the plan, this source says, “I could give you a list of 20 people who were at least equally involved.”

“He has zero political skills,” the former official adds. “I can’t imagine a worse mayor.”

It’s also curious that Knox’s name never once appears in A Prayer for City, the 408-page insider account of Rendell’s first term written by former Inquirer reporter (and Philadelphia magazine contributor) Buzz Bissinger, who actually reported from a desk inside City Hall. Knox explains this away by saying that Bissinger probably “came on the scene after I left.” But that’s not true. Bissinger was around City Hall for Knox’s entire tenure.

“If I felt he was a major player, I would have put him in the book,” Bissinger says. “I just remember Tom as being something of a blowhard. He had a very inflated opinion of himself.”