WHILE STATE Sen. Vince Fumo promises to fight the corruption charges against him, his possible demise poses a profound question for Philadelphia politics.

What happens when a political figure of such gravity that he holds judges, legislators, Council members and ward leaders in his orbit leaves the scene? Does a new star take his place in the sky?

The answer is no. This has happened before.

In 1991, U.S. Rep. William Gray III headed an organization that influenced political races from committeeman to Congress, and had a voice in policy issues in City Hall, Harrisburg and Washington.

When Gray suddenly resigned to head the United Negro College Fund, his acolytes had to stand on their own, and many had successful careers in politics and elsewhere - NAACP President Jerry Mondesire, Councilwoman Marian Tasco, and John F. White, Philadelphia Housing Authority director and mayoral candidate, to name three.

But without a center, the machine itself flew apart. Power dispersed.

"When Bill Gray was around, the [Democratic] party chairman didn't do anything significant without talking to him," said George Burrell, Gray's endorsed candidate for mayor in 1991.

"But that organization hasn't been replaced, and we haven't seen that kind of independent political movement in Philadelphia since."

Burrell went into law and investment banking and eventually became a supporter and top aide to Mayor Street.

Bill Gray's departure was sudden and definitive.

The Fumo story will run a different course and he may still win exoneration and keep his place in the political constellation. His day of reckoning is months away, and until then he's politically wounded - by the threat of losing his office, and by having to abandon a key lever of power, the Democratic chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Does Fumo's power begin to seep away?

Many believe he'll remain a force to be reckoned with. He's holding on to a long list of board positions, including the Delaware River Port Authority, the Board of City Trusts, the state teachers retirement fund, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, and Independence Blue Cross.

Assuming he isn't seen by colleagues as a sure goner, he'll have influence over appointments, investment decisions and policy matters in those organizations, all of which can translate into fundraising ability and clout.

Joe McLaughlin, Temple professor and former Harrisburg lobbyist, said Fumo will retain some influence because of what he can do as much as for the positions he holds.

"You know, he's cultivated a reputation that people are afraid of him," McLaughlin said. "But some of his influence is built on respect for his political judgment, and the fact that he's very smart and commands resources to come up with some innovative ways to deal with problems."

Fumo is known for assembling talented staff, which gives him information and insight on which others in Harrisburg and elsewhere have come to rely.

His staff remains in place, and many believe that if Fumo can still devote time and attention to his political and policy roles, he'll remain a player.

But Burrell thinks Fumo's legal challenges will sap his focus and his political power.

"Senator Fumo was in effect a mirror image to Bill Gray, in that he had a huge footprint within the Democratic Party," Burrell said. "But he's not going to have the same time and energy for it now, so going forward, that will create a vacuum that others in the party will struggle to fill."

If Fumo leaves office, Councilman Jim Kenney, a Fumo ally, has been mentioned as a possible candidate for his Senate seat, along with state Rep. Bill Keller and electricians' union leader John Dougherty.

But Burrell said he doesn't see anyone inheriting Fumo's power.

"There's no clear heir apparent to Senator Fumo, because like Bill Gray, he's unique in his skill sets," Burrell said. "It's not just holding an office. You have to be really smart, with great political and substantive instincts." *