Vince Fumo: his color and charm and corruption charges leave

Vince Fumo is the funniest indicted state senator in the history of the Pennsylvania General Assembly.

To Philadelphians Fumo is tinged with corruption, his name only said amid seething recounts of his 139-count indictment looming in the fall. But in Harrisburg, his professional home since 1978, Fumo is still a force.

After a second heart attack in March and this round of indictments that came last year, Fumo announced he would not seek reelection in November and vacated his post as chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee, a powerful seat he held since 1984. Still, after each negotiating session of state leaders this budget season, it was Fumo who came out, sleeves rolled up, ready to speak to the press.

In what may be the final week of his legislative career, Fumo was loose and downright uppity.

At a recent press conference on electric deregulation, flanked by a host of Senate Democrats from across the state, it came as no surprise that Fumo took the show, as he has before.

He leaned against a podium with a list of the salaries paid to the CEOs of electric utility companies.

“Let’s see, $13 million, must have been a bad year,” Fumo deadpans, turning to a staff member, “Who is this guy? I don’t know him, any of them, they aren’t hanging out with me at 15th and Tasker.”

At the conference he said the impending loss of electricity rate caps was the real energy crisis in Pennsylvania, and green issues were just taking the focus away from profits made by utility companies.

“This is the issue. Not oil, ethanol. I don’t care about off-shore drilling,” Fumo says, arms waving, “I don’t care about the caribou in Alaska.”

A gaggle of reporters giggle and a group of lobbyists growl.

But on July 4, in an empty state Capitol awaiting the budget agreement that would come that night at 6 P.M., he said goodbye to the Senate floor that he made his pulpit for decades. The indicted legislator leaving under a cloud of corruption allegations received a standing ovation, a resolution commending his service, and hugs from fellow Senators and staffers.

“How does one talk about 30 years of phenomenal life experience?” Fumo says, “I will miss all of this terribly. I’ve loved it and I’ve hated it and I will miss it.”

He isn’t retiring. That much he has already said. He will finish his term out, which expires at the end of the year, but he won’t return to Harrisburg for the fall session, which is scheduled to begin a week after he is to be in court on federal corruption charges. His trial is set to begin Sept. 8.

“I will be devoting my efforts to my trial then,” Fumo said. “This is probably my last speech on the Senate floor.”

Fumo is accused of using taxpayer dollars – including state employees – to live a lifestyle of excess and then fighting an FBI investigation into his conduct. But, he has remained a force other politicians – among those fastest to abandon a sinking ship – have stood behind.

At the electric deregulation press conference he was flanked by a host of Senate Democrats from across the state. On July 3, Fumo stood with powerful House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dwight Evans, also from Philadelphia, and threatened to throw “atom bombs” at the city’s two proposed casinos if they didn’t agree to move their locations. A collection of the Philadelphia delegation asked for the two to help relocate the casino proposals.

“Things get done when they come together,” says state Sen. Hardy Williams, D-Philadelphia.

But Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Gib Armstrong, R-Lancaster, says “there are two Vinces.”

“There’s the profane, the boisterous, the gregarious, the larger-than-life Vince Fumo,” Armstrong says, “And there’s the Vince that is sensitive and reflective and caring.”

Reporters love the boisterous Fumo, who emerged from late-night budget negotiations on June 29. He was asked about the role fellow Philadelphia Democrat Gov. Rendell had in late night negotiations.

“What we all know is that he isn’t the easiest guy to get along with this late,” Fumo said. “Or when he’s tired.”

“Vince Fumo can be a very difficult and aggravating person,” Gov. Ed Rendell says, “But that is because he is protecting those most vulnerable citizens.”

“This is not the way he would have wanted to go,” Rendell says, “Or the way people who admired him wanted him to go.”

For his part, Fumo has called his lawyers “optimistic” and the charges against him “half-truths, lies and misrepresentations.”

“If I had taken a bribe or sold my office, I would have quit my office in shame,” Fumo says, “But that didn’t happen.”

Read an insightful Philadelphia magazine article on his broken relationship with powerful attorney Dick Sprague. See a complete review of Fumo’s public life by the Inquirer. Read a great review of the state budget process by WHYY that explains why Fumo – and Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philly – are so influential.