Fumo's departure throws state Senate race into flux

Posted: March 13, 2008

State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo's decision not to seek reelection after 30 years in office blows wide open the Democratic primary race for his seat.

On the surface, it would appear the main beneficiary in what is now a three-way contest would be electricians union leader John J. Dougherty, a former Fumo protege, now a foe.

Dougherty has considerable labor support - the Transport Workers Union became the latest to endorse him yesterday - and a bulging war chest that grew by $250,000 alone one day last week.

In other words, he has a machine behind him and instead of battling mano a mano with Fumo until the April 22 primary, as had been expected, he can press his message of being an agent of change with a record of getting things done.

But Fumo's departure has created another set of variables that could benefit either of the other two candidates in the race, Center City lawyer Larry Farnese and progressive activist Anne Dicker.

Neil Oxman, a political consultant working with independent candidate Joseph Vignola, said the three remaining Democrats all had strengths: Dicker could draw support from reformers, Dougherty from labor households, Farnese from Center City voters.

"I think the race is very fluid," Oxman said. "Before everything was about Vince; he was everybody's foil. Now, I think this thing is completely open."

Among the new variables are potential endorsements.

Fumo's decision means Democratic ward leaders, who had backed the senator in the primary race and are crucial in get-out-the-vote efforts, will have to meet again to select another candidate.

Gov. Rendell, who also was in Fumo's corner, is now free to back someone else, and Mayor Nutter no longer runs the risk of offending the city's most powerful champion in the state Senate by endorsing an opponent.

And there is Fumo himself.

Mitchell Rubin, a Fumo ally and chairman of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, said it would surprise him if Fumo did not take an interest in the race.

"I don't think it's possible for someone who has represented the district for 30 plus years not to care who succeeds him," said Rubin.

Most signs, including a mention in his departure speech to passing the torch to "new, young leadership," point to Fumo backing Farnese, 39, whose family is linked to the senator.

One Fumo friend and supporter, City Councilman James F. Kenney, said yesterday he was endorsing Farnese because he offered the promise of "new and fresh" leadership in Harrisburg.

But he said he did not expect Fumo to get involved in the race.

Despite his legal troubles, Fumo has a reservoir of goodwill from the work he has done that could generate support and help raise money for Farnese if the senator backed him.

"I think his help will be more important than not," said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin and Marshall College.

But a Fumo endorsement could open up Farnese to suggestions Fumo will continue to play a role behind the scenes.

Farnese rejects any such suggestions, saying he is running to represent the First District as a reform candidate.

Dougherty for his part moved yesterday to squelch questions about an FBI investigation that has resulted in the indictment of a contractor on charges of making "illegal payments" to the union leader.

In a statement released by Dougherty's campaign, his attorney, Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., said: "I have been assured on numerous occasions by key people within the U.S. Attorney's Office - and as recently as a few weeks ago - that John Dougherty has never been, nor is he currently, the target of any investigation."

The statement does not address the possibility that Dougherty is, or has been, a "subject" of an investigation, a distinction that exists in Justice Department terminology. Hockeimer did not respond to requests seeking further comment.

Even before Fumo's departure from the race, the importance of the primary in the Democratic presidential race had emerged as a factor in the state Senate contest, with voter turnout expected to be higher than usual.

Dicker, who is supporting Barack Obama, is hoping this will benefit her campaign, as does Farnese.

With Fumo out of the race, Dicker also plans to seek support from the regular party.

"Michael Nutter's election showed that the voters of Philadelphia are hungry for honest reform," said her campaign manager, Karim Olaechea. "By endorsing Anne, the party can get in touch with its activist roots, reach out to a new generation of voters, and rebuild a sense of trust with the citizens of Philadelphia."

In November, the winner of the primary will face Republican Jack Morley and the independent Vignola, a Democrat who has served as city councilman and controller.

Contact staff writer Joseph Gambardello at 215-854-2153 or jgambardello@phillynews.com.

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