May 6 - Pittsburg Post Gazzette: Pittsburg Mayor and Paraguay RPCV Tom Murphy

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Pittsburg Mayor and Paraguay RPCV Tom Murphy

Read and comment on this story from the Pittsburg Post Gazzette on Mayor and RPCV Tom Murphy pictured above in Paraguay with his wife in 1970 at:

On Murph's turf: Whatever happens on election day, Mayor Tom Murphy is at peace with his decisions*

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On Murph's turf: Whatever happens on election day, Mayor Tom Murphy is at peace with his decisions

Sunday, May 06, 2001

By Dennis B. Roddy, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

It was 20 days until opening day at PNC Park. Tom Murphy already had his seat chosen.

"Look at these," and the mayor of Pittsburgh motioned grandly to row G, seat 24, an array of deep, blue, high-impact plastic along the center-field wall. "These are the best seats in the house, as far as I'm concerned."

As far as Murphy is concerned, of course, the seats, conveniently situated just behind second base, are nearly at field level, which means close to the action that, in this case, happens to be the skyline behind them.

"Only $9," he said. "For what you'd spend for a movie you have these seats." Truth be told, those seats go for $16, and Murphy is unlikely to park the mayoral behind in one of them very soon. He is not, in his own words, "much of a spectator." He spent half of a visit to the ballpark pointing to a city skyline he has tried to reshape at vast peril to his career.

Murphy has become such a regular feature around the work site, some construction workers have taken to calling him by his first name. The new ballpark has, in some respects, become a steel-and-brick metaphor for the corner into which Thomas J. Murphy Jr. has maneuvered himself. Despite an overwhelming defeat of a ballot question that would have funded PNC Park and its counterpart, a new stadium for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Murphy pushed to get the stadiums built.

He shaped it as a future-vs.-past issue, but did so in a city where 60 percent of the voters are senior citizens, hypersensitive to tax rates and easily put off by the thought of any public subsidies going to sporting enterprises in an age when the words "athlete" and "millionaire" amount to synonyms.

His early poll showings are stunningly low for an incumbent and perhaps shockingly low for an incumbent at a time unemployment and crime are at record lows. He has risked it all, and Tom Murphy doesn't even much like football and baseball.

"I'm not," he said, with great understatement, "a guy's guy."

It has been 12 years since Tom Murphy, a North Side reformer famous in the state legislature for glorious, if principled, losses, stunned conventional thinkers by finishing a surprise second place in the most expensive mayoral primary in Pittsburgh history. The Democratic nomination went to incumbent Sophie Masloff, but Murphy's showing upended expectations because, in a contest that saw $2 million spent, he had almost no money.

Since then, Murphy has served two terms as mayor, learned practical politics and, in the face of success, worn some of the reformer's shine off his name. With opening day near, Murphy was still having his ear bent by older voters angry about public underwriting supporting millionaire ball players.

"Change is tough. That's the message," he said. "This is about change. It's very tough to get Pittsburghers to recognize that we had to make some significant changes. The parks typify that."

There are still the trademark Murphy idiosyncrasies. Red meat goes uneaten. His hand still reflexively goes on top of his glass when the waiter comes round with the wine. At a reception in Chatham Village, his hosts insisted he leave with a box of Joyce's Cookies. He hadn't gotten back to the car before he'd handed them off to a companion, protesting that it was Lent so he wouldn't be eating any sugar.

"You give this guy a cheese sandwich and he's in heaven," says one top aide.

It all attests to the fact that Tom Murphy is, by and large, far less interesting than the trouble he gets himself into.

"When you don't blink, you upset people," ventured Deputy Mayor Sal Sirabella. "Tom Murphy wants to get things done, and he wants to get them done fast, and he knows government bureaucracy can slow things down."

By now, the famous stories of the Peace Corps service, the North Side neighborhood guy, the diminutive, bespectacled ex-seminarian who became a Harrisburg metaphor for noble battles well lost, has become part of the Murphy aura. What suddenly made Murphy's constituents and some old allies nervous was that Murphy has won some of those battles, and traded some of the idealistic currency in the process.

In meeting after meeting in the city, Murphy has presented a sort of modified mea culpa, acknowledging that he has found himself in a bit of a jam without apologizing for it.

"I've given you cause to applaud what I'm doing and probably a few moments to wonder 'what in the world is he doing?' " he tells crowd after crowd. "I know the next four years have got to be easier than the last seven. What do you think?"

The field was simply too soft for a Ford Bronco with four passengers. The hillside was deceptively steep, and it was trying in the hardest way to rain.

"I've done this before," Murphy promised his passengers. He wanted them to get a look at the woods on his farm in Butler County. He told the story of how he and Mona, the judge's daughter from Cleveland who became his wife, closed on the first piece of the land one day 30 years ago, then hopped onto an airplane to the Peace Corps. The Murphys, newlyweds, went to a remote village in Paraguay, where they set up a health clinic and taught the locals. When they returned, they moved to Manhattan, where Murphy enrolled in graduate school for urban studies. A man who lived in Paraguay one year, New York the next, had a farm sitting, unvisited in Butler County.

