In South Philadelphia, fans and foes weigh Fumo's fall

By Alfred LuBrano

South Philly was churning today, the natives at turns delighted and dejected.

The loud and conspicuous opera that is currently the life of newly indicted State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo elicited sympathy and enmity, loyalty and spite.

He's one of us, fumed Fumo boosters, and deserves our support.

He's one of them, spat his detractors, a fat cat who got caught.

During lunch at the Melrose Diner, prime rib and eggplant were the specials, but at least one customer at the counter was chewing on Fumo, savoring the taste of a man who might be cooked.

"Everybody's day comes and I do revel in it a bit," said Randy Dezii, an investment counselor who has done business with Fumo. "What goes around comes around. After what he's done, there should be a price to pay.

"Even in the ninth inning, he's not admitting anything. If you pretend you're a nice person, you get away with it. I'm not saying he should be hanged. But he's awfully arrogant. And what's just is just."

Dizzied by allegations that Fumo lived by a cynical, self-serving code - "A person is best advised to spend other people's money" - a married couple in a booth with their 4-year-old daughter struggled to stay true to their troubled local hero.

"Until we know the facts, most of South Philly is going to give Vince Fumo the benefit of the doubt," said Mark Andrilla, 37, a local mortgage broker. "He's done good for the neighborhood. He seems gentle, a regular guy."

"He's been our powerhouse for so long," said his wife, Stephanie, 35, stabbing at a salad with light dressing. "This whole thing is overblown." Then she added, quietly, "But the OPM [other people's money] thing is upsetting. And shocking."

Others at the diner suggested that a man known for scoring big Harrisburg bucks for Philly might have rightfully felt entitled to allegedly take something for himself.

Cathie Sexton wasn't buying that idea. "I work for the Department of Defense in Northeast Philly," said the South Philadelphia native, who now lives in Mantua, N.J. "Any public official can't accept anything over $25 annually. Fumo should be held to the same standards. And hey, I do good things in my community, too. I take care of a needy family down the street."

Outside the diner, an 85-year-old man who swore he'd beat anyone who'd print his name in the newspaper piped up for Fumo.

He said that if Fumo or his colleagues used money from his neighborhood charity, Citizens' Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, to feather his nest with items like 17 Oreck vacuum cleaners - as prosecutors have alleged - then it's simply business as usual.

"That's the general run of politics," said the man. "That's the way it works, kid." Ultimately, he said, it's the media's fault for making much ado about very little. "The Inquirer has sensationalized this story too much," he said. "The Inquirer even dramatizes the weather."

A few blocks away outside an Acme supermarket, South Philly construction worker Steve Baccari, 50, was the very model of a loyal constituent, backing his senator all the way.

"I don't believe it," Baccari said of the charge that Fumo used state and Alliance employees to run errands for him. "I know Vince personally. He's a very good man who's helped a lot of people. People in need, he helps. Your heat, your electricity, your dirty street - you go to Vince and ask him for anything.

"I believe that someone in the media or his opposition is after him. Vince should have no problem beating this thing."

Over at Bitar's Lebanese restaurant, two friends ate grilled chicken and took shots at Baccari's boy.

"Fumo is the worst offender among a widespread culture of corruption throughout the city," said Karim Olaechea, a 32-year-old Democratic political consultant who has never worked with Fumo. "People are sick of Vince Fumo's hands stuck into the goings-on of all public life in this city."

Olaechea's lunch mate, neighborhood furniture-maker Tim Lewis, 27, said the sad thing is that so many of his friends weren't surprised by the allegations of greed leveled at Fumo. "People expect to be screwed by Philadelphia politicians at this point," he said.

Whether Fumo is guilty or not, things just don't look good for the man, said Leslie Stevens, pushing a shopping cart through cold winds in the Wal-Mart parking lot.

"It sounds like he's a little sheisty," said Stevens, a 39-year-old registered nurse from East Oaklayne. "If he did this, then he's not very honest. If he did this, then he's got to go down."

Contact staff writer Alfred Lubrano at 215-854-4969 or alubrano@phillynews.com.