Politics: Anne of a Thousand Dreams

Can Anne Dicker replace scandal-haunted Senator Vince Fumo?

ANNE DICKER ATTENDED a “house party” a friend in Old City had agreed to throw one recent Friday night, so that Dicker could introduce herself as a candidate in the Democratic primary this April for the First District seat of the Pennsylvania Senate — the seat Vince Fumo has held for 30 years.

About 20 people showed up, most of them fellow members of the local branch of the national Center for Progressive Leadership — professionals, artists, businesspeople, graduate students, thoughtful and well-informed, most in their 30s, all exceedingly politically conscious, unabashedly liberal, and, like Dicker, transplants who seemed genuinely worried for their adopted hometown’s future. Kerri Kennedy, who with her fiancé hosted the party at their loft, is a post-conflict redevelopment specialist who moved here two years ago after stints in New York, D.C., New Orleans, and several countries around the world. The couple had immediately attempted to become involved politically in the city, but “There just aren’t any participatory channels, like they want to keep you out,” Kennedy, 33, recalled. “It’s like Palestine or something.”  

Dicker, 35, friendly and soft-spoken, wearing a Hillary Clintonesque purple business suit, had already outlined her platform: “I’m running because we need somebody on our side in Harrisburg, and I think Vince Fumo has pretty clearly shown that Vince Fumo is on Vince Fumo’s side.” She noted her experience as one of the city’s most outspoken advocates, first for Howard Dean’s failed presidential election, then for the progressive cause in general and, most recently, for the unwitting neighborhoods where casinos are slated to be built — the cause that got her the most attention. Dicker ticked off what she sees as the three central issues of her campaign — the murder crisis, funding for city schools, and open records — and quoted statistics that made each seem dire while offering few specific plans to fix them.

This became obvious when a middle-aged woman confronted Dicker on the crime epidemic, saying she’d hoped to hear something more than reducing guns on the street. Dicker said she supports Mayor Nutter’s controversial stop-and-frisk program, though she has concerns about it, “especially considering who the President is.” The woman pressed: What if one-gun-a-month legislation didn’t happen, or work?

“Then you’d need something else,” Dicker replied hollowly.

“We need something else right now — we’re looking for something else right now,” the woman retorted. “Are there any other ideas besides stop-and-frisk?”

Dicker struggled. “There are longer-term ideas — we could ban all weapons, but that’s not going to happen realistically with the NRA — it’s a real fight. The NRA is so powerful. But people are so fed up that we’re gonna try, and we’re gonna win.”

It felt unfulfilling, almost naive. Dicker’s husband, Simon, an English astrophysicist who designs radio telescopes at Penn, tried holding her hand from the other side of the room by offering, “And, Anne, after-school programs, though … ”

Clearly, the middle-aged woman, lips pursed, wasn’t satisfied. “The War on Drugs is a war on us,” she explained. “The reason Prohibition was repealed in 1933 was because women rose up and said, We can’t live with the violence in our neighborhoods anymore from trying to keep people from drinking. People are killing each other over heroin or cocaine or what we consider dangerous drugs.”

Dicker stammered. “Absolutely, I agree with you,” she said finally.


“Make weed legal!” someone finally shouted. The room laughed and cheered.

“All right!” Dicker said, laughing and jokingly pumping her fist. “But listen,” she went on, and noted that a freshman senator out to “make weed legal” probably wouldn’t go over so well. She invited the woman to get involved in her campaign, “to work on this issue.”

Setting aside whether making weed legal is or isn’t good policy, it was impossible not to wonder how this sort of conversation, these sorts of people, this sort of candidate, would translate to other parts of the First District, perhaps the most important in the Senate. It comprises a major portion of Philadelphia — Center City and its business district, most of South Philadelphia, parts of North Philadelphia and Southwest Philadelphia, and the huge stretch of land along the Delaware River from Dicker’s home in Queen Village to lower Kensington, all regions where the rub between old residents and new is fueling seismic changes, what could be a new political landscape that started with the election of self-styled reformer Michael Nutter as mayor. That Anne Dicker is the candidate challenging the legendary Fumo — and that she stands even a snowball’s chance in hell of defeating him — says a lot not only about Dicker, but also about this moment in the city’s long, often sordid political history.

