Taking Care of Business (chapter 44)

(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.) 

Although mayor of Philadelphia and ostensibly the leader of its Democratic party, Norbert had relatively few party responsibilities or obligations. Unlike most elected officials, he was not a career politician. He had run for mayor of Philadelphia because he felt he could help the city, but he aspired to no other public office. His wealth, his excellent reputation in the business community, and the success of his basketball team had enabled him to circumvent conventional politics on his path to becoming mayor, and once elected, he made it clear to conventional politicians that he posed no threat to their positions – their fiefdoms, really – or to their ways of doing business. In fact, he had publicly stated to those conventional politicians that he would focus on running the city and allow Denny McDougal, chairman of the Democratic party, to run their party.

Recognizing the tension of recent months between the mayor and elected officials and party people, McDougal, despite his unhappiness over the mayor’s refusal to address the Shaniqua Watson situation, invited Norbert to join the party faithful for a long-time political ritual: gathering together to watch election returns. Norbert welcomed the invitation and, shortly after eight o’clock on election night, departed from his city hall office, accompanied only by a single plainclothes Philadelphia police officer, and walked the three blocks to the hotel ballroom where the party regulars were gathering.

Democratic primary elections in Philadelphia were decidedly uninteresting and uncompetitive – and none were less interesting and less competitive than primaries for the party’s nomination for seats in the state legislature. Seldom did incumbents face challenges, and it had been nearly two decades since one of those challenges had succeeded. In an overwhelmingly Democratic city, moreover, election to the legislature was almost akin to gaining tenure at a university: incumbents might, under rare circumstances, be slightly vulnerable for their first few years in office, but after that, they generally enjoyed their positions for life, absent some remarkable misadventure in office such as an inconvenient but not especially rare conviction for public corruption. Incumbents who faced token opposition for renomination generally received at least seventy-five percent of the votes; in the fall, facing Republicans who had no real chance of winning, any Democrat who failed to collect at least seventy percent of the votes was the subject of good-natured ribbing from his peers.

Based on this well-established history of electoral politics in Philadelphia, no drama was expected on this election night. At the same time, Democratic party boss Denny McDougal thought it offered a good opportunity to attempt to defuse some of the tension between the mayor and the party regulars. While he shared their fervent desire that the mayor remove Shaniqua Watson forever from the public payroll, he knew this issue would eventually be resolved one way or another and that when it was, they all needed to be able to work together again. For this reason, McDougal thought that inviting Norbert to join them for what promised to be a low-key evening might help thaw the deep freeze that had set in between Norbert and the party for which he was the public standard-bearer.

The mayor arrived shortly before eight-thirty – less than a half-hour after the polls closed. Despite the rancor that many felt toward him, he was generally received warmly as he worked the hotel ballroom and shook hands with everyone he encountered. In one rear corner of the huge ballroom a string band played local music familiar to all Philadelphians; in the other rear corner were a bar and a dining area where sandwiches were served. Adopting his ‘man of the people’ manner, the mayor picked up a bottle of beer and continued circulating throughout the room.

At the front of the room stood a small makeshift stage and podium. To either side of the podium were large-screen televisions mounted on the walls. Both sets were tuned to the most popular local television station, but at this early hour, that station was still broadcasting its regular programming while awaiting election returns.

Shortly before nine o’clock the station broke into its regularly scheduled program and began sharing early returns – generally, with only about twenty-five percent of the voting divisions reporting their results. Once the well-known anchorman came onto the screen, someone immediately turned up the volume and the people milling about the ballroom turned to the front of the room and the large television sets.

The early returns, the gray-haired anchorman reported, suggested that virtually all of the incumbents would easily win renomination. One race, though, deserved closer attention, he noted.

“We have a potentially interesting battle brewing in Philadelphia’s fifth legislative district this evening, where embattled state representative Michael Ianucci is facing a challenge from political newcomer Kathleen O’Donnell. Ianucci has been hurt by his alleged involvement with a local prostitution ring, but despite that, he’s been widely viewed as a shoo-in for renomination. Polls taken as recently as last Friday indicated that Ianucci had a comfortable 70-30 lead in this contest.

“But as you can see from the first numbers of the evening, with just twenty-two percent of precincts reporting, political newcomer Kathleen O’Donnell is within thirty-five votes of the ten-term incumbent Ianucci. We’ll continue to keep an eye on this race, but for now, we return you to our regularly scheduled programming.”

A buzz circulated throughout the room. Some people were happy about what they had just heard, some were unhappy, but everyone was keenly interested. The mayor found himself surprisingly indifferent: he had grown to like Ianucci personally, was appalled by his lapse in behavior, but realized that regardless of the outcome of this primary, he was going to have to win restoration of Philadelphia’s state funding without Ianucci.

Twenty minutes later the anchorman returned to the two big screens that served as the podium’s bookends.

“It now looks like we may have an upset in the making in Philadelphia’s fifth legislative district. With forty-three percent of the votes counted, challenger Kathleen O’Donnell now has a lead of nearly 1100 votes and a margin of fifty-eight percent to forty-two percent over the incumbent, Michael Ianucci.”

A roar went up in the ballroom – some of it pleasure over this news and some in dismay.

“Joining us now in the studio is Albright College political science professor Martin Jones, a veteran observer of Philadelphia politics.

“Professor Jones, are you surprised by these developments tonight?”

“Absolutely, Ken. It makes sense that Ianucci would be vulnerable to a challenge under these circumstances, but this challenge seemed entirely inconsequential. O’Donnell didn’t campaign and only barely advertised, and she never shared her positions on any issues. Both the Gazette and the Post endorsed her despite this, but the last-minute nature of her campaign made this seem like an insurmountable challenge. No one knows anything about her, she didn’t campaign, and she made no real effort to become known, but apparently, all the voters of Roxborough needed to know was that she’s not Michael Ianucci, and it appears that they cast their ballots accordingly.”

“Thank you, Professor Jones.

“We now have some new numbers: with fifty-six percent of the votes now counted, O’Donnell’s lead has stretched to 1250 votes and her share of the vote has increased from fifty-eight to fifty-nine percent. This appears to be one of the biggest electoral upsets in Philadelphia political history.”

An hour later, ninety-nine percent of the votes had been counted and O’Donnell had defeated Ianucci with fifty-nine percent of the vote. As Mayor Norbert left the hotel for the seven-block walk home, he called the deputy managing director on overnight duty in his office and asked her to arrange a meeting of his senior staff at eight o’clock the following morning to discuss what they should do next to address the city’s impending budget crisis.

(more next Sunday)



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