When the feds nailed Vince Fumo in a massive corruption case, they asked the judge to give him 15 years. The former state senator reports to a halfway house in Philadelphia Tuesday, less than four years after going into the joint. The interesting question is, what now?
I don’t mean whether Vince likes the food or gets along with his roommates on Erie Avenue. Or when he’s sent to some very comfortable home confinement to finish his prison term that ends in February (Groundhog Day, actually). Or even whether prosecutors succeed in making him pay another $800,000 restitution in addition to the $3.5 million he’s already forked over. (Court hearings are coming on that.)
To me, the interesting question is what Vince, who spent decades giving orders, cutting deals, negotiating multibillion-dollar budgets, making and breaking careers and generally being a titan in state and city politics, does now.
Others have trodden here
You don’t have to look far to find other Philadelphia politicians who went to prison on corruption charges and came back for a second act.
In fact, there’s a whole vocabulary about it among city pols. They’ll say somebody “had a problem” and went away. Many of the city’s 69 Democratic ward leaders used to call the federal pen at Allenwood “the 70th Ward” —kind of the way celebrities talk about rehab. It could happen to anybody.
The late state Sen. Henry “Buddy” Cianfrani came back after his prison term and worked as a political consultant and powerbroker for many years. Former City Councilman Jimmy Tayoun, always the entrepreneur, started a political newspaper, the Philadelphia Public Record, which is still going and is read by city and state pols everywhere.
Former U.S. Rep. Michael “Ozzie” Myers, who went down in the Abscam scandal, is still influential in South Philly, where his brother Matthew is a ward leader.
I dropped by Tayoun’s office yesterday, and he reminisced about getting out, putting up with his halfway house and what Fumo can expect. (“If his parole officer is a nasty little creature, it’s going to be hell for him.”)
Tayoun said Fumo is “a politician down to his toes,” and that it will be hard for him not to get involved. In fact, Tayoun said, he should for his own good.
I’m not so sure.
A new line, maybe?
The difference between Vince and those Philly pols who returned from prison and got back into the game is that they got into politics at least in part because they like people and built relationships.
They knew how to ask for something and be gracious about it, even if there was an implied transaction in the ask.
Fumo is a classic insider who was never comfortable in crowds of strangers, and he was often effective because he had leverage over people.
It wasn’t just that, of course. He was scary smart, understood both politics and policy, and knew the value of getting and keeping talented staff.
But look at the number of his close relationships, both political and personal, that have detonated over the years, leaving a wake of hard feelings and often litigation.
Some former politicians become lobbyists. I think of Joe Loeper, the former Chester County state senator who spent six months in jail after pleading guilty to one count in a complicated federal case that involved consultant payments.
Today Loeper’s a successful lobbyist in Harrisburg, representing, among others, the city of Philadelphia, because he’s smart, credible and good at dealing with people.
It’s hard to imagine Vince returning to Harrisburg as a supplicant.
Fumo has enough connections and resources—both personal wealth and a political committee with a quarter million bucks in it—to make waves again.
But he shouldn’t.
The real business is in the heart
I’ve written a lot about Fumo over the years—about his enormous gifts that were undone by his equally enormous flaws. Here’s a blog post from a couple of years ago if you’re interested in that perspective.
My hope for Vince now is that he can get whatever therapy and life changes he needs to rebuild some of the fractured relationships in his life—most importantly within his family—and learn to take some joy in simpler things.
I’m no psychologist, but all you have to do is read a sampling of the frenzied emails that have gotten him into trouble to know that, well, he has issues.
Vince Fumo, now 70, is not going to be a political giant again. The sooner he gets that and focuses on other goals, the better off we’ll all be.