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The Machine: Rolling Jobs Into Votes

By Thomas H. Lee

MERVYN HARRIS is a machine politician. In many ways he is not unlike the men who maintain Democratic machines elsewhere, but he happens to be a Republican in Delaware County, the right wing bastion situated between Philadelphia and the state of Delaware. The county seat in Media, of F.B.I. fame. The 1971 heist and subsequent publication of secret papers from the one-man bureau office in Media put the town briefly into the national spotlight, for the first time since Carl MacIntyre's radio station there was shut down by the FCC.

They still wonder in Media who took those documents. Many point accusing fingers at students in the nearby colleges of Swarthmore and Haverford. Half-delighted with the area's sudden notoriety, they nevertheless fear that Delaware County may be known as a hotbed of radical activity.

Nothing could be further from the truth. For the last fifty years, the junior executives and upper-blue-collar workers that inhabit Delaware County's suburbs have consistently turned out in impressive numbers for issueless elections to vote straight Republican. Last November, they returned to Congress Lawrence G. Williams, an incredibly incompetent conservative who has drawn fire from most independent voices in the county.

The machine that lines up the votes for both Nixon and Williams is known as the War Board. Its 17 members control all patronage jobs and hand pick each candidate for county office. In return, those who win elections and jobs pay from 3 to 10 per cent of their income to the party. Despite repeated revelations of these practices, voters in Delaware County have never challenged the War Board's power.

Only in 1964 did the machine falter. The county joined LBJ's landslide victory over Barry Goldwater. Nether Providence, a township just south of Media, did not join the festivities. Goldwater won big there, as did Nixon in 1960, 1968, and 1972. The machine in Nether Providence clicked, whirred, and continued to hum, smoothly functioning as it is today.

The machinists win elections for God, country, Four More Years, and the War Board. Their supervisor is J. Mervyn Harris the 5 ft. 3 in. politician who is the local boss in Nether Providence.

It was a long frustrating night for J. Mervyn Harris. He had known all along that although Nether Providence needed reapportionment badly, when the ward leaders and township commissioners finally sat down to the grim business of taking from some and giving to others, it would be brutal. He had dreaded the meeting for days, and had prepared four separate plans after throwing out dozens. He had expected it to be rough and it was worse.

When the petty arguments were resolved and the sacrifices made, Harris knew, the agreement hammered out would not be applauded around the world as a masterpiece of diplomacy. There would be no frontpage photos of him smiling and waving as he left secret negotiations in a French villa. There would be an article in the second section of The Delaware County Daily Times, and perhaps a smaller one in The Philadelphia Bulletin, and they would only report the outcome, not the struggle. No names and no credit would be given. Machinists are unsung heroes.

Few people in Nether Providence understood what reapportionment meant to them, and fewer cared. But the details were crucial to the local leaders that gathered that night, and they stubbornly refused easy compromises. Commissioners demanded they not be legislated out of their turf, and the ward leaders answered that if this were so, they had to remain in theirs also. Incredulous, Harris watched each of his plans rejected. They had been good, reasonable schemes, representing almost 25 hours of work.

Now it was 1:30 a.m., and he was due at the office early.

He remembered a lunch date he had made with a friend. He had tried to postpone it until "after this reapportionment mess is over." His friend had laughed and said that the delay was unreasonable. "After that, it'll just be something else." Harris had agreed and made the appointment.

And the problem was still there, and the frustration was building up. For the first time in a long time, he slammed the door.

His wife Peg came running into the kitchen. She had been asleep, and the noise of the door frightened her. She thought the furnace had exploded. Half-relieved, but not yet over her fear, she was not angry. After all, she had been married to the machinist for ten years. Harris apologized and resolved to block the reapportionment problem from his mind for a few days, and went to sleep.

When he was a younger man, it might have occured to Harris that he should simply quit politics. He has a promising future as a lobbyist for the Southeastern Pennsylvanian Transportation Association (SEPTA), the local mass transit network. He wants to spend more time with his two sons. But at 39, Harris knows that he will not quit, despite the reapportionment or whatever comes next. Making a machine work is what he enjoys most. "It gives me an opportunity to serve," he says. "Plus, I enjoy influencing things around the township. People come to me to ask for things. I admit it, it's an ego boost."

Harris moved to Nether Providence when he was seven, to a house not two blocks from where he lives today. He and his parents had left Johnstown, Pa., four years after the last flood. ("We weren't involved - we lived up on a hill.") His parents and the township were adamantly Republican, and before Harris graduated from Nether Providence High School in 1952, he had been transformed from an introvert into a veteran doorbell-ringer and door-slammer for the local GOP.