Which isn’t to say she’s wholly virtuous. If anything’s to get done in Philadelphia, high-minded reformism must meet politics as it really gets practiced; Nutter himself seems to be paying lip service, at least, to the old guard that didn’t support him as a candidate. And though it has begun alienating her from some in her own progressive quarters, Anne Dicker doesn’t appear above mixing it up some.

“Being pure in this game can usually get you in trouble,” says Zack Stalberg, president of the nonprofit ethics watchdog group Committee of Seventy. “Dicker’s a pragmatist and a street fighter. I think the fact that she might be willing to make unconventional moves is probably a good thing.”

VINCENT FUMO, 64, was born and raised in South Philly. He assumed his seat in the Senate in 1978, after Buddy Cianfrani was convicted on charges of racketeering, bribery and obstruction of justice; he has handily won reelection in every race since. Rich, mercurial and peripatetic, Fumo is widely viewed as brilliant both politically and in his ability to squeeze as much money out of Harrisburg for this city as it’s possible to get. He is also, according to a 267-page complaint recently lodged by U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan, criminally corrupt, having misused government employees and defrauded taxpayers of more than $2 million he used to, among other things, spy on his ex-girlfriends and stock every floor of his four homes with Oreck vacuum cleaners. Still, despite a trial in federal court expected in September, he’s heavily favored in the April primary, and enjoys the support of the city’s most prominent politicians and the Governor.

One could not conjure a more diametrically opposed candidate than Dicker, a former economic analyst for rubber-chicken-and-edible-underwear purveyor Spencer’s, who left her job in 2004 to pursue activism and politics here, who has never held elective office (she lost a bid for a State House seat in ’06), and who lives with Simon in a stark one-bedroom, second-floor Queen Village rental that receives little natural light and appears to contain almost nothing of significant monetary value.

The first time Dicker ever visited Philadelphia — the first time she’d ever visited a big city — was as a sophomore in college, accompanying her roommate home for a break. It was, she says, “love at first sight.” The eldest of five children, Dicker grew up in Oak Harbor, Ohio, a 2,800-person farming village 10 miles from Lake Erie. Her father worked as a store manager; her mother was a teacher until six years ago, when she had her marriage annulled, took vows of chastity, poverty and silence, and became a nun at the Monastery of the Visitation, in Toledo. Dicker says her mother lives “just like The Sound of Music,” praying all day, and playing violin in her free time alone in the crypt.

Dicker betrays little emotion discussing her mother’s transformation, saying only that she admires her guts in pursuing a lifelong dream. Pressed for more, she called me one evening to say that she’d been thinking about her mother, and, “Yeah, of course, I was a little bit saddened that I don’t get to see her as much as I did before. She used to spontaneously drive 500 miles just to say hi, and I do miss that.”

In nonpolitical settings, Dicker comes across as impassive and impenetrable; a longtime friend confided that the candidate is close to few people other than her husband, and that he finds her “inscrutable” in conversations involving anything but politics. When I accompanied her to a large public event at which many of her compatriots in the crusade against casinos were present, she was recognized by almost no one, and stood quietly minding her business, making no effort to glad-hand or politick. She is, in short, a stark contrast to the classic Philadelphia politician — elected, it would seem, as much for ability to entertain as to govern — and if she is to connect with voters on Primary Day, she will, like Nutter, need to find some way to exude charm, even if it’s a wonkish and dorky brand.

After high school, Dicker found her way to tiny, prestigious, ultra-liberal Middlebury College in Vermont, through a special rural-outreach program; she earned a degree in economics and underwent the most serious metamorphosis of her life. She was, at first, shocked and dismayed by the school’s liberalness, the students’ stances on politics and religion, and especially gays, who were readily accepted. She reacted by groping back to what she knew, searching out conservatives, attending mass, joining the campus’s Catholic Newman Club and the Right to Life Club.

But Anne Dicker had a secret: She was attracted not only to men, but also to women. Not in a way, she says, that was experimental, fleeting, typically collegiate. At Middlebury, she forged relationships — sexual and emotional — with women, eventually trading in her memberships to the Newman and Right to Life clubs for the presidency of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender club. Despite being married to a man, she is still, she says, bisexual, and she takes offense at the suggestion that her attraction to women was “a phase,” or that she and her husband must have an open relationship.

