Thursday, March 3, 2016

Jim McNulty

Former Scranton Mayor Jim McNulty died yesterday, and I'm sad.

Let's back up several decades.  I was always a news and politics geek, even as a kid, so McNulty fascinated me.  His campaigns were always interesting-- slick advertising, good looking logos, catchy commercials.  Unfortunately, he always lost.

Moving on to my sophomore year at Marywood College, I was handed a project for television production class.  I don't remember what it was all about or the objective, but I decided I wanted to do a newsy interview show, and I set my sights on Jim McNulty.  I went to the voter registration office at the Lackawanna County Courthouse, and got his contact information.  I called him on the phone, terrified.  I asked for his help, rather clumsily.  I was thrilled when he said "yes."

I booked time for Marywood's little television studio and assembled the production staff.  I was in the studio when I heard the words from classmate R. Duane Elvidge out in the hall:  "Andy, Mr. McNulty is here."  I shook his hand and led him into the studio.  We did the interview on our news set.  It was only thirty minutes.  I remember being frightened.  McNulty was a pro.  He answered everything.  Usually, the host is supposed to make the guest fell less nervous.  That night, it was the other way around.  By the end of the half hour, it was going really well, and I was disappointed when the stage manager motioned that our time was up.  Do I remember the grade?  No.  Irrelevant.  I scored a major interview, and it was something different from everyone else in the class.  Plus, I had a great time doing it.

I started working at WARM in 1981, moving in to the news department in 1982, so Jim McNulty was my first Scranton mayor.  He made life interesting, and also very frustrating.  First, the interesting part.  Everything was an event.  Everything was a show.  The man knew how to get attention, including bringing that pile of rusting junk, Steamtown, to Scranton.  There were money problems, problems that were solved when Joe McDade got the National Park Service to take over.  McNulty was out of office by then, a one-termer.  Still, his fingerprints are all over that national park.  McNulty should be applauded for what he did.

The frustrating part was there were many times when you needed the mayor to comment on something.  Remember, this was pre-cell phone and e-mail.  Jim McNulty could be hard to get.  He didn't spend a lot of time in the office, and I think that proved to be his un-doing at City Hall.  Scrantonians wanted a mayor who was good at the nuts and bolts, a guy who was in the office from 9 to 5.    That was Dave Wenzel-- a great guy and an outstanding public servant.   Unfortunately, Scranton stopped being interesting the day Jim McNulty walked out the door.

There was another unsuccessful run for mayor.  Jim McNulty spent a lot of time as a political consultant.  He was great at getting other people elected.  It's too bad he couldn't work that magic on himself.

Toward the end of my run at WARM, Jim McNulty became a talk show host.  I'll level with you.  I didn't think it was a good show, even though it did have a following.  It was rushed on the air.  To the best of my knowledge, there were no run throughs or trial shows.  The first weeks were especially rough.  I remember my exact words to the general manager:  "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

I left WARM to work at WYOU.  Jim McNulty and I crossed paths once again.  The station signed him to be political analyst.  Once again, it was rough.  His segments really took off when McNulty was paired with the great Kevin Jordan.  Kevin knew how to get the best out of McNulty, and I thought the station's work was outstanding.  Kevin was a political genius himself.  Pairing the two was magic.  But, that was a long, long, long time ago.

An election night assignment was never complete without a check with McNulty.  I'd pick his brain before heading out the door.  He was a walking political encyclopedia.  I knew what to watch for as the numbers rolled in, the questions to ask, the sources with the best and fastest information.  Jim McNulty was my secret weapon.  It showed on the air.  There was a butt kicking every spring and fall.

There was something else from those long ago election nights.  We'd always have a staff pool.  Pick the races.  The tie breaker would be the number of votes for a candidate we'd select.  Jim McNulty won every time, and he's always give the money to the second place finisher.  It was never me.

For 11 months in 1997 and 1998, I was producer of WYOU's morning news.  I always made sure to do a post election interview with Jim McNulty for the morning broadcast.  He put it all in perspective.  It's safe to say Jim McNulty was the smartest political guy turned broadcaster I ever met.

After I left 415 Lackawanna Avenue, I didn't see Jim much.  There was an occasional phone call, a news tip.  The few face to face meetings were always accidental, and always cordial, never long enough.

We knew this day was coming, and I had this blog entry written in my head a dozen times.    Part of me is happy to share the memories.  Another part is tearing up.  It was my privilege to know him, and I will forever be grateful he helped a shaggy haired, frightened Marywood College kid with a project 36 years ago.

I considered Jim McNulty a friend.  I hope the feeling was mutual.

I've so far avoided using the word "big" in this blog entry.  Jim McNulty had a large waistline.  I didn't want to be accused of being punny at a serious time.  But, I will say Jim McNulty was a big thinker and a big dreamer, and Scranton is better because he was around.