Politics as unusual


State Sen. Vince Fumo can’t get out of the news the last few weeks, not that he has tried.

In typical critics-be-damned fashion, the senator continues to have a hand in every pot, not only as the reigning powerbroker in Harrisburg, but also as the commander-and-chief of his district.

Recently, it’s what he has done locally that has grabbed the most headlines, like un-sticking negotiations between the Mummers and WPHL-TV and pushing for revitalization of East Passyunk Avenue. And, of course, there’s the issue of the anonymous $11-million donation received by the nonprofit he helped found, Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods.

Last Friday, Fumo, 60, discussed these issues and more with the Review from his basement office on the 1200 block of Tasker Street.

What do you think of the scrutiny you have recently received in the media?

You are never happy with it, but after 25 years in this job you get more accepting of it. If you are going to be successful in politics and you are going to make it your career, if you are going to be effective, you’re always going to offend somebody.

So you’ve got this cadre of enemies out there that every time you trip, they’re there to push you if they can. You just kind of get used to it and you rely on the goodwill you’ve built up over 25 years. Never let some people that don’t like you intimidate you to the point that you don’t do what you are supposed to do, and that is serve people. We’ve got a long record of that, so we’ll take our hits.

But it seems that more people are looking at what you do. I searched philly.com today and a list of stories came up …

That’s probably because we were in there the other day to meet with the [Inquirer‘s] editorial board, which is a normal periodic meeting and [they had] 11 people … We are in the center of so many issues that it was an opportunity for their reporters to ask questions. But I guess I am the dean of the delegation. I’ve been there the longest and I guess I’m effectively the city spokesperson in Harrisburg.

When you and Councilman Frank DiCicco started Citizens Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, what was your vision for that organization?

What we see today. We are not disappointed with what it has accomplished. I remember when we bought our first street sweeper and our first Bobcat, which they still have. We took it up the day that Ed Rendell — when he first got elected mayor, he cleaned up City Hall — we brought our street sweeper up … the Streets Department wanted our equipment, it was so modern.

We’ve kind of come to where we wanted it to be. We’re not as skilled in — what do I want to say? — the redevelopment of shopping centers as we would like to be.

Frank has done a great job with Jefferson Square, which is urban renewal, but trying to revitalize Passyunk Avenue has proved a little bit more daunting, although we’re making progress and we’ve stopped the cancer. We’ve tried to get some people who really understood the [shopping-center] industry … but there just didn’t seem to be a lot of interest, so we have to do it ourselves.

What do you see Passyunk Avenue becoming?

I see Passyunk Avenue becoming a trendy shopping area. I don’t think — and this is where I draw on my Wharton training — I don’t think Passyunk Avenue can compete with Wal-Mart anymore.

When I was a kid, you went to [the avenue] to buy everything. All of those things have been usurped by people like Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club and the malls. What Passyunk Avenue failed to do is develop a strategy for this day and age, which is niche.

If you look at Manayunk — and I think that’s the template — trendy shops, unique shops, with a mix of restaurants. You make it a destination where people want to come to shop.

If you don’t do that and you don’t step in the way Citizens has in buying up properties … it’s like cancer. Not only will Passyunk Avenue deteriorate, then the neighborhoods around it will deteriorate, and the homeowners around it are going to feel a huge negative impact on their real-estate values.

If nothing else, you have to stabilize it. The problem is as Citizens went in and started stabilizing it, the prices went up. They weren’t able to do it secretly enough to get good site control.

On one hand, it is good real-estate values have stabilized; on the other hand, as I talk to developers, they keep talking about this critical mass. It’s not quite at a critical mass. It is going to take a little bit longer than we had hoped, but at least it is stabilized. Had we not done that, you would’ve seen that area gradually plummet.

In five years, what will it look like?

I think in five years you’re going to see a mini-Manayunk. It’s never going to be that size because of the geography, the parking and the relationship to the river — we don’t want it to be. We don’t want the nightclubs. We just want some restaurants and good retail.

Some neighbors there don’t like what Manayunk has become.

It’s a delicate balance. You don’t want it blighted, but you don’t want bars on every corner with tons of kids coming out. The councilman just did a [zoning] overlay that would prevent after-hours clubs. The mayor vetoed it because it was [DiCicco’s] bill and then [Council] overrode the veto 14 to zip.

How close are you to the day-to-day operations of Citizens Alliance and who they are giving money to?

Not that close. If I were that close to any of the endeavors that I’m involved in, I wouldn’t be able to get as much done as I do. I believe in the management theory that you find really good people and you give them responsibility and you empower them and they do their job.

Are there mistakes? Yes. I encourage mistakes. I’m not begging for them, but my view is that if you don’t make a mistake, then you are not doing anything. Fortunately, the mistakes that they’ve made have not been monumental.

Any mistakes in particular?

There are a couple.

Anything specific?

There is, but we are handling it. [Laughs.] It was dumb is what it was.

The fountain at 11th and Passyunk?

[Fumo declined to comment on the record.]

Did you know the $11 million would be donated to Citizens Alliance? Had you negotiated it or pursued it?

I knew of it and that’s all we are going to say about it. I just left the Inquirer editorial board yesterday where we gave them that answer seven times. I finally said [to spokesperson Gary Tuma], "Gary, put it in a letter and fax it to them 20 times."

I would not ask Citizens Alliance to reveal the name of their contributors simply because I back them.

