Don’t put Vince on hold

Columnist : Albert Paschall

There are three things that deserve great respect in Harrisburg.  The grandeur of the main capital building, the majesty of the Susquehanna River and Vince Fumo’s temper.  Legend holds that the third is bigger than the first and flows faster than the second at high tide.  In the legions of unwritten rules in the state capital there’s one observed with bipartisan respect: do not put the senior Senator from Philadelphia on hold if he calls with a deal.

     Vincent J. Fumo in his twenty-two years of serving in the Pennsylvania Senate from his South Philadelphia district knows what he wants and most importantly in the crossed wires of Pennsylvania politics knows when he wants it.  And as Mr. Trump once wrote: timing is so much a part of the art of the deal.

     In the street smart politics of his South Philly district there’s a lot of ways they say it that can’t be published in a family newspaper but it is known, widely known that Vince Fumo doesn’t brook any nonsense.  Fumo knows more ways to bureaucratically cut off whatever appendage he chooses whenever he wants.  When angered he is likely to aim for some of the more delicate ones.  But as former Governor Bob Casey once said: “it’s hell to get a deal with Vince but when you get it, it’s as good as gold.”  And in that coin of the realm in our state of trades and deals, its always known when, if and after interminable negotiations you get Vince Fumo’s word on a deal that that deal in Pennsylvania is done.

     For the last two years, in typical style, Fumo has battled Bell-Atlantic, now Verizon, to keep the company out of Pennsylvania’s long distance business.  In the back rooms of the state capital Fumo has used his considerable skills to put long distance competition on hold in the state even while global giants like MCI, Worldcom and AT&T get a free ride to sell whatever they want.  In Verizon’s own Philadelphia yellow pages there are about 100 companies trying to sell local phone service, advertising discounts on services that these so-called re-sellers buy from Verizon in wholesale fashion trying to skim a living off the margins.

     But timing is everything and Fumo knows what everybody in the telephone business knows.  That the lines had better open up because if they don’t the courts, technology or the market will force them open and then nobody in Pennsylvania will have anything to say about it.  Last month a Lincoln Institute/Commonwealth Foundation survey in the state found that 67% of Pennsylvanians want the option of buying all of their telephone services from one company.

     The argument against open markets backed by Pennsylvania’s Public Utility Commission has been that Verizon has been too slow to allow competitors to take its business.  In the PUC’s wisdom, inspired by Verizon competitors AT&T and MCI , the answer is for Verizon to become two companies in the state.  According to the PUC the economics of two companies selling the same services to the same customers is supposed to be more competitive for consumers.  That solution only suggests that the PUC is unaware that Alexander Graham Bell passed away some time ago and for awhile now, like 40 years, we’ve been able to make our own long distance calls without an operator’s help.

     Enter Fumo.  Last week he put his deal out there.  Dropping objections to Verizon selling long distance service Fumo called for Verizon to split off its Internet and data systems and create a technology fund in the state based on fines to be levied by the PUC if Verizon fails to open markets.  Former Fumo backers on the issue Republican Senators Mary Jo White and Roger Madigan tried to put Fumo’s deal on hold by filing objections with the Public Utilities Commission.

     Not for long.  Someday early in the New Year in that majestic Capital building the Senate will convene.  After two years of fighting Philadelphia’s senior Senator and Democratic Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, who holds all the purse strings for Democrats, will get together to talk about his deal for full telephone competition through out the state.  Stand a few blocks away, say down by the river, and you’ll probably be able to hear him.  Nobody in Harrisburg puts Vince Fumo on hold.  It was probably hell for Verizon to get the deal but Vince Fumo got it and in the age of global competition, the Internet, cell phones with even America On-Line selling long distance service it’s likely to be the best deal that the state can get.  And after two years of blocking it Fumo gave his word.  Outside of that big old state capital building and that river nothing is more respected in Harrisburg.