“I married my husband because I loved him, and we are monogamous, like any other married couple,” she says. “That doesn’t mean that I’m not bisexual. It means that I made a decision to spend the rest of my life with the man I love. It is what it is.”

This stance might be guileless, but in outing herself when she ran for the State House two years ago, Dicker was also politically unsophisticated. She expected, given Philadelphia’s large gay population, that the news, at least among liberal factions, would make little difference. So she was shocked that Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News — and close friend of one Vince Fumo — seemed to go out of his way to thwart Dicker’s campaign, calling her in the press a “hack tool” and a Johnny-come-lately to the gay cause.

“It did anger me,” Dicker says. “It was mean-spirited. I had no idea Mark Segal would do that — I’d never even met him.”

Segal remains critical of Dicker, saying, “She’s had all this time to involve herself and get something on her résumé, and we have nothing but zero. Vince Fumo has an incredible record, and Anne Dicker has a zero record, other than saying she is a bisexual.”

It isn’t clear how Dicker’s sexuality will affect her in her race against Fumo, who, despite calling a colleague a “faggot” on the floor of the Senate during a debate a few years ago, enjoys good relations with the gay community. Still, Dicker says she’s aware of polling, commissioned by Fumo, that asks voters about her bisexuality, a thinly veiled way for him to bring the subject up without making it an overt issue.

She is, nevertheless, unworried. She is not jaded. Dicker believes she has a legitimate shot at beating Fumo — friends say even in private, she expresses only optimism — and asserts, “The only thing holding us back is our own insecurities.” She seems genuinely to believe this.

But high ideals are a little like her openness about her sexuality: Expressing them won’t necessarily win you votes. A grand plan for change might even backfire, especially if Dicker has to muck up her ideals with the nasty game of hardball politics. And she has already had some problems on that score.

the wake of the American invasion of Iraq that Dicker — so ideologically far left that she hates George W. Bush in a way that seems oddly personal — decided she could no longer sit idly by. At a meeting at the Standard Tap in Northern Liberties, she and a group of like-minded progressives formed Philly For Dean, part of the rabid movement of grassroots, viral campaigning that would propel the antiwar, über-liberal Howard Dean to temporary front-runner status in the 2004 presidential race, and that would educate Dicker in how to campaign on the cheap, door to door. It was the beginning of her transformation, as her friend and fellow activist Hannah Miller describes it, into “one of the best organizers in the city, a person for whom greater political aspirations would become inevitable.”

Philly For Dean became Philly For Change, another grassroots group Dicker co-founded to search out, nurture and support progressive candidates. When news broke in February 2006 that then-State Representative Marie Lederer was retiring, progressives around the city began calling Dicker, urging her to run. It took her one day to say yes. A virtual unknown outside progressive circles, she knocked on thousands of doors, focusing especially on the changing neighborhoods along the Delaware, essentially running on a power-to-the-people platform, with a decided anti-casino bent. She ultimately earned the attention of the Democratic Party machine — and one Vince Fumo, who summoned her to his South Philly office one day to unsuccessfully demand that she leave the race. Outspent 20 to one by her two competitors, with no party or union backing, no television commercials and very little media coverage, Dicker, in a sense, won — won, that is, by barely losing. She defeated the Fumo-supported candidate, finishing just 300 votes behind the winner, and seemed to have secured her place atop the city’s new progressive wing.

It was her next endeavor, co-founding the grassroots group Casino-Free Philadelphia, that got her citywide notice — and that would ultimately lead some in the reform movement to desert her. The group was, at first, an extraordinary success, rallying thousands of disparate Philadelphians from South Philly to Center City to Fishtown against the legislation, written by none other than Senator Vince Fumo, that cleared the way for slot parlors to be approved for two residential sites on the riverfront. Dicker struck a particularly vituperative tone, attacking Fumo while calling the casinos “parasites” with no practical benefits to the city (desperate though it is for revenue), initially advocating for the legislation to be overturned and casinos barred.

But she was ignoring a hard reality: It was never going to happen. Dicker changed course; she now opposes not casinos per se, but the sites that were chosen. This has gotten her in trouble not only with the anti-casino true believers, but with others, like Jeff Rush, president of Queen Village Neighbors Association, who saw her parasite position as naive. Rush backs Fumo, because Fumo “is crucial to our fight to re-site. To coin an old phrase, I’ll stay with the devil I know.”