"I don't know why I bought it," he told his visitors. Over a 30-year period, he kept buying whatever was adjacent. His farm grew, but he grew nothing much on it. He leased the buildings, relocated an old barn with the help of Amish farmers and learned shortcuts between points such as the one in which he was, at that moment, sinking.

The Bronco's wheels spun angrily, and the smell of mud and burning rubber made its way through the closed windows.

"The thing I don't want to do," he said, unperturbed, "is to get sideways."

The truck began to slide. Sideways.

Murphy's on-road driving habits had been the stuff of legend among his friends. On the highway, he was known to allow nothing to distract him from his route, be it a red light or an oncoming car or, in this instance, the absence of a road.

Doug Root, the mayor's perpetually harried communications director, wore a frown somewhat different from the one he usually sports, suggesting he was becoming worried in addition to dour.

"Mayor," Root said, "there's a tree behind you."

A thump proved his point.

Everyone piled out, and Murphy began the mile-long walk to get the tractor he bought for his 40th birthday. He is possibly the first mayor of Pittsburgh to own one.

Murphy has rarely allowed visitors to the 300-plus acres of rolling hill and lapped furrows to which he retreats in free moments. Never before has he allowed the media.

"I went too far. Shouldn't have tried it," he said, hopping over soaking patches of soil. He moved through a copse of trees, mostly second-growth saplings. That Sunday's newspapers were filled with polls that showed a second-term mayor of Pittsburgh unable to move out of statistical lockstep with his primary opponent, City Council President Bob O'Connor. Murphy admitted he went too far on hillsides more slippery than the one to his back.

He is 56 years old, has never made much money in the world, has a 10-year-old at home and, a week from now, he could be out of the only job he ever wanted. He professed no regrets.

"Nah," he said. "I'm at peace with what I've done."

What Thomas Joseph Murphy Jr. has done is, with charactertistic impatience, take hands upon a city with the same impulse to fix up and decorate that shows itself in the house in Perry Hilltop that he bought for $8,800 28 years ago.

The place is filled with a mishmash of things not ordinarily found in any given place at the same time. There are an antique desk, a collection of tools that predate the Victorian era, a wooden altar rail cordoning off the wooden platform built onto one end of the front parlor. A large straw donkey sits next to the large straw elephant, providing an air of bipartisan clutter to the room. Books abound. Dogs abound. A boxed set of National Geographic inhabits one bookcase.

"We had a friend visit who told us he's met people who collect all sorts of things, but we're the only ones he met who collect everything," said Mona Murphy.

The wooden platform, flanked by bookcases, was put in some years ago. The altar rail had been discarded by a Lutheran church that was rebuilding.

"I always told Tom I wanted front windows that went all the way to the floor," she said. "The girls used to put on their plays from there."

Daughters Shannon and Molly, both now grown, have surrendered center stage to Thomas J. Murphy III -- T.J -- born a year after Murphy's first run for mayor. The youngster was toted around to endless campaign stops in 1993 and, on one occasion, Mona remembered him bursting into tears when, after her husband finally won the office he'd wanted most of his life, T.J. discovered there were no more parties to attend.

Murphy's free time, such as he gets, is spent either playing with T.J. (neighbor kids actually show up, Mona reports, and ask if the mayor can play with them) and repairing, redecorating or collecting. He has become fascinated with antique tools. In one corner of the living room, he pulls out a frow -- a curved, ax-like item used in Colonial times to carve out barrel staves.

"There's all sorts of things people used to use that just don't have a use anymore," Murphy said.

While he showed visitors around the rambling, three-story house, Mona shouted to remind him to turn on the coffee pot. A search ensued for the coffee pot, which turned up in the dining room. The mayor was never able to locate the cups.

Tucked into one room is the platform Murphy bought for $25 at A.B. Charles. The price is certain, because he shouted the question out to Mona.

Atop the platform, Murphy has begun building a city.

"This is a little town," he pointed to a row of small, plastic houses. "This is going to be an industrial area here. Over there" -- and he pointed across a lumpy, green, hill-in-the-construction -- "is going to be a farm area."

The inevitable joke was made about which of the small buildings would be taken by eminent domain so the factory area could expand. He smiled gamely, but it was too early on a Sunday for high hilarity. Murphy knows he misstepped badly on two important developments: When H.J. Heinz Co. wanted to expand, the mayor found himself in the middle of a nasty squabble with the owners of Pittsburgh Wool Co., who turned demands for their property into major publicity as well as a hefty selling-out price.

Murphy followed by springing a plan to tear down two city blocks for the proposed Fifth and Forbes development. It would have brought in a Chicago-based developer to turn the sometimes shabby stretch into a reconstructed entertainment and retail area with theaters, clubs and restaurants. It failed amid cries about property rights and gentrification.

