Taking Care of Business (chapter 43)

(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.)

Mayor Norbert and his staff decided that even though the deadline for passing the city budget was now less than two weeks away, the state budget was far and away the more pressing concern. Without restoration of the $812 million in threatened state funding for the city and school district, they knew, any budget council passed, regardless of whether it passed on time or after the legal deadline, would be irrelevant.

So decided, Norbert and his state legislative director, Harry Wheeler, began calling members of the city’s delegation in Harrisburg with renewed intensity. After two days of such calls, Norbert decided to travel to Harrisburg to meet in person with members on their own turf. There, he and Wheeler talked, they entreated, they even came close to begging, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. One conversation the mayor had in Harrisburg, with state senator Jake Cooker, was typical of what they encountered.

“Jake, this poses a huge threat to the city, and to your constituents,” Norbert said.

“It most certainly does,” Cooker agreed.

“So you’ll help us work the Senate?” Norbert asked, encouraged.

“I most certainly will not,” Cooker replied.

“It’ll hurt your constituents but you won’t do anything to prevent it?”

“That’s correct, Mr. Mayor.”

“May I ask why not?”

“Several reasons. First of all, you have your boy Ianucci working on it, don’t you?”

“I don’t know about the ‘my boy’ part, but yes, I do.”

“Well, mayors have never wanted or needed or asked for our help before when they had Ianucci on the job for them,” Cooker said.

“You’re talking about other mayors, Jake, not me. I’ve been working with the entire delegation since the day I took office, and you know it. This is also my first budget.”

“Makes no difference to me.”

“Also, you know how seriously Ianucci has been compromised. He’s not going to be able to get it done this year by himself.”

“So you need all of us to help, right?”

“Exactly,” Norbert replied.

“Of course you do. But if we pitch in now and get it done, Ianucci’s going to get all the credit.”

“I don’t think that’s the case at all.”

“Of course he will. You know it and I know it.”

“I don’t think that’s true. Who would give him any credit at all under these circumstances?”

“Well, I think he will, and I know my colleagues feel the same way. Only the press goes around giving credit for such things, and as far as the press in Philadelphia is concerned, Michael is the only person representing Philadelphia in Harrisburg. The rest of us don’t even exist as far as they’re concerned. On the other hand, if you don’t get the money, everyone will know that Ianucci failed and has been knocked off his pedestal, which will open the door for the rest of us to climb to more important positions here in the legislature.”

“If Michael even gets re-elected,” the mayor noted.

“We’re assuming he will,” Cooker replied. “If he’s not, that would just be icing on the cake.”

“And what about your constituents? The ones who’ll lose city jobs or lose access to city services if we lose all that state money?”

“That’s really not my problem, Mr. Mayor, now is it?”

Norbert was astonished.

“You can’t possibly mean that,” Norbert said.

“But I do. With all due respect, Mr. Mayor, you and your elite staff of people who don’t know a damn thing about Philadelphia have a very incomplete grasp of Philadelphia politics. The people who matter – the voters, not your friends at the chamber of commerce and the Union League – associate you, the mayor, and to a lesser degree council, with city jobs and city services. They don’t see any connection whatsoever between those jobs and those services and my work here in Harrisburg. No connection whatsoever. So if and when that happens, they’re going to be turning to you for explanations, not me.”

“What do they think you do?”

“I think they have no idea what we do in Harrisburg.”

“But what about serving their interests?” the mayor asked.

“I can’t take care of their business unless I continue to get re-elected, and what you’ve come here to ask me for won’t help me get re-elected. In fact, my constituents may be better served by my not helping you.”

“How do you figure that?”

“No budget, Ianucci gets knocked down a peg, and I move up in my committees because Philadelphia would get more high-ranking representation to compensate for his fall.”

“That’s absurd.”

“No, that’s the way it is.”

“Well, I don’t agree with you and don’t understand your thinking at all, Jake, but I appreciate your time. Thank you.”

The mayor rose and extended his hand. Cooker rose with him and took it.

“And maybe next time, Mr. Mayor, you’ll listen to us when we talk to you about some minor thing we want, like Shaniqua Watson.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No. When we ask you to do something like that, we expect you to do as we ask. Some things aren’t negotiable, and this is one of those things.”

Norbert reached into his coat pocket, pulled out a notebook, and flipped to a page that had been prepared for him by his staff.

“Jake, let me tell you something. We’ve fixed 600 street lights in your district, repaired four ball fields that weren’t even slated for work in this year’s budget, and cleared the snow from every street in your district for the first time ever. More than 20,000 of your uninsured constituents get free health care at a city clinic that’s on the top of our list of clinics to close if we can’t get our funding restored. Nearly 6000 of your constituents are employed by the city or school district and nearly 1000 of them would lose their jobs if we don’t get our funding restored. Every single time you and your ward leaders have called us seeking some kind of help on behalf of a constituent, we’ve come through for you – every single time. That’s about 1500 calls with a perfect score. And you’re telling me that you won’t help me – help the city and your constituents – because of the one single thing I didn’t do for you?”

“That’s exactly what I’m telling you .”

(more next Sunday)

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