Dicker burned more bridges in 2007, first with her involvement in the City Council campaign for Vern Anastasio, the real estate lawyer who unsuccessfully challenged South Philly Councilman Frank DiCicco as a reform candidate. Anastasio had been a vocal supporter of Dicker in the 175th District race, and she, in turn, cut a high profile volunteering for his campaign — until the day she abruptly quit, without any public explanation.

Dicker says now that she left to focus on the anti-casino fight. But a source involved in the campaign says the relationship soured after Dicker confronted Anastasio about whether he’d plagiarized in an op-ed he wrote, an allegation he denies and says was peddled by his opposition.

Then she made a decision that haunts her still. During the 2007 mayoral primary, Dicker supported millionaire businessman Tom Knox, who had packaged himself as a reformer but, as more details of his past emerged, clearly was anything but. Dicker says she regrets supporting him, and did so only because Knox was the first and most vocal candidate to come down against the casinos. “I was rooting for Michael Nutter, anyway,” she says, “but he refused to oppose the casino plan. I felt I had no choice.” By the end of the campaign, when Knox had crashed and burned, Dicker looked foolish, and her explanation — that she endorsed Knox as a means of strong-arming Nutter, her real favorite — smacked, at the least, of politics as usual.

Which raises the question: Is Anne Dicker really a reformer?

She has become a frequent target of some of the same progressive politicos and bloggers who once breathlessly buoyed her. One recently called her “Johnny Doc’s crack whore,” based on a rumor that she reached out to union boss and Fumo enemy John Dougherty in December to solicit his support against their common foe. Dicker says she left a message for Dougherty — and did not receive a call back from him — only to ask whether he himself was running for Fumo’s seat and, if not, whether he was supporting Joe Vignola, the former city councilman and Controller, who had been contemplating entering the primary race but is said now to be planning a run in the general election as an independent should Fumo defeat Dicker. Dicker is vehement that she wouldn’t accept Dougherty’s support even if it were offered to her, nor would she accept any money “from him or anyone connected to him.”

But would doing so really preclude her from wearing the sash of a reformer? Or, as Zack Stalberg suggests, might political pragmatism go a long way to making reform actually happen? Take, for instance, the reformer-in-chief himself, Mayor Nutter, who, a month before he was sworn in,  penned an op-ed in the Inquirer lauding the Democratic Machine’s grand pooh-bah, Congressman Bob Brady, as an “important partner in the ‘New Day, New Way’ agenda I have established for Philadelphia.” His argument — that the cost of tossing Brady, one of the most powerful men in Congress, overboard was simply too great — may not sound reformist, but it makes an awful lot of practical sense.

There is also, of course, the entrenched mentality Dicker is combating. As one well-known former South Philly political operative offered, without the slightest bit of self-consciousness: “You get this in Philadelphia politics lately — you get people who have an inflated sense of self-importance but really haven’t been in the trenches. Who the hell does she think she is? The name of the game here is accumulated favors. She hasn’t been around in this town nearly long enough.”

ANNE DICKER is short on specifics on how she could be a more effective senator than Fumo — who has helped bring home $8 billion to Philadelphia over the past two decades, is close to members on both sides of the aisle, was called by the Governor himself to successfully shatter a budgetary impasse last year even after he’d been indicted, and served, until his indictment, as chairman of the appropriations committee, making him in effect the bank teller who distributes every dollar allocated by the state.

But that’s not the point — not as Dicker sees it. One evening in November, I accompanied her to the Convention Center for the formal unveiling of the long-anticipated $1.6 million plan by the University of Pennsylvania’s PennPraxis design group for the redevelopment of Philadelphia’s riverfront. It had been a year in the making — how to transform a seven-mile-long, asphalt-ridden, big-box-store-pocked, mostly blighted waste of arguably the city’s most prime real estate into something modern, beautiful, useable, sustainable, and intelligently, purposefully designed.

It was all about change. Said one planner, “I think ultimately if there is a constituency for that kind of change, that’s pretty new for Philadelphia.”

Anne Dicker sees her candidacy in very similar terms.

“The more I get into this character, the more I see what he’s done to the city, and the state, I just can’t believe he’s still in office,” she says of her opponent. “If Philadelphians can reelect this guy, knowing what he’s done, then I’m not so sure they really want change.”