Off the Cuff: December 2011

In defense of Vince Fumo

The recent Fumo affair reminds me of one of those old black-and-white movies that show the scene of the peasant mob coming for the duke’s head. The peasants arrive at the castle gates hoisting their torches and wooden pitchforks, with dogs barking, ready to smash their way in. They are relentless.

Somehow I can’t get that scene out of my mind when I think about the recent Herculean effort by the local media and the U.S. Justice Department to keep Vince Fumo locked up for the rest of his life. Yes, he was a dishonest politician, but in Philadelphia, that’s not unusual. Sure, he kept some of the money he raised for Philadelphia projects for his personal use. That’s unusual for Philadelphia politicians. In our town, they usually keep most of the money for themselves, leaving little for what it’s intended to do.

For his sins, Fumo got a sentence in 2009 of 55 months—not nearly enough for the feds, who wanted him gone for 17 to 21 years, never to return. There was much sharpening of knives at the Inquirer, too, where writing endlessly about the Vince of Darkness has been a blood sport.

So the feds, knowing Fumo would see the light of day soon, appealed his sentence. Early last month, Judge Ronald Buckwalter gave the verdict: Fumo would serve only an additional six months. As I write this, federal prosecutors are still whining about the patent unfairness of it all. How horrible it is, that Vince Fumo will likely ride again into Philadelphia.

Much better to keep him in prison, because he just might go back to working the political levers that brought tens of millions of dollars in federal and state money into this city for various projects, and we certainly can’t have that.

Judge Buckwalter is hearing it from the Vince haters for having the temerity to tack on only half a year more to his sentence. I, on the other hand, applaud the judge for his guts, but I also stand behind politicians who get things done, so I’m in the minority here. By the way, apparently the only reason Fumo got more time from Buckwalter was because it annoyed the judge that in e-mails to friends and family from prison, Fumo called his jury “dumb, corrupt, and prejudiced.” He didn’t exhibit remorse, either. What a lousy attitude that Fumo has.

Of course, local media had a field day with his e-mails. The Daily News got into the act when columnist Ronnie Polaneczky railed against Fumo for calling her an ugly word related to the female anatomy because she had criticized him in print. What Fumo e-mailed about Polaneczky was nasty, and graceless and petty. In Philadelphia, that also passes for important.

I would rather have a politician with a bad attitude who gets things done and takes a little for himself on the side than some incompetent glad-hander who can’t get a pothole fixed. The point isn’t that politics is nasty business—it’s that effective politics is nasty business. When a politician goes too far—as Fumo certainly did—he should be punished. But to lock his cell and throw away the key, which is what the prosecutors and our paper of record have taken a slobbering glee in pushing for, is unseemly and sad.

Prosecutors and journalists like to get all high and mighty about a culture of corruption in Philadelphia politics. Frankly, I’m a little more concerned about a culture of ineffectiveness. But most people don’t seem especially uncomfortable with that legacy, one our mayor and Council and most of our state legislators contribute to. Woe to the politician who gets things done and takes no prisoners along the way. I’ll be pleased when Vince Fumo gets out of prison, at the ripe young age of 70. Perhaps he’ll go back to work for his city.