The Day I Went to See Mr. Fumo, or Politics Is the Art of Getting Things Done

As the former State Senator leaves prison, a reflection on the culture that put him there.

Three years after graduating from college with a marginally salable degree in sociology and the illusion that any day my band was going to break and I would begin my career as a rock star — I made my one and only visit to the offices of Vince Fumo. It was 1996, and the former state senator — who was released from federal prison Tuesday after serving four years for corruption — was at the pinnacle of his career, and enjoyed a status of near omnipotence in the South Philadelphia neighborhood where my mother was raised and my grandmother still lives.

At that time I was living not-so-comfortably in her basement, jumping from one restaurant job to the next (there were far fewer of them back then), and I was starting to worry that whatever time I had left to do something admirable, or at least respectable, with my life was fast running out.

Like many people on her street, my grandmother knew someone who knew someone who worked for Fumo, and she reached out for help. A meeting was scheduled and at the appointed hour I showed up at the Senator’s district office at 12th and Tasker where I spoke briefly with an aide. I never saw Fumo, and I remember few details about that meeting. But I remember the outcome.

Within a couple weeks I received a letter instructing me to report to City Hall where I was scheduled to take a test to become a probation officer. It wasn’t exactly the job I had in mind, but it was a city gig, and at the time I thought that was a pretty big deal. So I took the test, passed it and was placed on a waiting list for a job wrangling cons.

I’ll never know what, if anything, would have materialized from that brief encounter at Vince Fumo’s office. Soon thereafter I moved out of South Philly, started working as a newswriter for public radio, caught the journalism bug, and never looked back.  But I thought of that small act of political patronage years later, when Fumo was convicted of 137 counts of conspiracy, fraud and obstruction of justice tied to his theft of millions of dollars in state funds and charitable contributions. Like most Philadelphians I wasn’t surprised. Fumo was a crook. We all pretty much knew it. And yet throughout his time in office he never lacked for admirers. Many of them, like my grandmother, made their homes in the narrow streets and carefully tended houses around his South Philly office, and counted on his help for everything from fixing potholes to getting shortlisted for the city employment test.

To understand the kind of hubris it takes to steal from your own charity, and how a man in Fumo’s position could be seen as both a man of the people and a leech sucking their blood, it’s helpful to look back at the history of municipal politics in America, which for decades was dominated by men just like him.

Epitomized in popular culture by Tammany Hall’s William M. “Boss” Tweed, machine politics was a way of life in the nation’s teeming industrial cities, where nepotism, patronage and graft were as much a component of political campaigning as kissing babies is today.  Despite periodic reform efforts, Philadelphia hosted a succession of shadowy power brokers — men like Matthew Quay, William Scott Vare and James McManes, an Irish immigrant whose “Gas Ring” held city politics hostage for nearly three decades following the end of the Civil War. (For an outstanding overview of this period check out Peter McCaffery’s book When Bosses Ruled Philadelphia: The Emergence of the Republican Machine).

By the turn of the 20th century, Philadelphia’s Republican machine had established such a reputation for crookedness that the renowned muckraker Lincoln Steffens devoted an entire essay to it, writing in 1903:  “All our municipal governments are more or less bad, and all our people are optimists. Philadelphia is simply the most corrupt and the most contented.”

The political machine as we know it is unique to the time and place in which it developed and thrived. A product of the rapid urbanization that followed the end of the Civil War and continued through the 1930s, the Golden Age of Bossism was a response to the dynamics of emerging multiculturalism within a political tradition where the will of each man is theoretically equal. As such, machine politics is an exclusively American phenomenon, born in the saloons, storefronts and tenements of immigrant communities where a majority of people lived, worked, worshipped and died without ever traveling farther than they could walk.  Marginalized by linguistic, religious and cultural barriers — and in some cases experiencing true political enfranchisement for the first time — newly arriving immigrants gave their loyalty to local patrons who spoke their language and knew their customs.

It hardly mattered that everything wasn’t always on the “up and up.” After all, these were people who were less concerned with what happened in Washington, or even the state capitol, than what happened on their own street. As they saw it, politics was the art of getting things done. And the machine, personified by the local boss, was the most effective means for doing that.

But what started as an ethnic response to political democracy succeeded by transcending ethnicity and appealing to a cross-cultural base of similarly situated voters — specifically the working poor.  And while corruption was an enduring aspect of the game, it was viewed as a necessary and, at times, even desirable price of inclusion. This blend of corruption and contentment — which seems to alien today — is best summed up by the author William V. Shannon, who observed in 1969:

“To respectable people, the boss was an exotic, even grotesque figure. They found it hard to understand why anyone would vote for him or what the sources of his popularity were. To the urban poor, those sources were self-evident. The boss ran a kind of ramshackle welfare state… In an era when social security, Blue Cross, unemployment compensation and other public and private arrangements to cushion life’s shocks did not exist, these benefactions from a political boss were important.”

By the 1950s, subsequent generations of immigrants had left their neighborhoods and, aided by educations provided by the GI Bill, found their place in the broader American polity; but the machine mentality lingered for decades in places like South Philly, where as recently as the 1970s old Italian women were still seen kissing Frank Rizzo’s hand when he walked down their street. Of course none of this is to excuse Fumo’s behavior. The Senator was playing a 19th century game in a post-Y2K world and he paid the price for it. Fumo was a throwback, an anachronism. But the rules he was playing by were hardly of his own invention.