Taking Care of Business (chapters 38 and 39)

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 39

The following morning, Norbert had breakfast with Jon Ravelsky. They had been doing this weekly for years, and they continued doing so after Norbert’s election. While Philadelphia politics and government were not the primary or even secondary purpose of this weekly ritual, such matters inevitably arose during their wide-ranging discussions of matters of interest to both of them: their families, mutual friends, basketball, business, their alma mater, future plans to vacation together, and more.

On this particular morning they were almost finished eating when Norbert asked Ravelsky if he had any idea why Fred Gilliam would want him to fire Shaniqua Watson.

“You mean you don’t know?” Ravelsky asked, an amused smile crossing his face.

“What’s so funny?” Norbert asked.

“You are, Jim. You mean you really don’t know?”

“No.”

“You know, Jim, you have this great staff, I really mean that, but by having no local people in your inner circle, sometimes you really miss the boat on some very basic things, because for a guy who’s been elected to high public office, you have virtually no political instincts at all.”

“So enlighten me.”

“Well, you tell me first: how are negotiations going with his union?”

“Poorly. They don’t believe there’s no more money and in more than a month of negotiations, they haven’t given an inch.”

“That sounds about right,” Ravelsky said. “What Gilliam does is push as hard as he can, usually right up to the deadline, and when he thinks he’s gotten as much as he can, he goes to council for help.”

“Council? They’re not involved in negotiations, and from what Ed and Larry tell me, members don’t even ask about the talks when they brief them every week.”

“Jim, Jim, you’re leading such a sheltered existence.

“Council is the unions’ almost-silent partner in contract negotiations. You’d think that council would be on your side, on city government’s side, but it’s not. It sides with the unions because they represent a lot of votes. When the timing is right, a council delegation comes to the mayor and gives him a number and tells him that that’s what’ll produce an agreement.”

“Council working against the government of which it’s a part?”

“Yeah.”

“So what does this have to do with Gilliam asking me to fire Shaniqua Watson?”

“I can’t say for sure, but it’s my guess that Gilliam went to council like he always does but they gave him the cold shoulder,” Ravelsky explained.

“Why?”

“Because they want you to get rid of Watson and Gilliam has publicly expressed his union’s support for her.

“So tell me something: how forceful was Gilliam when he asked you to fire her?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, did he ask or did he demand?”

“He asked.”

“Yeah, that sounds about right. Fred Gilliam never asked for anything in his life. He demands everything. My guess is that council told him that if he wanted help at the negotiating table he had to ask you to fire Watson and then say something publicly. He can’t possibly mean it, but he must’ve figured it was the price he had to pay to get council’s help. He’s also probably hoping that you won’t fire her but that council will be satisfied that he did as he promised and give him the help he requested.”

“Unbelievable.”

“No,” Ravelsky replied, rising from his chair, “Just taking care of business.”

Chapter 39

That afternoon Norbert met with Harry Wheeler, his director of state legislative affairs. Wheeler was a popular, capable political insider whose job was to manage the city’s interaction with its legislative delegation in the state capital. For the past few months he had focused primarily on one objective: persuading the legislature to reject the governor’s proposal to cut Philadelphia’s state funding by $812 million.

Wheeler’s job consisted of several distinct kinds of work: he tracked legislation with potential implications for the city; he conveyed the city’s interests to its state legislators; he coordinated the response of the delegation to proposals, threats, and opportunities; and he ensured that legislators’ local needs in their districts back in Philadelphia were addressed by the mayor and his staff. Above all, he held a lot of hands, telling legislators that everything was all right and assuring them that the mayor loved and respected them.

Wheeler was meeting with the mayor on this particular day to update him on the progress of the state budget and the effort to defeat the governor’s proposal to decimate the city’s state funding. His message was clear: all was not well and members of the delegation were feeling neither loved nor respected.

“Does it matter?” the mayor asked. “Michael tells me he’s been working on it.”

“You’ve spoken to Michael?” Wheeler asked.

“Of course I have. You don’t abandon your friends when they’re in trouble, Harry.”

“I understand that, but you realize that he hasn’t been to Harrisburg since the scandal broke, don’t you?”

“I didn’t know.”

“Well, now you know. No one’s laid eyes on him since this all started. And I can tell you that while he may be working the phones, a lot of people aren’t returning his calls and aren’t going to be returning his calls.”

