Taking Care of Business (chapters 33 and 34)

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 33

Still facing charges of operating a prostitution ring, Eugene Doctoroff continued to make good on his promise to identify, every other day, high-profile clients of what he characterized as his “escort business.” He had been doing so for more than a month, yet when asked by a reporter if he was nearing the end of the list of clients whose names would shock and appall and entertain the city, he just laughed and declared “Not even close.”

Throughout the town, guessing the next john to be named had fast become a favorite local pastime. So far, the unmasked included corporate executives, city officials, the mayor of a prominent suburban town, a local television news anchorman, two well-known newspaper reporters, a clergyman, a radio talk show host, two professional athletes, and the coach of a local women’s college basketball team. Despite the regularity and frequency of the revelations, Philadelphia had not tired in the least of the spectacle of watching the very public humiliation of many of its most prominent citizens.

So absorbed were residents of the region in this vastly entertaining situation that it took a week – despite the Post’s earlier, avid interest – before the local newspapers even noticed that Michael Ianucci had a primary opponent. Even then, recognition came slowly because no one had ever heard of Kathleen O’Donnell and no one seemed to know whether she was a serious candidate or just one of those people who put their names on an election ballot on a lark. After a few more days, the press still knew little: all it reported was that she was fifty-three years old, taught junior high school social studies in the Philadelphia public school system, was active in several community groups but did not serve in a leadership position in any of them, and had never, as far as anyone could tell, been active in politics in any way.

But a week after candidates filed their nominating petitions they were required to file a campaign finance report, and when they did, it was clear that Kathleen O’Donnell was a candidate to be taken seriously. While she had raised virtually no money, her campaign committee included many prominent Philadelphia politicians: a U.S. senator, two members of Congress, two members of council who owed their elected offices to Ianucci and had clearly turned on their mentor, and every living former mayor of the city. Without question, Ianucci’s enemies, and even some of his friends, saw this an opportunity to defeat him at a time when his vulnerability was unprecedented.

The newspapers finally noticed. While reporters told the story, columnists speculated on its meaning. Clearly, they wrote, Ianucci’s enemies were stepping out of the shadows and hoping to dethrone him. Still, they speculated about whether this would be possible, even in light of the circumstances. After all, only three weeks remained until the election, and despite her impressive roster of supporters, Kathleen O’Donnell had not raised any money and was still virtually unknown; the newspapers, in fact, did not even have a photograph of her to run alongside articles about her candidacy.

Mayor Norbert was more concerned about the implications of Ianucci’s loss of power for his budget prospects than he was about the contest for Ianucci’s seat in the state House, but reporters eventually forced him to address the matter – sort of – publicly.

After he cut a ribbon to mark the completed restoration of a public library, reporters from two television stations thrust microphones into Norbert’s face as he returned to his car.

“Mr. Mayor, you’ve had a good political relationship with state representative Michael Ianucci. Will you be endorsing him in next month’s election?”

“I’m not endorsing any candidates, Lisa.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve never endorsed any candidates in the past and I don’t see why I should start now.”

Failing to recognize that this was Norbert’s first year in office and that he had no past record when it came to endorsing or not endorsing candidates, the reporter simply accepted his explanation without question.

“What about Kathleen O’Donnell?” she asked.

“What about her?” the mayor replied.

“What do you think about her?”

“I’ve never met her.”

“Is that why you’re not endorsing her?”

“No, but that would be a pretty good reason, don’t you think?   But actually, I’m not endorsing her because, as I just said, I’m not endorsing anyone.”

“Won’t you be pressured by both sides for an endorsement?”

“Pressured? I don’t think so. I imagine I’ll be asked, but I have no plans to make an endorsement.”

The reporters were growing frustrated.

“If you have no plans, does that mean your plans could change?”

The mayor sighed.

“How many different ways do I need to tell you that I’m staying out of it?”

“But if you had to make a choice…”

He cut off the reporter.

“I don’t live in Roxborough and won’t be voting in this election, so I don’t have to make a choice, do I?”

With that, the mayor climbed into his car and shut the door and seconds later was gone.

Chapter 34

Mayor Norbert had more important things than endorsements to worry about – specifically, the status of his proposed budget. It was now late April, council’s budget hearings had been over for more than a month, and still, the group that one of his predecessors had once labeled “the worst legislative body in the free world” had not voted on the budget and had not given any sign that it was considering doing so anytime soon even though by law, the city’s budget had to be passed one month prior to the beginning of the new fiscal year on July 1.

