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Murphy hasn't made many friends at state Capitol

Sunday, September 07, 2003

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau Chief

HARRISBURG -- For a guy who's been in politics most of his life, Mayor Tom Murphy has shown an uncanny knack for doing impolitic things.

So now, with Murphy pleading with state lawmakers to throw a lifeline to the financially ailing city, the question arises:

Are his prickly personality and the animosity created in his years as legislator in Harrisburg and his near-decade as mayor enough to keep the Legislature from bailing him out this fall?

 
 
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The answer probably won't be known until November, the earliest anyone expects the city's financial aid legislation to come up for a vote, but so far the outcome seems unclear.

"Murph does have a bad relationship with the Legislature. Everybody knows that he does," said former Allegheny County Commissioner Mike Dawida, who shared a house with Murphy and four other state House members in the 1980s and early '90s.

"But does that doom [the Pittsburgh aid bill]? I don't think it does," Dawida said. "Tom has undoubtedly made mistakes with the General Assembly, yet I think [legislators] will listen to the authentic need of the city. But I don't think they're convinced of that need yet."

State Rep. Michael Diven, D-Brookline, said he admired Murphy's performance as mayor, but added, "To put it as nicely as possible, personality-wise, he's tough to get along with. He doesn't want to compromise. ...

"I think if he'd had a brother who knocked the crap out of him once in a while, like I did, it might have helped him in the long run," Diven said of Murphy, an only child.

Murphy's most public fight with the Legislature occurred in November 1998 over what came to be known as the "stealth bill."

Just after the Legislature recessed without voting on a measure that would have allowed the state to borrow money for projects that included two stadiums for Pittsburgh, the mayor held a news conference and announced that members had approved another bill with a provision stuck within it that allowed then-Gov. Tom Ridge to provide the stadium funds.

Murphy said he was certain that legislators must support the stadiums because they would never vote for a bill that they hadn't read. Legislators took offense at the crack.

"It was caustic and condescending and unfortunate," said House Democratic leader H. William DeWeese, D-Waynesburg.

'Shooting from the hip'

A group of lawmakers, including Rep. Jeff Habay, a conservative Republican from Shaler, then held a news conference near the Point State Park fountain, just across the river from where the stadiums were to go, to denounce Murphy and public funding for stadiums.

"I was upset then," Habay said last week, "but we've worked things out. We need to not let that affect the future."

Ridge ultimately vetoed the "stealth bill." Murphy was so disappointed over the defeat that he even took it out on a friend, then Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell. "I feel very double-crossed by the mayor of Philadelphia," he said.

Other Murphy battles over the years that remain sore spots include:

A 1992 Democratic showdown for House speaker, in which Murphy backed Rep. Bob O'Donnell, of Philadelphia, rather than DeWeese.

"I was a Western Pennsylvania boy who came to Pittsburgh six times a month, and O'Donnell was a Philly boy who didn't come to Pittsburgh six times a [two-year legislative] session," said DeWeese, who trounced O'Donnell 75-30 to win the job.

"That was the [lowest point] of my relationship with Tom, but we've patched up our difficulty," DeWeese said. "To his credit, after I won the election for speaker, he went to the microphone and said, 'Let's make this election unanimous.' He also shook my hand, which O'Donnell wouldn't do."

A Duquesne Club fund-raising event for John Perzel, a Philadelphia Republican, which Murphy attended, angering many House Democrats. They said Perzel had used his political cash to solidify his power base by electing Republicans to the House, which has been in GOP control since 1994.

Attempts by Murphy or his aides to find candidates to oppose state Rep. Don Walko, D-North Side, with whom he's clashed over a variety of issues. Walko topped the enemies list in 1997, when he criticized "Plan A," the effort to increase the state sales tax by half a percentage point in 10 counties around Pittsburgh to generate money for new stadiums.

"I know some of his lieutenants tried to find people to run against me," Walko said. "But whenever Murphy bad-rapped me, my popularity would soar. People would say, 'Way to go, Don.' Some people assume I'm a big enemy of Tom's, but I'm not. I'm a co-sponsor of the [pending Pittsburgh] aid legislation. I care about the city, and the city is more than Tom Murphy."

Calling former city Councilman Jim Ferlo, who joined the state Senate in January, a "scorpion." Despite Ferlo's thick skin from years in politics and his history of battling with Murphy, that comment in the Post-Gazette hurt.

"That was Tom shooting from the hip," Walko said.

Intentionally approving, in December, a 2003 city budget that both he and City Council knew had a $60 million hole, and then turning to Harrisburg for help. Some lawmakers felt Murphy was merely dumping his problems on them when he should have been cutting his spending to balance the budget.

Murphy contends the city's tax structure is grossly "outdated" and he needs new taxes to reflect a 21st-century city with 335,000 people, not the city of the 1950s with 650,000 people.

