Sixty Five Years on Municipal Council: The Legendary Paul Santangelo

(An Excerpt from What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, From Main Street to the Malls, by Michael E. Tolle)

     Paul Santangelo was Norristown born and bred.  He was born to immigrant parents Saverio and Ignazia Santangelo on October 13, 1900, on Moore Street in the East End.  The Santangelos, like so many of their neighbors in the East End had come from Sciacca, Sicily.  Except for an 8-month period beginning in 1908 when his family temporarily returned to Sciacca, Paul Santangelo would spend his entire life in Norristown.  When he died in 1995, he was still a resident of the East End.

     Little is known about Paul Santangelo’s life before his election to Borough Council, and about his private life afterward.  Rumors and innuendo abound, but evidence is lacking.  While he would be in office for sixty-two years, his very public presence in the borough was balanced by a very private life, which he protected fiercely and to the very end.  His Times Herald death notice on January 10, 1995 simply states that he had been married and produced four children (two of whom pre-deceased him) and had been employed “in the maintenance and shipping departments” from 1931 to 1960 by the Conte Luna pasta factory on East Main Street that had been founded by his father-in-law, Vincenzo Area.  There is a brief, polite reference to a later alliance with a woman, but nothing else about his private life; the rest of the article is filled with recollections of his extraordinarily long political career.[1]  This is clearly as he wished it; Paul Santangelo’s life was an essentially simple one, driven by one all-encompassing passion:  ward-level politics.  He would live out his obsession for sixty two years, and would never retire.  When he was finally defeated in his ward, in the General Election in November of 1991, he was ninety one years old.  He would survive his removal from office by only three years, dying in January, 1995.

     Paul Santangelo had ample time to focus on his obsession with local politics.  The bare bones in his obituary about his relationship to the Conte Luna factory hint at the story behind how Paul Santangelo earned a living.  He was the beneficiary of a fortunate marriage and the even more fortunate timing of two deaths.  Vincenzo Arena, the founder of the Conte Luna spaghetti plant on Main Street deep in the East End, had fathered two sons and a daughter.  Paul courted and married the daughter.  By the time of Paul’s marriage to their sister, Vincenzo’s two sons were operating the business.  They did not like him, and originally put him on the loading dock.  Then fate intervened.  Vincenzo Arena died, leaving two healthy sons but a terminally ill daughter, Paul’s wife, who did not long survive her father.  According to the most reliable version of the story that I have uncovered, both brothers had come to despise Paul so much that had their sister died before their father, they would have fired him.  But she survived him, albeit briefly, as (equally briefly) heir to one-third of the business.  Her death passed that inheritance to Paul.  Some negotiations followed.[2]  As his obituary later stated, he would remain technically an employee of the Conte Luna Company until management passed from family hands in 1960 (The plant exists today, and still produces pasta for a large corporation).  Judging from the amount of time that Paul would subsequently spend on politics, it appears that his job placed few restrictions on his time.  After his arrangement with Conte Luna ended, Paul quickly secured other employment, as a Montgomery County Inspector of Roads and Bridges from 1961 until he reached mandatory retirement age in 1970.  It would appear that this second employment was as undemanding of his time as his first, for his political activity was not curtailed.

     His income arrangement gave Paul an enormous advantage.  In that very American governmental tradition, service on municipal councils was virtually voluntary; thus Norristown Borough Council members had been almost invariably been successful local businessmen.  For such men, time spent governing Norristown was time taken away from their businesses; many a retirement would be spurred by the eventual realization of the financial cost that being elected to local public office could entail.  Paul Santangelo, however, could afford to be virtually a constant presence at City Hall, and took advantage of it.  No one ever accused Paul Santangelo of lacking in energy.

     The residents of Paul’s ward were the focus of that energy.  This was particularly true of the newer, poorer immigrants of his ward.  He was their guide, their interpreter and their defender; he knew his constituents because he probably had visited many, if not most, of them in their homes.  He was always available to help a fellow Italian navigate any of the small obstacles of municipal life.  He was notorious for having parking tickets “exonerated.”  This was a privilege afforded to each member of Council, but Paul used it more than the others combined.  As a Norristown police officer explained it, “You didn’t ticket Italians in those days [late 1950s], because he would fix them all.  He would come into City Hall with a pack that big and have them exonerated.”[3]  

     He did not just campaign door to door.  He would go to a home, sit down and listen to the complaints of “his people,” home after home after home until darkness made it impossible.  Weather meant nothing to him.  He would listen, and often he would help.  While in a home he often gave out packages of macaroni as a gift.[4]

