Counter-clockwise from right: the late Gov Shapp, his chief of staff Dick Doran (RIP), a local judge, State Senator Vince Fumo, Buddy's protege and successor, now in prison. I almost went to jail too.
This year's election is being framed by Republican candidates, lead by the Romney camp as a "change from old style politics." Hooey! After four years in the White House, President Obama has learned the bitter truth about old style politics. Nothing gets done without it.
Politics is still old fashioned horse trading. Power trumps idealism and good intentions. Money buys votes, voters, elections and laws. It's been going on since the Republic began.
We know that all too well in Pennsylvania, a pivotal state in every national election. Philadelphia, like other major cities, has a longstanding rep for its unapologetically crooked politics, politicians and especially election day hanky-panky. (The dead voted in every election, we used to say). The old ways were often messy and downright offensive, but they got the job done.
If we're going to embrace real change and jettison those "back room old style politics," we have to understand what we're leaving behind. Not theoretically. Realistically. In. The. Room.
Here's a story from another time and another election. I was there. In the room. Young, enthusiastic, idealistic. And eventually bushwhacked. One of Philly's most powerful political "bosses" came to my aid. I had no choice. And I'm damn glad he was on my side.
Buddy Cianfrani, The Senator, Boss of old style political Bosses, shortly before his death.
This connects to my Walter Cronkite story from the 1976 presidential primary. It happened during the general election that year. And it involves the political stylings of one of the most colorful local politicians in the country -- the late PA State Senator Buddy Cianfrani, Philly's premier political boss for over 30 years.
Buddy Cianfrani was the essence of an old time backroom pol. Big, bald, ham-fisted, cigar-chomping, gravel-voiced, steely-eyed. A true kingpin ... and king maker. A Paisan from da neighborhood. Sout Philly. Since I worked for PA's governor, I knew The Senator. Nobody called him Buddy, at least not to his face.
The Senator was a pretty scary guy. You didn't want to get on his bad side. Ever.
No matter his tough guy rep, to da goils, Buddy Cianfrani was a gentleman. Courtly. Charming even. An old-fashioned Democratic machine politician, he called me and every other female 'Doll'. Not quite the caché of being "That gal in PA" to Walter Cronkite.
But. I became, very briefly, Buddy's 'Doll'. Based on nothing more than political expediency and Doing the Right Thing. I worked for a Democratic Governor. I was in trouble. So of course, The Senator came to my rescue.
Presidential Election Day, 1976, My Arrest
As PA's Commissioner of Elections --yes, really, it's in the Cronkite story-- I was sworn in as a Judge of Elections, tasked with reviewing claims of improprieties at city polling places. In Philly, that's a full time job. And not the best venue for someone so young and green.
I had a cadre of lawyers to advise me, but still, I was positioned as The Boss. Needless to say, I made a few enemies. More even than I imagined. Mid afternoon I stopped home to take a short break. A friend and I were drinking coffee when a knock came at the door. A policeman and a Traffic Court officer. WTF?
They informed me I was under arrest as a "scofflaw." Claimed I had amassed over $500 in unpaid parking tickets. They had a bench warrant to bring me in. Now I was really in WTF-land. I lived primarily in Harrisburg. And garaged my car when in Philly. So their claim was clearly bogus.
It was a set up. A ploy to keep me and my team away from the polls. And I was scared to death.
Using Old Style Politics
I showed them my Judge of Elections badge and asked to make a phone call. They grudgingly agreed. Frantically I dialed the emergency number of Philly's Deputy Mayor. "Sit tight," he told me, "We'll get right back to you."
I waited. The officers waited. Impatiently. I was sweating bullets. Feeling way out of my league.
I jumped when the phone rang. A familiar gruff voice said, "Hey, Doll, you okay?" The Senator. I said I was fine, just worried. "Lemme talk to da cop. And don't say nuttin."
Wordlessly I proffered the phone to the patrolman. "I don't want to talk to nobody," he said.
"This isn't nobody," I whispered. "Please, just take the phone."
He rolled his eyes at the Traffic Court officer and grabbed the receiver. "Yeah?" he barked.
There are the moments you dream about. Delivering the perfect exit line. Making your boss laugh. Getting back at an old boyfriend. This was way better.
"Senator!" the cop gulped, suddenly standing at attention. We couldn't hear Buddy's words, but the tone came through loud and clear. "Yessir, Senator! I'm sorry, Senator! A mistake. Yes, Senator. Whatever you say, sir!"
My friend smiled at me. "Buddy?" he mouthed. I nodded. Watching us, the Traffic Court officer snapped to attention too. Looked at me with incredulity. Respect. And --I'm not so crazy about this part-- a little fear. But when your adrenaline is pumping from your own fear, you let that slide.
The officer handed me the phone as if it were a live bomb. I grabbed it like the lifeline it was.
"It's all taken care of, Doll," Buddy said. "Doze guys won't bodder you no more."
"Thank you, Senator." I squeaked. "I'm sorry to bother you."
"S'okay, Doll. Dat's what I'm here for. Just keep doin yer job."
Buddy Cianfrani did his job for a lot of people. Not always on the side of the angels, but fiercely loyal to his constituents. I learned a lot from him and his ilk. Play fair when you can. Take care of your own. And do what's needed to get the job done.
I also learned the penalty for seriously illegal wheeling and dealing. Buddy ultimately went to jail, but not from this incident. For racketeering, what else. And shortly after he got out, again became as strong a force as ever.
The most important lesson I learned was about power. It's incredibly seductive. Especially when it's on your side. It seduced George W. Bush and his dastardly cronies. It's clearly seduced Mitt Romney and his big business power brokers.
I want to believe Barack Obama will manage to stay immune from its siren song. Create a new brand of politics. Cooperation. Bipartisanship. Congressional support. Staying focused on the critical issues to enact sensible laws and programs that preserve all our freedoms and make sense for our country's future.
Here's my dirty little secret though ... I wish The Senator and friends were still here to help.