The speaker introducing the guest of honor went on and on about how brilliant the guest was, how he could have been anything - a surgeon, maybe - but became a politician so he could help more people. People like his listeners there in the Queen Village kitchen.
"You got the wrong guy," State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo said, scuffing the floor with his toe. He looked like an awkward, lonely kid on the playground.
"I should quit while I'm ahead," he said. "I'm basically a shy guy."
Yet the man who blushed at District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham's praise during his 2004 reelection campaign gives bobblehead dolls of himself to women he dates. He is also famous for launching red-faced, neck-vein-popping curses at people who get in his way.
That's just one of the contradictions of Fumo, the rowhouse Machiavelli who was indicted last week on federal charges that he used Senate employees and cash from a charity he helped found for his personal and political gain.
The trial will put an X-ray on the multiple facets of Fumo's personality, with prosecutors conjuring a greedy tyrant and the defense highlighting his many civic accomplishments. The Republican-controlled Justice Department wants Fumo's scalp, his lawyers argue, because he's an effective Democrat.
Everybody agrees on one thing: At 63, Fumo has amassed unparalleled political power in Pennsylvania because he's brilliant, creative, secretive and ruthless.
He works the system like an octopus playing a pipe organ. He's everywhere, pushing every key, pulling out all the stops - even ones that lesser politicos couldn't find with a GPS device.
Fumo has an interlocking network of allies, proteges and patronage employees stashed throughout government and in business. He lends his fund-raising machine and stable of political consultants to chosen candidates so he can draw on a bulging account in the favor bank.
"Vince's philosophy is he wants to own you," a person who has known him since childhood said on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.
When you cross him, Fumo can be vicious, mowing you down. Late last year, he muscled former City Controller Jonathan Saidel out of the mayor's race by persuading powerful Democrats not to donate to his effort. Fumo favored U.S. Rep. Bob Brady.
And Fumo has a long memory: A consultant who tangled with him in a political dispute more than a decade ago said he still couldn't get government work in the Philadelphia area.
Fumo can be so combative that, even as he faces trial, many powerful people in Pennsylvania are unwilling to talk on the record about him. A wounded Vince Fumo, they believe, can still bite you.
Fumo's clout extends to the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission; City Council; SEPTA; the Philadelphia Regional Port Authority; the Delaware River Port Authority, which operates the PATCO trains and regional bridges; and all levels of the state judiciary. (He resigned from the port authority board last week after the grand jury charges but still has friends there.)
Fumo is also entwined in the nonprofit, arts and corporate worlds with directorships, and he is a dominant power on the Board of City Trusts, the ultra-secretive group of insiders that controls a portfolio of city stocks and real estate worth about $400 million.
For all his power, Fumo does not appear to have an overarching political ideology. He calls himself a pragmatist, adept at seizing fresh opportunities to do the right thing for people as he sees it.
"Vince Fumo plays politics in three dimensions while everyone else plays in two," said Ted Hershberg, a professor of public policy at the University of Pennsylvania who runs the Center for Greater Philadelphia. "He's several moves ahead."
In recent years, Fumo branched out to build a network of at least five nonprofit charities to which he has steered more than $40 million, some of it taxpayer money. He took legal action against Peco Energy, the electric utility, over its deregulation plan and then, as part of the settlement, leveraged $17 million for Citizens' Alliance for Better Neighborhoods, which he helped found and which has supported dozens of improvement projects in his South Philadelphia district.
Allies call that creative constituent service; after all, Fumo's action won Peco customers significant rate reductions.
Critics say the little-noticed charities amount to incumbency insurance for him and form an unaccountable proto-government: Fumo World.
Prosecutors say Citizens' Alliance became Fumo's personal ATM, helping him live in style.
"I'm an entrepreneurial politician. I don't sit in the back row and wait for my name to be called," Fumo said in a 2004 interview on Michael Smerconish's radio talk show. "I sleep well at nights." He said he had to be creative because his party was in the Senate minority and he was wrestling with lawmakers from regions that hate Philadelphia.
Fumo declined to be interviewed for this article.
Even critics admire his boldness, or perhaps they fear it. Indeed, Fumo is such a crafty deal maker that the late Gov. Robert P. Casey Sr. once said he did not like to be in negotiations with the senator. Casey called him a "second-story man," a cat burglar.
