The Feud

After years as the closest of friends, two of Philadelphia’s most brilliant and powerful men, Dick Sprague and Vince Fumo, have turned bitter enemies. A tale of influence, money, accusations of betrayal — and the impact their shattered relationship is having on the rest of us

In November, he showed up at a city commerce department hearing to argue that the city has no authority to grant use of the “riparian” wetlands along the Delaware that SugarHouse wants to build on. By this point, Sprague was in the corner of John Dougherty, a longtime Fumo enemy, for the Senate seat Fumo is vacating, and Sprague had hired Dougherty PR man Frank Keel to work for SugarHouse; for the hearing, Keel larded a City Hall room with building-trades guys who started yelling “Allenwood, Allenwood” and “They’ll love you in Lewisburg” — places Fumo could end up if things go badly in his trial.

Fumo questioned their intelligence, called them animals and children, and made the crowd an offer: “If one of these guys wants to see me privately after this, I’ll see you.” Fumo was clearly now in the game in a new way, in other words. Queen Village anti-casino activist Jeff Rush, who is in close contact with Fumo’s staff, says the Senator is “extremely focused” on the cause. “And what he brings to the table, nobody else out there comes close.”

Fumo was the lead senator in a suit challenging SugarHouse’s right to use those wetlands that was argued by Chris Craig, Fumo’s staff lawyer, before the State Supreme Court on April 15th. Sprague was there with his legal team, though his role was merely to tip his chair forward and pass notes up to the lead attorneys; at press time, a decision was pending. And then there’s the proposed new legislation to open up the site selection process all over again. At the very least, its passage would mean further delays for Sprague’s casino; conceivably, depending on how it all plays out, it could make it impossible for him to get one at all.

Fumo, in fact, basically made that prediction when he was interviewed one day a few months ago on cable network PCN: “What you’ll have is a new license go-round where people will come in and bid, but this time if someone comes in and bids on that license, they’re going to be very sensitive to the neighborhood.”

THE PUBLIC FIGHT between Dick Sprague and Vince Fumo is wrenching to watch. One night last July, just before Fumo broke with Sprague, he privately complained that he had the feds coming after him and wasn’t even on speaking terms with his lawyer — Sprague. But then, because he’s Vince Fumo, a relentless fighter, and because he still had faith in his longtime friend, he brightened: “Ah, we’ll work it out — we always do.”

But they couldn’t. And those on both sides hold strong views on who is to blame. “To me, my opinion,” says Frank DiCicco, “Dick had more emphasis on SugarHouse than he cared about Vincent’s career. In the end.” Fumo has reached out, tentatively, to Sprague. But Dick Sprague is in no mood for reconciliation, because he’s certain that Vince Fumo was simply unwilling to use his own money to pay a reasonable legal bill, and that Fumo is now trying to ruin his vaunted new enterprise.

Yet their rift, as public and grand as it is, is about more than Dick Sprague and Vince Fumo. It raises serious doubts about us, too. It’s a strange time for the city, with reform in the air, with the old guard supposedly being replaced by the new. But here they are, two old titans battling over a new public enterprise that will either enrich or ruin the city — or perhaps some of both. Consider: Dick Sprague is an 82-year-old man obsessed with leaving his children a pot of gold. Vince Fumo is seriously weakened by his indictment, his recent heart attack, and his lame-duck status in the Senate.

Yet they’re still exercising the power they spent years building, and the power we’ve invested in them. Kill or be killed, their credo, has engendered a great deal of fear for a long time, and has given them lots of room to operate. We’re still letting them operate. An unnerving question looms: Now that we’re at the end of Dick Sprague and Vince Fumo’s decade-and-a-half run as the city’s most powerful — and frightening — partnership, who has the balls to replace them?