Taking Care of Business (chapter 18)

For an introduction to the novel Taking Care of Business, links to all chapters posted so far, and a list of characters who have appeared so far, go here, to the Taking Care of Business resources page. To see every part of Taking Care of Business posted so far in one place, go here.)

Chapter 18

In the face of such overwhelmingly positive public sentiment about both the testimony of Shaniqua Watson before council and her surprising and unprecedented success in ridding the city’s streets of snow, logic suggested that rational, intelligent people who took a different view of Watson and who would like to see her removed from her position in city government would take some time to lay low, lick their wounds, regroup, and perhaps consider the possibility of changing their strategy in light of recent events.

But then, no one ever accused Philadelphia politicians of being rational, intelligent people.

Amazingly, they continued their campaign against Watson as if nothing had ever happened to create such a positive public perception about her in the first place. Three days after the snow had been removed – and less than twenty-four hours after a prominent radio talk show host suggested that Watson was the biggest hero the city had seen since Rocky Balboa – the council president and majority leader raised the subject of her continued employment during their weekly meeting with the mayor.

“You have to be kidding,” the mayor told them.

“We’re not,” replied council president Harold Miller.

“Well, you should be,” Mayor Norbert replied. “She’s doing a tremendous job. I went to hear the orchestra play last night and was besieged by people telling me what a wonderful job she’s doing. One of them – one of those society types – said that if we want to erect a statue in her honor, he’d be glad to raise the money for it.”

“That’s fine, but you’re not seeing the big picture,” Miller responded. “She’s good for government, certainly, but there’s more to running a city department than doing a great job.”

“There is?” the mayor asked.

“Yes.”

“Like what?”

“There’s the politics of the job,” Miller explained. “For you to be effective as mayor, for this council to be effective, we have to work constantly to do things for people so we can earn their loyalty and take care of business so they’ll vote our way on election day. That’s basic politics 101, Mr. Mayor.”

“And you don’t think the million or so people who live on streets that had never been plowed before Shaniqua Watson came along don’t think we did something wonderful for them and will be inclined to show their gratitude by voting for Democrats in the next election?” Norbert asked.

“No, Mr. Mayor, I don’t. As a matter of fact, I don’t think they’ll even remember it by the time the next election rolls around. Oh, sure, right now they think you and Watson are doing a great job, but the first time their trash is collected a day late or they get a flat tire when they hit a pothole, all that goodwill is going to evaporate and they’ll be back to ‘what have you done for me lately?’”

“So we’ll remind them,” Norbert replied. “That’s what campaigns are all about; that’s why we knock on doors in the first place – at least that’s what all you guys keep telling me.”

“It doesn’t work that way. We need to perform personal, one-on-one constituent service non-stop if we expect to retain the loyalty and support of the voters and we can’t do that if you have the government working so well that our constituents never need to come to us for help. Good government is not necessarily good politics.”

Norbert laughed.

“Just listen to yourselves, gentlemen. You’re making the argument that we should fail to serve the citizens of Philadelphia so they’ll come to you complaining about that failure and request your help so you can get government to serve them.”

“Exactly,” Miller declared.

The next day two more council members met with the mayor and made the same argument. Two days after that he had an even stranger meeting with the only two Republican members of council and the chairman of the city’s Republican party.

“Let me get this straight,” Norbert said at one point in their conversation. “You’re coming to me, the mayor of the city and a member of the opposition party, to complain that city government under my leadership is working too well and doing too good a job?”

“This has been a one-party town, and that party hasn’t been ours,” explained the Republican chairman. “We need to be able to prove our worth to the voters through constituent service, and streets issues have always been our bread and butter.”

“Your bread and butter? You haven’t elected a Republican mayor in sixty years and the only reason you have any representation on council at all is that the city charter requires at least two of the seventeen people on council to be from a minority party. If you really think this is your bread and butter, I suggest you consider finding a new meal.”

To this point the mayor and his staff had heard only from local officials – council members, ward leaders, and party bosses – on the subject of Shaniqua Watson. Thus, they assumed that opposition to a can-do streets department was limited and therefore easily dismissed. Within the next few days, however, they were disabused of this assumption after a series of visits by members of the city’s legislative delegation serving in Harrisburg and even one of its members of Congress. The mayor had six such meetings over a period of four days, and in each, the message conveyed to him was the same: officials who owe their elected offices to the ability of party workers to turn out the vote for them would be in jeopardy of losing those offices unless they could perform services for constituents that engendered loyalty on election day.

At first Norbert did his best to listen respectfully to these arguments, but with each meeting that became more difficult. Eventually he began gently chiding those who came before him, insisting that good government was the ultimate in good politics and that dismissing someone who had become the symbol of good government in Philadelphia would be the ultimate in bad politics. The people to whom he expressed this sentiment did not understand Norbert and were convinced that he did not understand them. Norbert, for his part, was certain they did not understand them – but he stood firm on the continued employment of Shaniqua Watson as his streets commissioner.

(more next Sunday)

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