HARRIS STAYED CLOSE to home and kept his political contacts after graduation. He went only a few miles down the road to Chester to Pennsylvania Military College (now Widener College - yes, the same Widener.) He graduated president of his class and a second lieutenant in the army artillery. He stayed active in Nether Providence, and local politicians rewarded his diligence by appointing him Judge of Elections three days after his 21st birthday, before he had ever officially been to the polls.

Harris served six uneventful months on active duty and then retired to the reserves as a specialist in military government. He returned to Nether Providence and went to work as an admissions officer at PMC and in his spare time moved smoothly into the Republican machine as a committeeman in 1958.

Committeeman is the lowest recognized rung in the Republican hierarchy, and Harris was given a ward with only five workers and told to administer party activities. Quickly, he built an efficient organization with 100 workers.

The War Board found a way to reward his efforts. In 1963, Delaware County was reapportioned, and given a new seat in the state legislature. The Board selected Harris as the Republican candidate, and in Delaware County, that is synonymous with election to office. His two-year stint (1964-66) at $10,800 a year in Harrisburg was the only salaried public office he has held.

During those two years, Harris worked 18 hours a day, making contacts, attending social functions, and simply laying down a foundation for what he hoped would be a long career in the House.

He was just beginning to feel established when the State Supreme Court declared the reapportionment unconstitutional. "It came down to either me or another fellow having to step down," he recalls. "He had been around two more years, and frankly, I thought he had a shot at Speaker of the House. He was a good leader, a good speaker - better than me. So I offered to drop out in the interests of the county and the party. Now that guy is whip, and it looks like he'll get to be speaker, which will be good for the county. I made the right decision."

Harris returned once again to Nether Providence, this time to the chairmanship of the local executive committee, a role he still holds and in which he seems comfortable. "I have a unique advantage in that I'm young enough to talk to young people - you know, the new families that move in. But I've been around long enough so that the old folks know who I am."

Immediately others began secretly politicking for his job. "It's not too hard to understand," explains Harris. "In the army, we were taught that if you were captured, you should try to escape right away. That's when you are closest to your own lines, and when you are guarded by people who don't know anything about holding prisoners. Once you let them get you to a camp, behind the lines with experienced guards, you are in trouble.

"It's the same philosophy in politics. If you want to knock someone off, you do it quickly, before he has time to do favors to people, before obligations to him build up. By now, I've done something of significance for every ward leader in the township. It would be pretty hard to knock me off now."

If so, it appears that Harris is locked into his present position. Late in 1971, he had enough support to get on the all-powerful War Board. Unfortunately, his new boss at SEPTA, himself a Republican bigwig, decided that the position was too public for a lobbyist, and ordered him to decline.

Harris, who had only recently come to SEPTA, was disappointed: "I left the college not because I wanted to - I was starving to death. PMC is constantly on the edge of bankruptcy. This opportunity came along and I took it because I knew it was something I would enjoy. When the boss told me it wasn't a good idea I couldn't really argue."

Harris once again turned back to Nether Providence. Future plans became vague-to-non-existent. "There isn't anything in the county I want," he claims. "I wouldn't mind being county commissioner, but not yet. I want to settle into the SEPTA job first.

"I'm not one of these guys that says he is going to be governor. To do that you have to make plans. You have to set a target date. Say I want to be governor in the year 2000. Then, figuring five, six, or eight years in the state senate, I have to reach there by 1990. To do that I would have to be somewhere else by 1980. I haven't figured that stuff out."

A challenge to Congressman Williams is out of the question. The War Board wouldn't stand for it. So Harris turns back to the day-to-day administration of the party in Nether Providence.

That Saturday it was noon before Harris put his phone back on the hook. He had left it off the night before so he could sleep late. Within ten minutes, four calls came in.

"Hello?... Oh hi. I've been waiting for your call ... (Harris leaned back in his padded leather chair.)... We've been working on that reapportionment, and I think we've got a plan now that will make everyone happy. I'd like you to stop by and take a look at it ... (Harris leaned forward, and cleaned his pipe with a letter opener.) What's that? Oh, I see ... (Harris filled his pipe with tobacco, lit it, and leaned back again.)... What you want is treasurer. There's no money in it, but look at the last four treasurers. It looks like a good path to the bench ... Yeah ... Well, think about it, and we'll discuss it later ... Right. Bye." Harris hung up and sighed. "Everyone wants jobs," he said.

He quickly formed contingency plans. If the holdouts still would make no compromises, he would threaten to throw the case to the courts saying it was too much for those directly involved to handle. "Total strangers!" That would get some action, he thought.

This he blocked from his mind. "I'm concerned with the nuts and bolts of elections," he said, puffing thoughtfully on his pipe. "My job is to take Lawrence Williams as he is and make him look as good as possible... I don't concern myself with the issues. I'm a party man."

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