Every year about this time, we get tons of fruit baskets. I don’t eat fruit. So when they get delivered to my house, I send them next door to the nuns, and when they are here, I tell [staffers] to take it home. So what we’ve asked people to do every year is please send a contribution to the Caring Foundation so they can provide healthcare for kids.

Now, that is another thing I back that doesn’t raise $11 million … I back a lot of outfits. Simply because I tell people to contribute, all of a sudden they are suspect. That’s just not fair.

Citizens Alliance and you are connected a little bit closer than just any other charity.

We are, there’s no question. It got started to fill the gap left by city services … it was started for that reason because we understood the problem. It has grown now into a substantial corporation.

Councilman DiCicco said he distanced himself from the organization because of criticism he received.

He walked away. He said this is nonsense, we’re taking too much crap for this.

You don’t mind that criticism?

I was never in the role that he was in. He was elected an officer [of Citizens Alliance].

At the end of the day, you put it on a scale and you say, did the good outweigh the bad? Did I take some hits? Yeah, but the good overwhelmingly outweighs the bad.

[You] can talk to people all over the place who are grateful that it existed. I don’t know how many kids are in Christopher Columbus Charter School — and it’s a damn good charter school. I’ve talked to [Paul] Vallas about it.

And there are other charter schools started by political figures. Ours are running great.

I go there once in a while and parents are driving me nuts to start a high school. It’s not something we really want to do.

Why not?

High school is so much more complicated and more expensive. You’ve got different specialties. At that point, you have to have some sports program of some kind. It just gets expensive as you go up the ladder.

What I’ve told them to do, and what I think they are going to do, is they are out looking for really good counselors. There are a lot of high schools out there that are available to them, so you want somebody who can match them up. I think you do almost as good a service when you do that for them.

Citizens Alliance spokesperson Ken Snyder talked about expanding the organization’s involvement in charters.

They are growing. Christopher Columbus is the main school that we’ve backed. There are at least three that we’ve helped. Independence Charter [105 S. Seventh St.] is one of them …

People from Pennsport or Bella Vista or Queen Village — I forget — wanted to start a charter school down there. I think it is important because I want those middle-class yuppies — for lack of a better term — who now have kids to stay in the city. Although with Vallas, a lot of that pressure has been taken off. I think he’s done a good job, but we want them to have an alternative.

Annunciation BVM School is in financial trouble and the rumor is you and Citizens Alliance are interested in buying the building.

We are not going to talk about potential acquisitions. We started this by buying St. Paul’s, and there was a lot of controversy about that, especially in the beginning when we knew it was going to close anyway. So we backed off and walked away and postponed everything.

Eventually it closed and we came in and opened up [Columbus Charter] there. I think most of the same kids are there now.

I am so proud of the charter school because if you look at it, it’s not a bunch of white Italian kids. It is a very diverse school … it really is a great cross-section of South Philadelphia.

Did you want Citizens to step up and get the Mummers Parade on TV?

I said it was not a bad idea. I was consulted … we could never afford to do that every year … I think next year they’ve got a deal. So it was a one-time thing.

You say Citizens Alliance fills the gaps the city can’t get to. It’s interesting someone so entrenched in the political system is at the same time saying the system doesn’t work.

The system doesn’t work to the degree that people want it to work. Since Ronald Reagan promised everybody a free lunch, everybody is still looking for that.

Could you have more street sweepers and more of this and more of that? Sure, and your taxes would double. For some people, it would be an enormous hit … For the average person it would be a big hit but they could sustain it.

But they don’t want that. They want the free lunch. So you have to be creative and find ways to try and do that.

[State Rep.] Dwight Evans was talking about doing the same thing. He has a big CDC up where he is, but nobody asked him who contributed to his, and I’m not going to.

What about your bill at La Veranda? [Fumo reportedly paid for 2,317 meals at the restaurant — racking up a bill of $72,525 over two years — using an unchecked account available to politicians, but funded with taxpayer money.] How do you justify that expense?

Look, there’s no question it is a lot of money … I wish Mayor Street was spending that kind of money schmoozing legislators and senators.

I wish that when I get a call from a legislator who’s in town with guests from central Pennsylvania, that I could call [Street’s secretary for external affairs] George Burrell, for example, and say, "Hey, George, take the senator out and his guests and build up some goodwill." But I don’t have anybody to do that. So I wind up doing it.

People who know me well know that I don’t enjoy doing that. I’d rather go home. I’m not the social butterfly in that regard. So it’s work.

It does seem like a lot of money, but at the same time we [have] a list of the amount of money that we brought back … [Tuma says it’s about $5.8 billion in state funds] … that’s my initiatives. Just stuff that we did.

You know getting a guy in Johnstown to vote for something from Philadelphia is not easy …

Thank God I have a superbox. They are in my superbox going to football games. You know, who calls for tickets to this and to that. It’s like I am a social director here.

We keep them happy and know when it could be a tough vote for them, they’ll stand up. It’s the way you do business. I wish someone else would do it.

Specifically the mayor and his administration?

Yeah, Ed Rendell used to do this all the time. Eddie was at every football game. He’d have everybody in the world there. I think when John [Street] goes, it’s a pretty quiet event. It’s just not his style. He likes doing it less than I like doing it.

Next week, look for part two of the Review‘s interview with state Sen. Vince Fumo, focusing on his relationship with Mayor Street and union leader John Dougherty, evaluating Gov. Rendell’s performance and talking about his own political future.