“Enough to be a problem?”

“Definitely. I’m pretty sure he’s going to be a non-factor this year, although I’m not sure he realizes that yet. It’s a good thing you thought ahead and started working on a plan B.”

The mayor had, in fact, been working quietly on an alternative approach to gaining restoration of the city’s state funding. While he hoped Ianucci might still be able to get the job done, he had quietly been courting the rest of the city’s Harrisburg delegation. It was a large group – seven senators and twenty-eight representatives – but he had been spending time with and talking to all of them far more often than usual since the Ianucci scandal broke.

“I guess. Right now, I think the best options to carry our water are Jenkins in the House and Lee in the Senate.”

“I agree,” Wheeler said. “They’re both in line for committee chairmanships in the next few years and it would really enhance their standing among their peers if they showed they could step up and tackle a challenge like this and produce results.”

“But can they, Harry? I mean, they both seem like capable guys, especially Jenkins, and they seem energetic and enthusiastic when I talk to them, but the rest of the delegation comes across as mostly unengaged to me.”

“Yeah, I know. You don’t have many people there who are capable of any heavy lifting. On top of that, they’re not very happy with you, and this is their way of letting you know about it.”

“Why? I’ve spoken to every one of them at least twice a month since I took office, which is a lot more than any of my recent predecessors, and I’ve stepped it up the past few weeks, to more like twice a week. They also get pretty much whatever they ask of me – and believe me, they ask for a lot.”

“Well, they feel neglected, so they’re pouting,” Wheeler noted.

“Neglected enough to stand by and do nothing while the governor does something that could really hurt their constituents?”

“Possibly. I think they could probably be motivated to act, in the end, if given the right incentive.”

“They need an incentive to help their constituents?”

“Most of them, definitely,” Wheeler said, laughing. “Helping their constituents doesn’t rate very high on their list of priorities. But the real obstacle is what they’re unhappy with you about.”

“And that is?”

“Your streets commissioner. They want her gone yesterday.”

“That again? Yes, I know. That’s not going to happen, Harry,” Norbert said. “It’s not on the table – not in any way, shape, or form. We’re going to have to find a better way to get them behind us on this.”

“If you say so.”

“I say so. We’re going to have to emphasize the importance of the state funding to their constituents.”

“That’s going to be a hard sell.”

“How can appealing to legislators to do something for their constituents be a hard sell?” Norbert asked. “It’s what they were elected to do, it’s what they promise to do in exchange for votes.”

“They’re not real worried about getting re-elected, Mr. Mayor. It’s very rare that a Philadelphia Democrat elected to the legislature faces a serious challenge for renomination, especially after he’s served a term or two, and I can’t remember the last time a Republican challenger beat an incumbent in a fall election. It could be thirty or forty years. Most routinely carry their districts with more than seventy percent of the vote.”

“So appealing to them to work with us on this for the good of the city and the good of their constituents can’t work?” Norbert asked.

“It’s not something that really appeals to them, but it can work,” Wheeler replied. “But maybe not when there’s something more important to them.”

“And that something is Shaniqua Watson?”

“Yes. Listen, let me read you something from my notes.”

Wheeler thumbed through a spiral notebook, turning several pages until he came to what he sought.

“Last week I met with Jack Leary and I made your pitch to him – the one about doing what’s good for his constituents. His response was so striking that as soon as I left his office, I sat down on a chair in the hallway right outside his door and wrote it down as best I could remember. Here’s what he said.

“’I do what’s best for me, not what’s best for my constituents. They have no idea what goes on here in Harrisburg, and what’s more, I don’t believe they care. I tell them what’s important, they don’t tell me. Do you think I give a damn about Norbert’s budget problem? Hell no. Right now, what’s important to me is the mayor doing what I want him to do, and what others want him to do, and that’s to fire this woman and let us get back to taking care of business the usual way. If he doesn’t, he’s the one who’ll have to explain to the public why he had to cut programs left and right and lay off people because he couldn’t get the money from the governor. No one besides the Gazette editorial board is ever going to ask me that question because the people are too stupid to see the connection between what goes on in Harrisburg and what happens in city hall in Philadelphia.   They’re all going to be asking him, not me. When they do, maybe he’ll finally realize that he’s got to take us seriously and listen to what we want and do what we ask.’”

Norbert rolled his eyes.

(more next Sunday)

 

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