     He would also carefully instruct each of his constituents in the intricacies of the voting process.  Robert Butera tells of how Paul, pleased to aid a fellow Italian, campaigned heavily for Bob in his first race for state representative.  They would go door to door together, and Paul, by then in his sixties, would never be the first one to quit; never.  “He was tireless.”  He had a model voting machine built for him, complete with levers that moved; a small but exact replica of the machines at the polls, complete down to the name tags for each lever, which Paul would insert (or ignore, depending on his opinion of the individual).  It was made of steel, and quite heavy.  Paul lugged it everywhere, and refused all Bob’s offers to help him carry it.[5]

     Paul Santangelo delivered for his constituents, and they in turn voted as he instructed.  It was something he expected in return, and he remembered anyone who did not seem as supportive as Paul wished.  He was obsessive about each and every vote.  In Bob Butera’s first primary, in 1962, he won Paul’s ward by a margin of 422 to 19.  Reporting the ward vote that evening, Paul wondered aloud, “Who were those nineteen people?”

     Paul Santangelo had a passionate hatred of being photographed, an unusual attitude for a man in public life, but one that fitted his political approach, which was personal, and usually confrontational.  In 1972, he and three other present and former Borough Councilmen were summoned by the State Crime Commission to a meeting in St. David’s, on the Main Line.  Upon emerging from the building, a photographer attempted to take his picture.  Enraged, Paul tore two cameras off the man’s chest and threw them away, destroying both cameras and slightly injuring the cameraman.  The article that reported the incident also observed, “Santangelo's aversion to having his picture taken is well known by his colleagues, as well as others.  In a similar incident at a meeting in borough hall, he was restrained by a police officer when he chased a photographer in an attempt to grab his camera.”{C}{C}{C}{C}{C}[6]{C}{C}{C}{C}{C}  Paul was seventy one years old at the time.

     Paul Santangelo’ intense focus recognized no distinction between the personal and the political, and he did not hesitate to ask those he felt were indebted to him for political favors.  Bill Giambrone, whose immigrant father had been befriended by Paul, knew many Italian people, as he had quickly learned English and would assist new immigrants with translation and cultural problems.  One day Paul asked him to perform an unspecified "under the table” task.  His father never revealed what Paul had asked him to do, but he was so offended he never spoke to Paul again.[7]

     A “no” response to Paul Santangelo, however, was a rare occurrence.  He was famous state-wide for his ability to turn out a large number of voters (often several times the turnout in other wards), all voting as he has instructed.  This made him valuable to politicians involved in county and state-wide races.[8]

     Paul knew how his constituents would vote, but he still took no chances.  One of his regular tactics involved his wife, a woman about whom little is known otherwise.  Prior to a primary election—even if he was unopposed, as he usually was—he would have his wife file for the ward seat as a Democrat.  She would often win the nomination, and then always drop out before the general election, leaving Paul unopposed.[9]

     But it was on Election Day itself that Paul Santangelo demonstrated his true power.  His disdain for the rules governing election procedures was virtually complete.  Every election saw him at his polling place (an Italian-American club) all day, buttonholing incoming voters, often inside the polling place itself, a violation of the rules.  He routinely assisted voters in the booth itself, another fundamental violation of election rules.  As Bill DeAngelis, an activist in the Democratic Party and thus a frequent opponent of Paul’s, put it, “You could go down to the polling place and see two sets of legs behind the curtain.”  He would routinely arrange for residents of his ward who were not citizens to vote, entering the booth with each and helping each to vote.[10]  Outside the polling place, supporters of other candidates physically feared him.  Complaints of verbal and even physical intimidation were common.  He would even remove the posters of the opposition, often tearing them up.

     While the voters that day each received careful attention, and the result was really never in doubt, Paul always carried a trump card in coat pocket, and never hesitated to use it: a large number of absentee ballots, all filled out, that he would deposit and have counted.  Paul Santangelo’s playing this trump card in the 1984 general election earned his ward the title “The Miraculous Fourth Ward” (electoral ward boundaries had changed by this time).  It also demonstrated that while Paul was a rock-ribbed Republican, he was an Italian first.  Paul cast eighty-eight absentee ballots that day.  Each absentee ballot cast reliably Republican votes for every slot but that of President/Vice President.  All eighty eight votes were cast for Mondale/Ferraro; the presence of an Italian on the national ticket overcame his Republican allegiance.  Paul continued this practice to the very end; in his final, losing campaign in 1991, he submitted eighty one absentee votes, all for himself.