"There's no doubt that I probably could be more diplomatic," Murphy conceded. "I feel a real urgency to move this city forward."

Of Fifth and Forbes, he said simply, "It was badly handled."

Jim Ferlo, sporting a new goatee and a newer "O'Connor for Mayor" badge, was leaving the City-County Building and explaining his respect and admiration for the man he wants to oust from the top office, five floors up.

"He's honest, he's hard-working. He's done some great things for this city that he should get credit for," Ferlo said. "He's had eight years. It's time for a new focus."

That new focus, in the view of the Bob O'Connor camp, is neighborhoods. The suggestion rankles Murphy supporters, including one of his oldest friends, Tom Cox, the deputy mayor for development.

"We didn't just wander into the neighborhoods and leave after a year or two," Cox said. He was a staff employee for the Manchester Citizens Corporation. Murphy was executive director of the Perry Hilltop Citizens Council. The pair hit it off quickly after a meeting in 1974. Each man spent years in neighborhood development, and Murphy, in fact, made neighborhoods a big focus of his insurgent campaign for mayor in 1989.

Cox insists that development, both Downtown and in neighborhoods, is constantly shaped by the experiences he and Murphy had in trying to direct city resources to residential areas.

"These things are lessons learned over a quarter-century," Cox said.

Ferlo, whom Murphy helped install as City Council president in 1993 -- lobbying in the background and shutting O'Connor out in the process -- isn't buying that argument.

He complains that Murphy has catered to big-ticket development projects but should have steered more funding to neighborhood projects.

"Did you ever stop to talk to the mayor?" Ferlo said. "He's not focused. He doesn't look you in the eye. If it's not a big, sexy project, he's not too interested."

That kind of argument drives Murphy halfway nuts.

His major life trauma appeared to have consisted of the 1980s, when the industrial core of the region's economy collapsed. Any suggestion that a large employer might be looking outside the city gets his attention, sometimes to his political detriment. When H.J. Heinz wanted to expand its plant, Murphy jumped into efforts to acquire the Pittsburgh Wool property, setting off a chain reaction that left him looking like a tool of moneyed interests.

Ferlo, for one, dismisses business threats to leave if they don't get city help.

"I'm sick of hearing this blackmail philosophy," he said.

Murphy is horrified at such talk.

"How can anyone in Pittsburgh say that, when we're looking at miles of vacant steel mills?" he said.

It is, for a man who finds no enjoyment in watching baseball or football, a crowning irony that Tom Murphy, according to his wife, is skilled at picking a winning horse.

She discovered as much in the days when Murphy began to date her. That was around the time he had dropped out of seminary and turned up aboard a motorcycle at John Carroll University. Mona McMahon was the daughter of a Cleveland judge who had the university president summon Murphy to his office with word that "the Judge" wanted him out of his daughter's life.

"D'you know what? He was an exciting person," Mona said. "Tom would call me up and say 'Let's go canoeing,' or 'Let's go cave exploring,' 'Let's go to the horse races.' Things I'd never done before."

It is unclear whether Tom Murphy enjoys horse racing any more than the Rain Man enjoys casinos. It is possible that he simply has a proclivity for the thing. What his wife attests to, however, is that she cannot remember him losing at the track.

The late Steve Seventy, a South Side Democrat and colleague of Murphy's in the state Legislature, was an avid bettor, but often had to cajole Murphy to come along to the track.

"Steve used to always ask Tom to go with him, but Tom wouldn't go," Mona said. "It used to drive Seventy nuts because every time he would finally go, Tom would win."

The tractor, Murphy at the wheel, finally made its way down the hillside. It had struggled through the woods, leaving people to wonder how he planned to get a truck through the spot in the first place.

For a man who had jammed his truck sideways on a muddy hill, against a tree, with the sky about to unload a rain out of Noah's flood, Murphy seemed the picture of contentment.

"I own that hill," Murphy points to the distance. "And the one beyond it. Isn't this pretty?"

The tractor chugs. The truck will be out in a minute. The mayor asks Root to drive it down to the spot where Murphy plans to leave the tractor. He takes his visitors up yet another hillside. This, he says, is where he and Mona and T.J. stay when he can get to the place.

It is a tiny, one-room cabin he built after leasing out the two farmhouses to tenants. Furniture that might have been new in the Nixon administration is tucked inside. There is no bathroom. The only water is a rivulet that trickles down the hillside and pauses for a moment in a stone culvert.

"I use this to read," Murphy says. A small oil lamp sits on a table.

"This is how we lived in South America," he says. At one point, in an hourlong visit, he suggests that, if the voters turn him out next week, he could, again, live that way -- rejoin the Peace Corps and become a neighborhood guy in a neighborhood far away.

The only problem, as he sees it, is he isn't finished building the one 30 miles to the south, a place called Pittsburgh.

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