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

 Knox will be lucky if he has a chance to prove his critics wrong. Almost no one expects that he can get elected. He lacks the name recognition and the natural political base of other potential opponents, like Democratic Congressman Chaka Fattah, union leader John Dougherty, City Controller Jonathan Saidel, State Representative Dwight Evans and Councilman Michael Nutter. “Where is he going to get votes?” asks Democratic media consultant Neil Oxman. Yet if up to eight candidates slice up the vote, Knox could theoretically win the Democratic primary with only, say, 20 percent of the whole. And his millions could swamp better-known candidates. Knox rebuts widespread doubts about his net worth and how much he’s willing to spend. “People can’t count,” he says in his UHC office. “I’m making $10 million a year just sitting here.” His deposit of $5 million into a campaign bank account in October was meant to silence such critics.

“The race is mine to lose,” he adds, with apparent conviction.

When it comes to the raw politics, Knox badly needs his hired gun, Trippi. Although neither he nor Knox invokes Howard Dean’s name, they hint at a Dean-like, web-driven grassroots movement on the local level. Knox boasts of pumping more than $100,000 into his website, which he vows will be “the best.” Trippi, meanwhile, talks about the campaign with a people-power spin. “In the past, there’s never been a way to say, ‘Everyone in Philadelphia who wants to make some change, raise your hand,’ and you could immediately connect with those folks” — online, that is — “and build something.”

Yet this may be clever bravado: As even Trippi concedes, city elections haven’t exactly caught up with the information age. They remain old-school affairs based on the black magic of ward bosses and local political machines.

Plus, it’s not clear that Knox can credibly assume an outsider mantle. He is, after all, a Rittenhouse Square multimillionaire with powerful friends all over town. Some critics say he’s played that insider game to his advantage, as when Rendell saw to it that city funds could be deposited in a bank owned by Knox, much to the bank’s benefit. Or when Knox, while serving as a state-appointed executor of the failed Fidelity Mutual Life Insurance Company, invested in another company that purchased half of Fidelity, thereby giving him a financial stake in the fate of Fidelity and leading to his 1995 resignation from his executor post under conflict-of-
interest charges.

“To say that Tom Knox isn’t an insider is absolute bullshit,” Neil Oxman says. “This is not some outsider running in some neighborhood political movement that’s going to sweep America. Clearly, that was Howard Dean. And that’s what they’ll try to replicate. But there’s nothing on Tom Knox’s CV that says that. The guy is out there having power lunches all the time.”

But what about the power of Joe Trippi? “I love Joe,” says Oxman. “But I have two words for him: President Dean.”

Still, Trippi may be the best hope for a political tyro like Knox. The question is whether the two can actually survive one another. At one point, they leave Knox’s downtown office to visit a local political-media firm that Trippi has recommended to Knox. There’s some debate about whether to walk or hail a taxi. Knox calls for walking. After a few blocks, Trippi is breathing hard. “You said this was walking distance!” he squawks. Knox looks bemused. “I was on the elliptical at 7 a.m. And then I did the weights,” he says placidly. When we arrive, one of the firm’s partners asks where Knox’s office is located.

“We’re right in the neighborhood,” Knox says. “Well, not according to Joe. He complained the whole way over.” Trippi rolls his eyes again. This is either the beginning of a beautiful friendship — or the makings of a complete disaster.  b

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at the New Republic. E-mail: mail@phillymag.com.