Former House Speaker John M. Perzel (R., Phila.) said in 2004 that it was difficult to deal with Fumo's shifting demands during negotiations over legislation legalizing slot machines.
"If he was just power mad, honest to God I could deal with that," Perzel said. "The truth is I just don't understand him."
On the other hand, Brady, who chairs the city Democratic Party in addition to serving in Congress, said Fumo had never lied to him and kept his word.
"He's the best friend in the world or the worst enemy in the world," Brady once said. "Take your pick."
Kind and ruthless
Those nagging contradictions define the man.
Fumo has brought in an estimated $8 billion for the region in the last 20 years as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee - yet, prosecutors allege, he spent taxpayer/charity money to buy imported white paint from the Netherlands at $100 a gallon, 19 Oreck vacuum cleaners, and a slew of power tools for himself.
Fumo portrays himself as a populist and likes during Senate debates to invoke a mythical "Joe Sixpack" as the person he is fighting for. But he owns a 33-room mansion in Spring Garden with a shooting range, a wine cellar, an elevator, and a sidewalk-heating system to keep snow from sticking. His former estate in Jupiter Island, Fla., which he sold in December for $2.1 million, was used as the set for a photo shoot in Palm Beach magazine.
Fumo is worth millions - and he is due to receive $19 million more when the sale of PSB bank, which his grandfather founded, goes through this year. Yet according to the indictment, Fumo told a confidant that it was always best to spend "OPM," or "other people's money." Said a person who has known Fumo for more than 30 years, "It's second nature, just the way he is."
A supporter of gay rights, Fumo argued during a floor debate last year against a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage: "Someday we will hang our heads in shame" for such bigotry. And he had Citizens' Alliance donate $677,000 in loans and grants to fight AIDS, including support of a 2005 Elton John benefit concert. But the first insult Fumo hurled when he got angry once at Senate Republican leaders during parliamentary skirmishing? "Faggots." He later apologized.
Fumo belongs to the American Civil Liberties Union, the archetypal liberal group that fights to protect the Bill of Rights, and the National Rifle Association, usually seen as part of the political right. When arraigned last week, he surrendered 200 firearms.
Despite the outbursts and the political swagger, Fumo is generous to a fault, especially, friends say, to people who have suffered a setback.
"He's just a good human being," said former State Rep. John Lawless, now corporate secretary for the Delaware River Port Authority, one of the agencies where Fumo has influence.
In 2002, Lawless lost a bid for lieutenant governor and was going through a divorce. So-called friends vanished, but Fumo stayed in touch and offered job-hunting help.
"Thanksgiving came around, and I got a call that morning. He said, 'My friends don't spend the holiday alone. Do you have any place to go?' " Lawless said. "He doesn't need me. At that point, I'm a has-been legislator, with no vote to give him. He was just reaching out."
Lawless said that if Fumo had broken the law, he should pay like anybody else, but that nothing would stop Lawless from being his friend. He also said Fumo had never asked him for a favor.
Fumo was also solicitous of Mark Segal, publisher of the Philadelphia Gay News, after Segal's 20-year relationship ended four years ago. Fumo encouraged him, Segal said, when he went on his first dates.
At one point, Segal recalled, he was depressed and did not want to fulfill his obligation to emcee an AIDS benefit in Atlantic City. Fumo coaxed him out for a night on the town and went with him.
"This is a sweet man who's concerned about a friend," Segal said. "There's more to this guy than 'the deal.' He's a puppy dog." And "Vince has a great sense of humor, but most people are so afraid of him they don't try to have fun with him."
Though Fumo is a member of Mensa, a society for people with high IQs, the indictment portrays a man who used his brain power to hire a private eye at taxpayers' expense for spying on political rivals, an ex-wife and former girlfriends - and to keep obsessive track, via e-mail, of the errands Senate employees were doing at his homes and his farm north of Harrisburg.
E-mails cited in the indictment also show a man worried about listening devices and whether the federal government could spy on his computers in real time. One day, his e-mail was faster than the day before, and he wondered whether that meant the "feds" were done installing their monitoring equipment.
"OK, maybe I am paranoid," Fumo wrote in an e-mail to a computer tech, "but how did it happen in the first place and what security measures do we currently have in place both physical and electronic????"
