Sunday, September 16, 2007

PCN Profiles: Dennis O'Brien

PCN Profiles: Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Dennis O’Brien / Sept. 16, 2007

Interviewer: Bill Bova

[Update: I'm correcting a few small but important typos/omissions. Apologies for the errors.]

Blogger’s Note: Speaker O’Brien answers questions with thoughtful detailed answers that are often too in-depth for me to capture effectively. You really should watch the profile yourself, either on the PCN website or, if you are really interested, buy the videotape. In many places I just had to put the gist in brackets. Often when I could not catch something I left it out. So this is a very bare bones representation. As always, I apologize for any errors or misinterpretations.

Q: What was it like growing up in NE Philly?

A: Born in [did not catch, parts of Philadelphia presumably], then moved up here, It was the first development, there were fields around us. Have friends from grade and high school. Our parish was the first in the are and other parishes were all part of the school I went to. Probably one of the last Philadelphia farmers. Used to go out hiking from 7 am to 5 pm when only 5 years old, can’t do that now.

Q: Parrish as identifier?

A: Philadelphia was made up of ethnic neighborhoods, everyone house poor so few social activities, everyone supported their parish. Dad helped start activities at Lady of Calvary. Father and others taught me I must give back to community. Took next step by running for office at 23. I took all the guys I grew up with and asked them to help me out. Pulled biggest upset in Phil history, because of those lasting relationships I had as a child.

Q: What did you want to do when growing up?

A: Grandfather a great influence; he sold building materials to developers but at night argued with him about zoning, etc. Dad involved in so many activities, impressed me with influence on community. At 17 had an interest in politics, made an unofficial committeeman, asked to run at 23. Didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to win.

Q: What kind of attention was paid to Harrisburg back then?

A: Back then, legislators didn’t really have offices, telephones in back of house. Many people didn’t know who state legislator was. Harrisburg viewed as a jumping off point, then run for city council or congress or another office. That dynamic has changed, with feds pushing all funding back onto states. Policy is really made in Harrisburg. Legislators are now what ward leaders used to be. Like neighborhood doctors, people went to them with problems. Now with district offices people can come in for help. Very rewarding to have that kind of interaction with district. Can champion issues.

Q: First job?

A: A paper boy like everybody else, delivered The Bulletin. Used to walk, then had a wagon. A customer gave him a bike in lieu of a tip. Used to work for grandfather every day, raking leaves, mowing lawn, shoveling snow. Worked at a machine shop. Worked in an auto parts warehouse. Worked at a grocery store than a restaurant catering place.

Q: Do you learn something from each of those experiences?

A: Justice McDermott told me you have never really been somewhere unless you absorb the culture. People tell me their life experience and their problems and you get to learn from them through their request. Enriched by friendships and partnerships.

Q: When went to general assembly did you have a goal?

A: Someone told me I would first be in awe, “how did I get here” then wonder ”how did these other people get here?” Still in awe. If understand an issue and am passionate about it can champion it.

Q: When went to LaSalle did you know you were going to stay in the area?

A: Never thought about it. Got elected at age 23 and has to stay in district. Never really moved. Didn’t think would be in legislator that long. At 26 or 27 ran for congress, lost, then ran again for general assembly and then focused on issues that could have an impact on.

Q: Do you appreciate it more when you are out of it and lose?

A: Yes. Difficult decision to run for congress, torn by decision to run for state house again. Came back with a different focus, selective about issues. Pick issues important to district to me personally. Make me more skillful, more compassionate.

Q: What was it like to lose when running for congress?

A: So young the world seemed still in front of me. If won, wouldn’t have the core issues so important to me today. Has done well in the state house, that’s the world I am in.

Q: Did grandfather live to see him in office?

A: No, died when I was 18.

Q: Served in assembly for many years before becoming speaker, think about leadership?

A: Had been chairman of health and human service. Worked on tobacco settlement, kids with disability, then briefly chairman of consumer affairs. Became chairman of judiciary. Knew Justice McDermott, Justice Castille, Lynn Abraham, and others. Made substantial impact.

Q: Ira Einhorn?

A: Ira Einhorn put himself out as a genius, but wasn’t. Learned from him that violence is progressive, first a bully then killed Holly Maddox. Rizzo assigned Mike Chitwood to go check it out. Found mummified body in trunk. Einhorn released on bail never seen again for over 20 years. Found in France which wouldn’t extradite. Wrote legislation with Lynn Abraham and got him back. New trial. Guilty. Spend rest of life in prison. Message, you can run and hide but hopefully never escape justice.

