How Buddy Cianfrani Kept Me Out of Jail
"What is the one thing that every politician in this room has in common? It's Buddy Cianfrani—because he takes more credit at getting us elected than anyone else." City Council President [now Mayor] John Street
"[Buddy] looked at every person as a potential vote." PA State Representative Babette Josephs
A Phila Inquirer article on the late State Senator Buddy Cianfrani, Philly's premier political boss for over 30 years got my wheels turning.
I knew The Senator. As Rep. Josephs noted in the article, nobody called him Buddy. At least not to his face. He was the essence of an oldtime Philly pol. Big, bald, ham-fisted, cigar-chomping, gravel-voiced, steely-eyed. A true backroom kingpin ... and king maker. A Paisan from da neighborhood. Sout Philly.
The Senator was a pretty scary guy. You didn't want to get on his bad side. Ever. Now that I think about it, in his younger days he looked a little like Tony Soprano. (In the photo above, taken not long before his death, he looks more like Uncle Junior. Still, check out those eyes.)
No matter his tough guy rep, to da goils, Buddy Cianfrani was a gentleman. Courtly. Charming even. An old-fashioned Democratic machine politician, he called every woman 'Doll'.
The Senator was quite the ladies man, in fact. Most Philadelphians my age remember stories of his affair with a ladylike blonde, a former Phila Inquirer and New York Times reporter. At one time he was her source. He bought her lavish gifts. Most notably a very expensive fur coat. He eventually married her.
As far as I'm concerned, Buddy did better than that for me. And based on nothing more than political expediency. I worked for the Governor, a Democrat. I was in trouble. So of course The Senator came to my rescue.
Primary Election Day, 1976. As PA's Commission of Elections--yes, really--it was my responsibility to serve as a Judge of Elections, reviewing claims of improprieties at city polling places. In Philly, a fulltime job. And not the best venue for a young, green female.
Needless to say, I made a few enemies. Mid afternoon I went home to take a break. A friend and I were drinking coffee when a knock came at the door. A policeman, accompaning a Traffic Court officer. What the...?
They informed me I was under arrest. As a scofflaw. That I had amassed over $500 in unpaid parking tickets. Impossible. I lived primarily in Harrisburg. And garaged my car when in Philly.
It was a set up.
I showed them my Judge of Elections badge and asked to make a phone call. They grudgingly agreed. Frantically I dialed the emergency number given to me by Tony Zecca, Deputy Mayor to Hizzoner Frank Rizzo. Sit tight, Tony told me, we'll get right back to you.
I waited. The officers waited. Impatiently. I was sweating bullets. No Sopranos joke intented.
I jumped when the phone rang. A familiar gruff voice said, "Hey, Doll, you okay?" The Senator. I said I was fine, just worried. "Lemme talk to da cop. And don't say nuttin."
Wordlessly I proffered the phone to the patrolman. "I don't want to talk to nobody," he said.
"This isn't nobody," I whispered. "Please, just take the phone." He rolled his eyes at the Traffic Court officer and grabbed the reciever. "Yeah?" he barked.
There are the moments you dream about. Like delivering the perfect exit line. This was better.
"Senator!" the cop gulped, suddenly standing at attention. Listened. We couldn't hear Buddy's words, but the tone came through loud and clear. "Yessir, Senator! I'm sorry, Senator! A mistake. Yes, Senator. Whatever you say, sir!"
My friend looked at me. "Buddy?" he mouthed. I nodded. Watching, the Traffic Court officer snapped to attention too. Looked at me with incredulity. Respect. And--I'm not so crazy about this part--a little fear. But when your adrenaline is pumping from your own fear, you let that slide.
The officer handed me the phone as if it were a live bomb. I grabbed it like the lifeline it was.
"It's all taken care of, Doll," Buddy said. "Doze guys won't bodder you no more."
"Thank you, Senator." I squeaked. "I'm sorry to bother You."
"S'okay, Doll. Dat's what I'm here for."
Buddy Cianfrani was there for a lot of people. His people. Not always on the side of the angels, but loyal to the end. I learned a lot from him and his ilk. Including the penalty for illegal wheeling and dealing.
The most important lesson I learned was about power. It's incredibly seductive. Especially when it's on your side.