Fumo has a history of clandestine behavior. In the early 1970s, as Gov. Milton Shapp's commissioner of professional affairs, Fumo lined his office with tinfoil to block bugs. He left the job in 1973 when it came to light that he had spent much of his time gathering information on Shapp's opponents.
Always on the move
In private life, Fumo is a lawyer, a licensed real estate broker who owns a string of rental properties, an electrician, and a student pilot.
By all accounts, he is as restless as he is relentless.
"He just can't sit still," said James Eastwood, a businessman and former Navy admiral who has been Fumo's friend for 30 years, serving with him on the PSB board. "Vince is motivated by the action."
Even when on vacation, friends say, Fumo is always working the phone, thumbing his BlackBerry, entertaining friends and associates - searching for the next deal, the next opportunity.
Or else he might be up to his elbows in the guts of an outboard motor, rigging a high-tech doorbell, or buying electronic equipment.
"He's a gadget hound," said Senate Minority Leader Bob Mellow (D., Lackawanna). "One of the most dangerous places you could go with Vince is Lowe's or Home Depot, because if he sees something, he's going to buy it whether he needs it or not."
Eastwood remembered Fumo's sleeping in a loft in the garage at his Shore house in Margate so he could work constantly on his powerboat. In a Tom Sawyer moment, Fumo once got his friends to help him build his docks.
"I never see him on the beach," Eastwood said. "He loves to work with his hands, always tinkering."
One person who knows Fumo well said he is a compulsive catalog shopper, with a "garage down the Shore . . . filled with unopened boxes."
Start in politics
Fumo rose from the South Philadelphia ward politics of the late boss (and state senator) Buddy Cianfrani. When Cianfrani was convicted in a ghost-employee scheme and sent to federal prison in 1977, Fumo was his handpicked Senate successor.
He started in Harrisburg in 1971 as a young official in the Shapp administration. Two years later, Fumo moved back to Philadelphia and became a ward leader and, more important, the patronage chief for Democratic city chairman Peter J. Camiel.
In 1973, Fumo and several other Democrats were charged with voter fraud for allegedly interfering with poll watchers to make sure Cianfrani was not swamped in the Nixon landslide of 1972. But when Republican Arlen Specter left the District Attorney's Office to run for governor, his successor, Democrat Emmett Fitzpatrick, dismissed the charges, saying the case was weak.
Two years after winning the Senate seat in a 1978 special election to replace Cianfrani, Fumo was on trial with other defendants on charges of placing 32 ghost employees on the legislative payroll. He was convicted on Oct. 25, 1980. "I'm crushed," Fumo said. News accounts described him as pale and drawn. "I just feel utter despair."
Ten days later, Fumo was reelected, although he was not allowed to take office while his appeal was pending.
In the spring of 1981, the federal trial judge vacated his conviction, finding insufficient evidence to support the charges, and Fumo was sworn in to the Senate.
Fumo says his drive started with childhood scars in South Philadelphia.
"Spoiled brat," said one person who grew up with him. Said another: "None of the kids liked him in the neighborhood. He was an outcast, pampered, doted on by his mother."
His father was president of a savings-and-loan, so Fumo grew up in middle-class comfort. But he has said he felt the sting of discrimination at his elite Catholic schools, Notre Dame Academy and St. Joseph's Prep. The other kids made fun of him because he was Italian and from South Philadelphia.
"I had that conflict, lived with it," Fumo said in a 1985 Inquirer interview. "In a sense it made me fiercely competitive because I was never accepted by those kids. The turning point in my life was when I realized that a lot of the ambition I had and drive that I had was to get back at those kids that had screwed me over so bad in adolescence. I woke up one day and said, 'Hey, I can beat all them guys,' and I did in the end."
Victory, however, has come at a cost. Fumo is twice divorced, and his elder daughter from his first marriage, Nicole, did not invite him to her wedding.
Only Fumo can say whether his relentless pursuit of power was worth it.
"Look, I could collect my paycheck like everybody else, go home, and I probably would have a better home life and wouldn't be divorced today," Fumo said in a 2004 interview on WHYY-FM's Radio Times. "But something got in my blood as a kid. . . . I love this."
Now he is in a fight to hold on.