     He would almost certainly be in the news after each general election, when reports of his behavior would be printed in the Times Herald.  People would threaten to sue, and then later quietly decide that the effort just wasn’t worth it, as people willing to actually testify were hard to find.  Paul got away with what he did because, as Bill DeAngelis said, “He controlled the polling place.”  Every election official, including the Judge of Elections would owe his position (and one day’s pay) to Paul, who had gotten them their jobs.

     Another reason that Paul Santangelo got away with so much was because of his personality.  On that subject opinion is unanimous:  he was loud, rude, crude, and did not observe even the basic boundaries or proprieties in his dealings with others.  Regardless of how a dispute might have started, Paul would immediately go on the attack, and that attack would always be ad hominem.  Any opponent, anyone who offered a proposal Paul did not like, or simply anyone who voiced a contrary opinion could expect to be personally attacked.  His ability to singlehandedly disrupt public meetings of Borough Council were by 1950 already the stuff of legend, and he would continue to add to it for decades.  When Council would retreat to private chambers to resolve one of its more-or-less-continuous internal disputes, Paul’s bellowing voice could still be heard.  Much of this was bluster; a tactic.  Its message was clear:  you cannot go around me, and I will always be here, so you must give into me on this point.  Often, Council would do just that; or more in keeping with its actual proclivities, it would simply delay the issue Paul was opposing.

    Bluster there certainly was, but it was no bluff; it did not pay to be Paul Santangelo’s enemy.  Here he also held a trump card, and held it for forty years:  membership on the Borough Civil Service Commission, usually as the chairman.  The Civil Service Commission had jurisdiction over hiring, promotion and firing of borough personnel, including those of the police department.  Paul clung to this seat with his usual tenacity, rebuffing several attempts to remove him from the Commission.  Here, within the (unrecorded) meetings of the Commission, he manipulated the true levers of power and authority in Norristown.

     While opinion is unanimous that Paul Santangelo possessed no political ethics whatsoever, opinions as to his honesty differ.  Most give him high marks for financial honesty; the exceptions focus more on his activities in the Civil Service Commission than in Borough Council.  While this was an opportunity for financial gain, it was also an opportunity for personal political gain.  For Paul Santangelo, whatever the extent of his financial gain, personal political gain was always the most valuable currency.

     When it came to power—how to obtain it and how to exercise it—Paul Santangelo observed as few rules after his elections as he did during them.  By 1950, he was already a senior figure in borough government, and many of the individuals in borough staff positions had been put there by him, or had at least earned his approval.  Seniority, doggedness (that even his opponents admired) and the cumulative effect of his loud, vituperative personality had combined to make Paul Santangelo the large, immovable rock in the channel of Norristown Borough Government.

     Unfortunately Paul Santangelo was a man of limited vision; limited in fact to the boundaries of his ward.  This is the unanimous opinion of those interviewed who were in any way involved with borough affairs, and an examination of the historical record testifies to the correctness of this judgment.  Some would go so far as to view Paul Santangelo as, in Horace Davenport’s words, “one of the major factors that kept Norristown from progressing.”  While a series of Borough Councils during the period that follows would offer up a great many of what Bob Butera termed “small thinkers,” Paul Santangelo would stand out for his dogged, unrelenting opposition to any project that might either raise taxes or increase higher governmental oversight of how he and Borough Government in general were carrying on their business.

     Yet Paul Santangelo was not the only “small thinker,” and he would not be the only rock in the channel.  His fellow Council members were themselves products of the individual ward system, and while none ever possessed the combination of characteristics that Paul did—certainly not his frequent beastliness—few would simply lie down before him.  Paul Santangelo was a great maker of “backroom” deals, but his peers on Norristown Council were well known for the same activity.  Paul was a member of the Borough Council committees that each other member chaired, and thus kept a close eye on each of them.  However, they all belonged to the committee that Paul chaired, and returned the favor with vigor.  The result would be a succession of alliances, all publicly unacknowledged, accompanied by feuds that were all too public.  At no time in the future should Norristown Borough Council and Paul Santangelo be thought of as congruent; overlapping yes, but his doggedness often led him to maintain a minority opinion, despite all attempts at “back-room” deals.  More than one ego and temper—even one as monumental as Paul Santangelo possessed—was required to produce the sad, quarrelsome and indecisive performance of Norristown Borough Council during the next twenty five years.

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[1] TH, 1/10/1995.

[2] Butera interview.

{3] Offner interview.

[4] Ciaccio interview.

[5] Butera interview.

[6] TH, 4/7/1972; 1, 4.

[7] Giambrone interview.

[8] Butera, DeAngelis interviews.

[9] TH, 4/9/1959; 11.

[10] DeAngelis interview.

[11] TH, 11/20/1965; 1, 3.