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Ninth Inning

November in Harrisburg: Chaos and confusion

Mayor Murphy once described the pursuit of Plan B in Sisyphean terms: "It’s like rolling 20 rocks up a hill. You can’t roll each one at the same pace, but they have to get there at the same time."

The final rock — state funding — almost crushed him.

Tom Ridge won re-election for a second term as Pennsylvania’s governor with 56 percent of the vote in a three-way race last fall. Ridge had promised he would secure the state’s share of the plan, and stadiums were his top priority during the lame duck session of the state Legislature.9thRidge300x234.jpg (11977 bytes)

The idea was to fund four stadiums for football and baseball in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia by raising the state’s debt ceiling and purchasing bonds. That required legislative approval.

The Plan B contingent — Murphy, Kevin McClatchy, Art Rooney II, et al — ventured east to lobby for their cause two days after the November election. To their chagrin, they found no support.

"I was assuming a high level of good will. But we all left there saying ‘We’re in trouble.’ I was in an absolute panic. Nobody was engaged. It was on nobody’s radar. Nobody had any sense of urgency," Murphy said. "It was a sobering day. We believed we had it set up to hit it out of the ballpark, but nobody was stepping up to take the swing."

The group met with Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell and House Minority Leader William DeWeese, D-Waynesburg, then had lunch with House Majority Leader John Perzell.

Perzell, a Philadelphia Republican, voiced no interest in stadiums at all. He spent lunch grumbling that Ridge had not given him enought credit for getting the governor’s legislative programs passed.

Rendell had pledged to line up votes but he figured the Pittsburgh contingent was so far ahead of his city – Philadelphia had no local funding in place, no stadium sites picked for the Eagles and Phillies — that they would carry the day. In essence, he sat this one out. "I miscalculated," he confessed later.

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The governor’s office hadn’t done its groundwork either. "We were involved as an office, but we didn’t design the strategy of our involvement. We were just part of an overall effort," Ridge said later.

Not even the word that Connecticut had put together a $375 million package to lure the New England Patriots out of Massachusetts had much of an impact.

If Plan B wasn’t dead, it was on life support. Joined by Mike Dawida, Bob Cranmer and a stable of lobbyists, the Plan B team tried to revive it. They knocked on doors, buttonholed legislators in the marble-lined hallways, spoke at caucus meetings, schmoozed in the cafeteria, dialed endless numbers on their cell phones.

"It’s like herding cats,’’ said Murphy, who brought his daughter, Shannon, along to help.

The Capitol is a different playing field, a shadow world of old grudges and long memories, where lawmakers figure that if someone is asking them for a vote, they ought to get something in return, like a road project, a bridge or mall development. Add to that attitude the fact that calls from constiuents were running 100 to 1 against stadium financing.

"Lawmakers wanted to exert leverage for their pet projects. This town is often not about the merits of an issue, it’s about leverage," Ridge said.

Ridge’s credibility was not the only thing on the line. He had been mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate, and he left the Capitol for New Orleans to attend the Republican Governor’s Association meeting.

Murphy had his own baggage to deal with. He had made enemies in Harrisburg during his 15 years as a state legislator representing the North Side, and they were waiting to pounce.

Some had fresh grievances. State Rep. Ivan Itkin, D-Point Breeze, was miffed at Murphy because the mayor had supported the Republican Ridge instead of Itkin’s Democratic gubernatorial bid in the 1998 election.

"Sending Murphy up here to get votes would be like sending Hitler to Israel to negotiate a peace treaty," said former state Rep. John Olasz, D-West Mifflin.

And even those who favored the plan did so with mixed feelings.

"I know how imperfect it is. I am paying a ransom, but I think these projects are a tool to firm up the inner city. We’re living in a world of tradeoffs," said state Rep. Don Walko, D-North Side. "It’s insane that an industry that generates so much money for obscene salaries has to go to the public trough where resources are scarce."

On Nov. 22, the state Senate approved raising the state’s debt ceiling, 29-19. The proposal went to the House.

The Democrats had reorganized their caucus that day, with H. William DeWeese of Greene County winning re-election as House Minority Leader. But it diverted precious time away from Plan B.

McClatchy called from Pittsburgh to tell the mayor: "Get it done. I’m running out of Maalox."

Murphy brokered a meeting with DeWeese and Ridge, who had not worked together before. Ridge wanted the Democrats to put up most of the votes because the stadiums would be built in Democratic districts.

When DeWeese relayed that message to his members, they rebelled. "Why should we carry the governor’s water? It’s his issue," several lawmakers shouted.

Suburban Philadelphia lawmakers also were jittery. They worried that a commuter tax would be increased to pay the local share for the Phillies and Eagles stadiums.

But the final hurdle, the one that could not be overcome, came when the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus withheld their 15 House votes. They wanted guarantees that minorities would share in construction contracts.

"They need us. They know where to find us," said state Rep. Bill Robinson, D-Schenley Heights, who said no one had contacted him personally on the stadium issue.

Closed-door meetings were held in the governor’s office. A suggestion was made to run the vote without the black lawmakers, but DeWeese refused to go around them.

Well past midnight, the House adjourned without voting. One slim hope remained — that the House would come back on the Monday after Thanksgiving, the opening day of deer season.

"That idea is as dead as my Thanksgiving supper," Robinson said. "This turkey is cooked."

Ridge had failed to deliver. And it looked like the Pirates had been stranded. The dagger to the heart cut like Francisco Cabrerra’s pinch-hit that denied them a World Series berth in 1992.

"It was all poised to go. We could see it. We could taste it," Murphy said.

Then something came straight out of left field — a serendipitous hidden ball trick, a.k.a. the Immaculate Deception.

Charles J. Kolling Jr., a lobbyist for the city and county, noticed that the Legislature, in housekeeping votes, had passed House Bill 907. It repealed some language in the defeated Regional Renaissance Initiative. That repeal could have had the unintended effect of allowing the state to borrow money for the Pittsburgh stadiums without a vote on the debt ceiling.

Murphy and the governor’s staff stayed up all night checking the language and agreed it might be possible for Ridge to authorize borrowing for the stadiums without legislative approval.

After driving back to Pittsburgh, Murphy took the possibility and converted it into a victory dance. He crowed at a Nov. 23 news conference that Pittsburgh had its money and he insulted lawmakers about their work habits.

But he was off base. It was as if Murphy had tried to steal home from second base, but he missed third, passed a baserunner and ran out of the baseline — all while the inning was over anyway. His antics got him tossed out of the game.

The news conference was "the worst decision we ever made," a chastened Murphy said later. "It all bubbled out. It just sort of happened. You don’t gloat. You don’t rub people’s noses in it. You don’t thump your chest."

Ridge had no choice but to veto H.B. 907, and the Pirates and Steelers urged him to do so because they agreed the money should be obtained "straight up, fair and square." Besides, the Legislative Reference Bureau — the umpires on lawmaking — said H.B. 907 wouldn’t have done what Murphy thought it would.

Stadium funding would have to go to extra innings, and it lost support because of Murphy’s behavior.

"It made a hard job harder," said gubernatorial spokesman Tim Reeves.

The mayor sent out letters of apology, proclaimed that he was out of the process, that the Pirates and Steelers were in "grave jeopardy" of leaving and said he felt "double crossed" by Rendell.

Murphy was damaged goods in Harrisburg, anyway. Greelee and Associates, a top lobbying firm hired to push the stadium package, placed a Christmas wish list in its office window that said: "For Little Tommy Murphy, a muzzle."

"Plan B is dead," Cranmer said.

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