Norbert and his staff did not understand this delay. The budget he had presented to council was balanced, as required by law, and although it included the disputed state funding, this was standard practice because the deadline for passing Philadelphia’s budget was one month earlier than the deadline for passing the state budget. In every other respect, this budget was unexceptional: it proposed no tax increases or cuts in any popular city programs, nor did it call for any lay-offs of city workers. It also included a generous $140 million for pay raises for city employees and therefore would not require any difficult or politically sensitive last-minute adjustments once agreements were reached on contracts with the unions.

Most of the budget hearings, the mayor and his staff felt, had gone well: council members had many questions and complaints, as they always did, but not a single one had gone unanswered by the mayor and his staff. The single biggest controversy had been over whether to fund significant and costly renovations for a beloved but deteriorating outdoor city-owned concert venue, but when a number of council members had expressed anger and outrage over the mayor’s failure to propose such renovations – even though, in the many discussions and meetings between members of the mayor’s staff and council members prior to releasing the budget, not a single council member had so much as even mentioned the old amphitheater – Norbert had immediately revised his budget to include the desired funding. Philadelphia mayors had long grown accustomed to councils that huffed and puffed and tried to blow their budgets down, but ultimately, Philadelphia city councils proved sadly asthmatic, their huffing and puffing eventually turning into wheezing and coughing as they passed proposed budgets in a timely manner so their members could move on to the far more important business that commenced as soon as they completed that task: their three-month summer recess.

But Norbert and his leadership team of mostly non-Philadelphians did not understand much of the underlying dynamic that caused this unexpected and unwelcome delay.

One of those underlying causes was bruised political feelings. Of the seventeen members of this dilatory council, seven harbored serious mayoral ambitions of their own, and now, more than five months after Norbert’s election and nearly a year after his primary victory in a city in which Democratic nomination meant automatic election in the fall, they were still grudgingly adjusting to the reality that they were dealing with a first-term mayor in his first year of office in a city that, no matter how incompetently its government performed, had not voted a sitting mayor out of office in nearly a century. Among those it had returned to office were mayors who had allowed party bosses to run the city; mayors who had significantly raised taxes; mayors who had seen top deputies indicted for public corruption; and even a mayor who had permitted his police force to bomb an entire city neighborhood to force a group of noisy and annoying but unarmed back-to-nature radicals out of their home.

These bruised feelings were serious. Two members of council had lost to Norbert in the Democratic mayoral primary, and one of them had insisted, to the bitter end and even afterward, that he had been entitled to the job because it was “my turn.” A third had been scared out of the primary by what he viewed as the insurmountable challenge of running against a rich man financing his own campaign. Two others still had not grown totally resigned to the sad reality that the next time the office would be available – Philadelphia mayors were limited by law to two terms in office – they would be in their seventies and too old to pursue their dream.

The mayor and his team also failed to appreciate council’s genuine resentment of what they considered to be his overly austere and unnecessarily responsible budget. The mayor thought he was doing the responsible thing by budgeting pay raises for city workers and finding ways to pay for his programs without raising taxes and without proposing a spending increase of even one dollar over the previous fiscal year. This infuriated council members when they found that some of their own pet capital projects were not part of the proposed spending plan. Even though the city’s current configuration of recreation centers, playgrounds, swimming pools, ice skating rinks, libraries, and ball fields had been developed at a time when Philadelphia’s population had just crept past the two million mark, back in 1960, council members still wanted more such facilities – more recreation centers, more playgrounds, more swimming pools, more ice skating rinks, more libraries, more ball fields – even though twenty-five percent of the city’s population had vanished in the ensuing fifty years. They wanted new facilities so they could smile proudly at ribbon-cutting ceremonies and point to their accomplishment – and they wanted those facilities because they knew that city tradition dictated that once they retired from office, one of those facilities would be renamed in their honor.

Council members, for their part, did not understand the mayor’s interest in fiscal austerity. They were not interested in responsible budgets, they told one another in private. To the contrary, they were Democrats: they felt they had been elected to office to spend the public’s money and to exercise the good judgment and iron will to spend that money regardless of whether there was money available to be spent and regardless of whether the public really wanted the programs or the facilities on which they spent it. In fact, they felt it was their solemn duty to stand up to those who demanded that they exercise financial responsibility merely for the sake of doing so. They were even willing to raise taxes to fulfill this obligation, if necessary, and they were mystified and more than a little disturbed by a Democratic mayor so uninterested in spending money and so afraid to raise taxes so he could do so.

(more next Sunday)

 

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