A turning point might be coming in Philadelphia state senators' endless face-off against Pennsylvania's gun-friendly heartland.
Those who’ve spent some time in state politics remember Vince Fumo’s doormat.
For many years, when you stepped into Fumo’s state Senate office in Harrisburg, the first thing you saw was a round mat inscribed with an American bald eagle and the insignia of the National Rifle Association. See, despite being a straightforward big-city liberal on virtually every other issue, Fumo—a longtime power player as the ranking Democrat on the Senate’s appropriations committee—was an ardent firearm supporter. And he enjoyed that anomaly. You can still go online and see pictures of the firing range in his Fairmount mansion basement; the senator actually went so far as to dub himself “the gun nut of the east.”
State Sen. Vincent Hughes remembers the mat, and even laughs a little when asked about it. “I’ve even been to his gun range in his house. Never shot a weapon, but I’ve seen the gun range and I’ve seen the guns,” the West Philly legislator says. He adds: “I don’t know if there’s any Philadelphia senator or legislator today who would have an NRA mat in their office.”
His faults notwithstanding, Fumo, who spent 30 years in the state Senate before going to prison for corruption in 2009, certainly knew how to get things done in Harrisburg. He made sure Philadelphia got money it needed. That’s something we haven’t seen happening so much since Gov. Corbett came into office and started throttling the budgetary flow to the state’s largest metropolis.
Ironically, gun control—Fumo’s one big concession to conservative Pennsylvania—is one of the issues that state legislators representing Philly today say could most desperately use some powerful friends in the capitol.
“I think things have gone backwards in the legislature,” says state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, who represents the Eighth District in West and Southwest Philly. “The reality is: Republicans are the majority, we’re the minority. There are a number of Southeastern legislators who apparently don’t drive the conversation because we’re in Philadelphia, Chester, Darby, Upper Darby, a few other places that have had instances of gun violence—significant instances of gun violence—and they’re not represented by Republicans.”
The downfall of Fumo’s Democratic machine may have made it easier for the rest of the legislature to use Philadelphia as a “political punching bag,” as Williams puts it. But by many indications, we may be approaching another turning point.
While Pennsylvania’s regularly described as a swing state, the fact is it votes so reliably Democratic in national elections that Republicans had to redraw the state’s district maps just to stay relevant for the next decade.
Our Republican governor, Tom Corbett, is proving daily to be a gigantic liability to his own party, and when our Republican U.S. senator, Pat Toomey, responded to the Sandy Hook massacre by co-sponsoring national background check legislation, Pennsylvanians—a hunting-rifle-happy bunch rivaling any in America—actually rewarded him with a slight bump in the polls, the bill’s eventual failure notwithstanding.
Even though Philadelphia has experienced a downtick in homicides in 2013, gun violence isn’t going away. And against all odds, a handful of legislators in Philadelphia are working toward political solutions to that problem—some of which are untested, and others of which are controversial, especially among the more conservative members of the legislature and their constituents.
Their bills, of course, like most Democratic legislation in Harrisburg, have been stuck at a standstill all year—and for years before that. That’s frustrating for legislators even during the best of times; it’s particularly maddening now, when the state has been showing tantalizing signs of warming to progress.
One year ago, the weekend before the November 2012 election, then-candidate for Pennsylvania attorney general Kathleen Kane was eating a post-church brunch with survivors of Philadelphia street violence. She’d just attended two church services in the city: one at Bright Hope Baptist Church on North 12th Street, another at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church at 57th and Race. It was a campaign trip, sure—but it was an event few politicians running for statewide office, especially attorney general, would have made in the past, for fear of looking soft on gun rights.
Sen. Hughes, who represents Mt. Carmel’s neighborhood, was in attendance at the meal. He recalls there were about seven people from his district there to speak with her. All those sitting around the table had one thing in common: They’d witnessed or had been affected by gun violence in their North and West Philadelphia neighborhoods.
Kane, of course, easily won her election the following Tuesday to become the first Democratic attorney general elected in Pennsylvania history—and the first woman. As Hughes sees it, though, Kane also represented a third important first: She was the first attorney general elected not only without the support of the National Rifle Association, but as someone who campaigned directly against the firearm lobbying group. Just days after being sworn in, she closed the so-called “Florida loophole,” which had allowed Philadelphia gun owners rejected for a concealed-carry permit to obtain one in Florida and use it here.
“The NRA was not for her,” Hughes says. “We know that. So the all powerful NRA got beat, and got beat handily.”
Kane won with 56 percent of the vote—a bigger electoral mandate than anyone else on the statewide ballot could claim, including President Obama and Senator Bob Casey. Pennsylvania liberals, most particularly the Philadelphia delegation to the Capitol, finally seemed to have someone on their side.
They’ll need all the help they can get. After all, when it comes to political efforts to fight gun violence in the city, history itself has not been on the Philadelphia delegation’s side.
When Kane was sworn into office in January, she didn’t just have high expectations; she also had her work cut out for her. She was one of only two high-ranking Democrats in state row offices, the other being new treasurer Rob McCord. And she was willing to tackle gun control in a state filled with folks who “cling to guns or religion,” as presidential candidate Barack Obama got slammed for pointing out just a few years ago.
In Pennsylvania, you can walk into a weapons dealer and, within minutes, walk out with several guns, including so-called assault rifles. You just need to pass a quick background check in the store; you don’t need a permit, a license, or to register the weapons, regardless of whether you’re buying a rifle, shotgun or handgun. You do, however, need a permit to carry a weapon on your person—though gun-rights activists and legislators are currently trying to put an end to that.