Murphy also has had spats recently with two other Democratic senators from the Pittsburgh area, Sean Logan, of Monroeville, and Jack Wagner, of Beechview.

Murphy angered Logan in June by coming to Harrisburg to meet with legislators on a day when the Senate wasn't in session. As a result, Logan missed the meeting.

"I told him we wouldn't be in session that day," Logan said. "I thought it was a slap in the face." Logan, the former mayor of Monroeville, thinks Murphy is too fixated on taxing suburbanites who work in the city while ignoring revenue-raising options such as a city garbage collection fee.

Wagner may be a lost cause. He and Murphy have been far apart since the May 1993 Democratic mayoral primary, when Murphy defeated Wagner, who was then a city councilman. Wagner has expressed some of the sharpest opposition to the Pittsburgh rescue bill, saying Murphy hasn't tried hard enough to reduce expenses.

Relations with Wagner weren't improved two weeks ago when Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, Murphy's closest ally in the Legislature, was introducing Rep. Jennifer Mann, D-Allentown, to Pittsburgh politicians in her race for state auditor general, a post Wagner may seek.

Even if Frankel was acting on his own, he's still Murphy's point man on the Pittsburgh aid bill and it will be difficult for Frankel to ask Wagner for his vote after supporting Wagner's competitor for the state post.

Not a 'complete loner'

Murphy, who is proud of his political independence, insists that claims of bad relations with other politicians are a vastly overblown urban myth and won't damage his efforts to gain support for the Pittsburgh aid legislation.

In the 2001 re-election race against then-Councilman Bob O'Connor, "I'll bet 85 percent of the legislators in Allegheny County stood up and supported me," Murphy said in a recent interview. "Forty-five legislators came into Pittsburgh that day and stood there to support me.

"Is there a give-and-take that goes on with the Legislature? There sure is, particularly when I'm asking them to make decisions that they perceive as difficult."

He points to numerous meetings he's held with legislators this year, both at their home offices and in Harrisburg, seeking their support for a bill that would authorize city officials to raise the annual occupation tax to $52 from the current $10. That's paid by everyone who works in the city and would fall heavily on suburbanites.

Murphy also wants to impose a 0.45 percent tax on the payrolls of for-profit companies. The bill also would create a seven-member state oversight board that would have to certify that Pittsburgh had done budget cutting, including a merger of the firefighters and medics.

Murphy and his spokesman, Craig Kwiecinski, contend these meetings have smoothed over any past difficulties he's had with legislators.

Murphy said that, contrary to his critics' reports, he's been flexible on solutions to the city's budget problems. He noted that he dropped his original plans to impose a 10 percent tax on alcoholic drinks at Pittsburgh taverns and his plan to eliminate loopholes in the business privilege tax when opponents mounted fierce opposition.

"We adjusted, you know. Our package today looks different from what it did when we started this thing" in January, he said.

Murphy says he didn't burn all his bridges in Harrisburg. He said he still got together socially with some of his colleagues from those days. "I developed enduring friendships, lifelong friendships in the Legislature, so it's not like I'm a complete loner," he said.

Murphy is almost certainly the least popular of recent Pittsburgh mayors. Sophie Masloff and Richard S. Caliguiri were well liked in Harrisburg, Dawida said, but he noted they still failed to get an increase in the city' $10-a-year occupation tax. In the mid-80s, at Caliguiri's urging, Dawida sponsored a bill to raise it to $40, which failed.

Pete Flaherty, mayor from 1970 until early 1977, probably comes closest to Murphy in unpopularity, Dawida said, but that was because he was a political outsider who called himself "Nobody's Boy" and defeated the Democratic organization's candidate to become mayor in 1970.

The all-powerful David L. Lawrence, mayor in the 1950s before he became governor, can't really be compared to Murphy, Dawida said, because Lawrence had the old Democratic machine behind him, with thousands of city and county patronage jobs to give away and the loyalty of hundreds of ward politicians. With all that power and patronage, Lawrence didn't have to worry about what people thought of him.

Dawida and DeWeese do not think Murphy's sometime arrogance and caustic tongue would automatically doom the city tax authorization bill this fall.

In rounding up enough votes, "has he been effective?" Dawida asked. "Obviously not, but there's still a chance."

What Murphy is asking suburban legislators to do, Dawida said, "is to raise taxes on their own constituents, and that's a hard vote for them. It's not just a question of 'Do they like Murphy.' They liked Dick Caliguiri, they liked Sophie [Masloff], but they wouldn't raise the occupation tax for them. Even if the Legislature loved Murphy, it would still be a hard vote; and so far, suburban legislators aren't ready to make this vote."


Post-Gazette politics editor James O'Toole contributed to this story. Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.

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