As former Republican House Speaker John Perzel thinks about his downfall and ponders whether to plot a comeback to a House leadership post or an exit strategy from the House, he must be having some second thoughts.
How was he to know without having a cyrstal ball that the unstated taunt he threw at fellow Northeast Philadelphia Republican Dennis O'Brien year after year, decade after decade, would someday lead to one of the most incredible events in Pennsylvania politics? How was he to know that at the precise moment in which he would most need O'Brien's support, O'Brien would become the successful candidate of the Democratic Party to oust him from the Speakership?
The inherent question of bullies everywhere--What are you going to do about it?--was dramatically answered by O'Brien on January 2, 2007. On that date, shortly after 12:00 noon, the Democrats handed him an army of supporters--99 votes in all, with just 102 votes need for him to become Speaker--and, given that a handful House Republicans were looking for a Republican Perzel alternative to back, made him the instant favorite for Speaker. As unwarned Republicans looked on with stunned horror, O'Brien beat Perzel 105 to 97, with O'Brien's own vote not recorded in his favor due to his young son's monkeying with the switch.
The bullying to which Perzel subjected O'Brien was an example of the overpersonalization that sometimes occurs in politics. O'Brien, an extrovert's extrovert, exuded warmth and self-confidence. Four years after being elected to the State House, he had nearly defeated incumbent Republican Congressman Charles Dougherty in the Republican primary with the active support of the leadership of the Republican City Committee.
His near success in the Republican Congressional primary came with a price however: he surrendered his seat in the legislature, and John Perzel became the senior Republican legislator in Philadelphia in terms of consecutive legislative service. Not even O'Brien's return to the legislature two years later could change that.
Whereas success seemed to come easy to O'Brien because of his personality, goals, and achievements, success for Perzel meant grindlingly hard and repetitious work. From day one as a candidate for the legislature, Perzel felt he had to woo each voter, each worker, each contributor, individually. No one worked harder as a political mechanic than Perzel did, or showed more pride in his work ethic of persistent individual outreach.
The year O'Brien first was elected to the House, 1976, on his first try, was the year Perzel lost his race for the House. But Perzel relentlessly kept on working, and, in the Republican year of 1978, ousted the Democratic incumbent Francis Gleeson, a passionately Democratic attorney who suffered from the seemingly quaint notion that legislators should study issues in depth and make at least some decisions on the merits and not on the basis of politics.
Perzel's relentnessness and political zealotry came with the cost that people who opposed him REALLY OPPOSED him. Gleeson, for instance, would dutifully campaign for every Democratic opponent of Perzel from 1980 through 2006. So Perzel learned that he had to find ways to help the people he hurt.
The classic Perzel maneuver was the takeover. He used the authority of the legislature to give himself the power to appoint the controlling people for the Philadelphia Parking Authority, the Philadelphia School District, and the Philadelphia Convention Center.
A key motive in all these takeovers was patronage in the form of jobs and contracts, but Perzel took care to operate within the zone of responsibility and innovation, and to offer side payments to his victims. Philadelphia teachers lost significant union bargaining rights, for instance, but gained a 25% pension increase. Some teachers felt this was a fair trade, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers morphed from angry critic to enthusiastic Perzel supporter.
Perzel got on the intoxicating treadmill of creating and then appeasing numerous enemies in a dazzling series of bold strikes and creative maneuvers, becoming one of the most powerful legislative leaders in the history of Pennsylvania and one of the most powerful politicians in the history of Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, Dennis O'Brien was busy being Dennis O'Brien, a nice guy who cared about the disabled, the retarded, the autistic, the crime victim, the accident victim, a guy who didn't need a lot of power to win because everybody liked his personality, his platform, and his record of achievement and results.
In 2000, the year the increasingly powerful Perzel won by less than 100 votes against a wheelchair bound crime victim who had become a passionate advocate for the disabled--the kind of guy who would never run against Denny O'Brien--O'Brien did not have a Democratic opponent for the first time.
In 2001, Perzel led the Republican redistricting efforts for Philadelphia, and I led the Democratic redistricting efforts for Philadelphia. For different reasons, we both agreed on abolishing the vacant seat of recently elected Republican Judge Christopher Wogan, but Perzel surprised me with an inquiry to our staff negotiators: what did we think about abolishing O'Brien's seat as well? Before we could formulate a response, Perzel dropped the idea, but not until he had it leaked to the press and given O'Brien a copy of a map with his district cut up into little pieces.
Perzel had first won election as a Republican leader in 1988, after earlier defeats. O'Brien would have liked to have been a Republican leader too, but Perzel's presence in the Republican leadership team in a caucus with only a handful of Philadelphians pretty much elimated his chances. And Perzel clearly outworked and outmaneuvered O'Brien to gain political power: Perzel wanted to be number one most of all and O'Brien most of all wanted to help people who needed help.
If Perzel could have merely accepted that his approach to politics and life was different from O'Brien's, he would likely be Speaker of the House today. But he could not do that. Throughout his life, he had climbed out of poverty and dysfunctional family circumstances through working harder than just about anyone else. He had accumulated far more political power than O'Brien, and for some inexplicable reason, it became important to him that O'Brien face the reality of Perzel's power on a daily basis.
So Perzel would regularly organize press conferences with other Northeast Philadelphia Republican Northeast Philadelphia legislators, and O'Brien would not be invited to participate. Perzel would regularly make clear to media, Republican activists, and Republican campaign contributors, how close other Northeast Philadelphia legislators were to him and the vast power he came to wield--all except O'Brien.
One day my close friend Frank Oliver--the ranking Democrat (Democratic Chairman in Pennsylvania legislative language)--on the Health and Human Services Committee--complained to me that he needed other committee assignments because Perzel was not allowing any significant number of bills to be referred to the Health and Human Services Committee, chaired by O'Brien. Serving on the Health and Human Services Committee had become almost meaningless, he said.
Years later, however, when Perzel had allowed O'Brien to serve as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, my close friend Babette Josephs--the Democratic Chair on the State Government Committee-- would express happiness that the State Government Committee gained jurisdiction from the Judiciary Committee over tort reform issue, because Perzel knew that O'Brien would not rubberstamp Republican policies on these issues.
Before becoming President, Senator John F. Kennedy told his wife Jacqueline that "Sometimes party loyalty asks too much." Dennis O'Brien had reached his breaking point before John Perzel--the master of the politics of using power to entice support one person at a time--had convinced Tom Caltagirone, the Democratic Chair of the Judiciary Committee--to bolt the Democratic Party decision to back Democratic leader Bill DeWeese for Speaker.
Suddenly, the Democratic Party needed Republican allies it could work with to accept the verdict of the voters that it was the party that should govern the House.
Despite the political perils that opposing one's party on a high profile issue like control of the House potentially pose, Dennis O'Brien was available.
James Madison, the constitutional architect of the theory of checks and balances, the theory of ambition being made to combat ambition, would have been proud. The system worked to sharply reduce the power of the man who had exploited the system all too well for personal and partisan gains.