Q: Becoming speaker, how did that happen?

A: There was tension in the House. John Perzel didn’t realize he didn’t have the votes but Bill DeWeese did realize he didn’t have the votes. Josh Shapiro called me New Years Eve. Wouldn’t have happened if either of us had lives. My wife is a nurse and was working. Shapiro getting Chinese food for his family, called me and asked if I wanted to be speaker. Said DeWeese will step aside. I said okay. Bill DeWeese, Dwight Evans, Shapiro and Gov. Rendell got together to talk. Wanted me to change parties. I said no because if even part of me believed I did this for myself Ie couldn’t do it. Took son with me to gov’s mansion. Shot baskets, played with gov’s dogs. Son said take the job. Honored to have the opportunity. Knowing what I know now about the job if I hadn’t taken this I wouldn’t have the opportunity to have an impact on issues.

Q: Why didn’t change parties?

A: I am a Republican. You have to be good at saying what you’re for and not just what you’re against. Ability to bring leadership and conversation has demonstrated that it was worth rolling the dice. Couldn’t cheapen that by giving the impression that it was done for personal gain or ego. [blogger's note: I initially had "what you're for and what you're against." This has been corrected to "and not just what you're against.]

Q: Go to caucus meetings?

A: yes, in deference to minority leader. Diversity of PA is unique and represented in caucus. Care about things not traditionally Republican but still a Republican.

Q: Has your perception of the caucus changed?

A: People have realized I am the speaker and I am fair. The way I vote is the way I’ve always voted. Does have to be open to macro issues to represent state as well as district.

Q: People get upset with you.

A: This is where you come to work. You’ll have friendships with people. You maximize the reason you go there, issues important to you and district, different philosophies and points of view. All temporary with instant issue, focus on end result.

Q: Do you ever think how long will I be here

A: Can’t think about that because of unique way I got here. Will maximize it, but not weigh decisions on how long I will stay as speaker.

Q: Mention “my kids” and refer to autism

A: Apologies to biological children (3 of them). Means kids with disabilities and autism. If you are a parent you want the most for your child, maximizing developmental possibilities.

Q: What do you hope will be your affect on that issue?

A: Look at best practices, wrap existing dollars around and exponentially increase services. [gives examples] Interagency communications. Identify core purpose, increase effectiveness of dollars being spent. Kids with disabilities and criminal justice are important issues to me.

Q: Do you meet with frustrated parents?

A: Systems don’t work for them. Can’t get your kid diagnosed until age 6 or 7, but better to use early intervention at earlier age. Medical and clinical people talk in different language than educational people.

Q: What happens to developmentally disabled when parents become older?

A: Parents of all parents plan for children’s future. For parents of developmentally disabled more challenging, want kids to be a nurturing environment. Force agencies to look at individuals not what plate the money comes off of.

Q: Turnover in general assembly, calls for reform post-payraise. What is that like?

A: We had substantial reform with speaker’s commission. Chamber became people’s chamber. [lists reforms] Substantial changes. Some people think it won’t work. We don’t need gimics or tricks but transparency and leadership. A great success and a first step. Hopefully result in a more participatory democracy.

Q: Constitutional constitution convention?

A: I think we addressed the lion’s share of those issues in reforming rules. Other issues, open records, campaign finance, will be dealt with this fall. Seniority will always play a role. Perception of size of legislature and term limits is subjective. [discussion of rural vs urban districts] Each legislator cares about job he or she does.

Q: Who are some of the more interesting people you’ve gotten to meet or know?

A: From the rostrum you see people differently. Things that important to some legislators are not as important in my district. There is great diversity in the state. Some of the colorful figures were giants among men. Most legislators work in a quieter way. All are bright and work for districts.

Q: Hopeful for state.

A: The best science is happening here, biomedical research, etc. nanotechnology, Philadelphia port, transformation of Erie, Pittsburgh and Scranton. Every pocket of Pennsylvania is a treasure. We have to find a way of keeping the best and brightest here. I am extraordinarily optimistic.


Unknown said...

Excellent job, Jane! Thanks for posting this.

AboveAvgJane said...


Thanks. These notes are not as smoothed out as usual. O'Brien could give the governor a run for his money on detailed answers, which are very difficult to transcribe on the fly.