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Tom Waits for No One

The mayor remains a mystery

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I feel I'm as qualified as anyone to psychoanalyze Tom Murphy, because I don't know him very well -- and neither does anyone else. Is he an enigma wrapped in a riddle trapped in a conundrum? Or just a prickly condescending Irishman who doesn't understand why all these yahoos don't get it? Or a little of both?

Who is this guy who looks like Andy Warhol's straighter cousin? Who is this guy who loves Pittsburgh as much as many Pittsburghers despise him?

He's both a brilliant political analyst and a lousy politician. He figured out how to barely beat the infinitely more affable Bob O'Connor in the last election, despite the fact that he'd nearly alienated his way to defeat, a la Cyril Wecht.

Many of the city's union rank-and-file have little but contempt for the mayor, yet he cut a deal with fire fighters union chief Joe King (who calls the city "Pikksburgh") just before the election that helped him win in a squeaker.

Murphy is pilloried by critics who say that he's been asleep at the switch, and that that's why the city's finances are in peril, yet he'll end up serving as many years in office as the legendary Davey Lawrence. Who is this guy, and why does he surround himself with people nobody likes? His No. 2 guy, the aptly named Tom Cox, is roundly despised by many of the city's movers and shakers. His press secretary, Craig Kwiecinski, regularly rubs reporters the wrong way, having apparently concluded this is his job. (In the interest of full disclosure, I have consumed adult beverages with Kwiecinski and he can be a swell fellow after three or four beers.)

But what about Murphy himself? Did he choose the wrong profession? When I see him walk into a party, there's an easily discernible cartoon caption above his head that says, "If I can schmooze these yutzes for about 15 minutes, I can get the hell out of here."

That's not good. Say what you will about glad-handing, back-slapping pols and their baby- and butt-kissing ways, but in politics it helps to have friends. Tom Murphy doesn't seem to have many friends and doesn't seem to give a damn. Why would a man who doesn't like to be around people become a politician?

Tom Murphy does not live for the mundane details of running the city. By all accounts, he lives for the big deal. He loves the sport of bringing together disparate partners and negotiating the grand refurbishment. He played a big part in getting the stadiums done but he couldn't pull off Fifth and Forbes. Both were grandiose schemes from a man who has vision.

But while serving as a facilitator for power brokers who think big, he's been alienating the little people. The man who was the consummate neighborhood activist has turned his back on his roots, or at least that's what some current activists will tell you. His big plans for Downtown resulted in a revolt among the smaller fish running businesses in the Golden Triangle.

And how the hell could a guy who couldn't care less about sports get elected mayor of one of the most sports-obsessed cities in the country? Sure, he's a booster. But don't ask him how the Steelers are going to solve their offensive line problems. I wonder if the mayor even heard Kordell was gay?

It would be better if Tom Murphy's sensibilities were more suited to politics. Ideally, a politician should be larger than life. In Providence, R.I., where I once worked, they had a charismatic mayor named Buddy Cianci, who is widely credited with taking a backwater outpost and turning it in to the popular artsy tourist destination it is today. Buddy, they used to say, would go to the opening of an envelope. He was a media whore who cracked wise with all, exhibiting a sparkling personality that charmed even those who thought he was corrupt. Unfortunately, he was: He's now serving five years for running a criminal enterprise.

At least Tom Murphy isn't corrupt. But he could learn from Buddy's omnipresent glad-handing, which made everyone think they knew him. Not many would claim to know Tom Murphy. He's a loner whose job is people. He's a caring guy who doesn't care what you think. He's an Irish teetotaler.

There. Now we understand him.

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