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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.

Originally posted to State Rep Mark Cohen Dem PA on Fri Jan 05, 2007 at 11:24 PM PST.


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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar? (13+ / 0-)

    Your continued coverage of this issue has been much appreciated.  I'm sure many Kossacks would like to show their appreciation to you with a little mojo.

    Like a Blue New Hampshire? Blue Hampshire. A progressive online community for the Granite State.

    by nhcollegedem on Fri Jan 05, 2007 at 11:37:30 PM PST

  •  Thank you for that (7+ / 0-)

    I'll be passing this along to several people.  Perzel's machinations are truly stunning.  So glad there are some rational Republican minds in Harrisburg.

    How are the lobbyists handling this turn of events?  I was told the were going a little crazy, when Caltagirone made his announcement.

    Just because a person has faith doesn't mean that he isn't full of crap.-- Pastordan

    by Maggie Mae on Fri Jan 05, 2007 at 11:42:58 PM PST

  •  As always, thanks for this (5+ / 0-)

    Do you have a sense now that the PA House may be properly identified as Democratic? In other words, was the decapatation of Perzel sufficient to cement the shift in power that the voters called for? I would very much like to think that Ms. Youngblood, Mr. Caltagirone, and Mr. Cruz will fall back into line.

    •  Pennsylvania House Has Democratic Majority (6+ / 0-)

      With Perzel out of legislative power, he has far less to offer to the three Democratic votes for him and to other Democrats he has enticed in the past.  He still controls to varying degrees the Parking Authority, the School District, and the Convention Center--although the possiblity now exists for changes here as well.

      He is a man who can never ruled out, but his base is clearly far weaker.  Our challenge is to govern with a paper thin Democratic majority, and we will have to both reach out to Republicans and gain seats in order to pass at least some important bills.

      Progressive Democrats have done a lot of good for our country in the past, and can do a lot more in the future. Let's keep going strong.

      by State Rep Mark Cohen Dem PA on Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 12:18:44 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Woot!! the good guys WON one! (7+ / 0-)

    Perzel kind of reminds me of Nixon ... now there was a man who could hold a grudge - and, unwinding like a Greek tragedy, it was the downfall of each of them.

    But the person whom I would most not like to be today is Tom Caltagirone.  (exit cackling, "Treason doth never prosper ... ")

    And I do hope Lieberman was watching very closely.

  •  Your diaries walking us through the labyrinth (9+ / 0-)

    of the Byzantine politics of the PA legislature are treasures. Thank you so much for taking the time to educate us.

    •  Thank you for reading (7+ / 0-)

      Thank you for reading these diaries.  I deeply appreciate the large audience that is interested in our struggles.

      Progressive Democrats have done a lot of good for our country in the past, and can do a lot more in the future. Let's keep going strong.

      by State Rep Mark Cohen Dem PA on Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 12:30:26 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Thx (5+ / 0-)

        Most interesting thing I've read today.  What a story, and you tell it well.

      •  What about Youngblood and Cruz (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Randall Sherman, Allogenes


        I have not heard any Democratic leaders discuss the fact that 2 of their Philly reps voted for John Perzel.  Why?  When the Rep. from Reading announced he was voting for the Republican, you said on this site that he would be primaried out, and would regret his decision.

        Why, when it comes to Philly reps, is everyone silent?  Don't you think this is a potential conflict for Bob Brady, the Chairman of the Philly Dem Party (who should be personally ensuring their future defeats) vs. Bob Brady the Mayoral Candidate (who wants the support of any and all ward leaders)?

        •  Caltagirone's Notice Gave Purpose for Pressure (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          kurt, AntKat, Randall Sherman

          Caltagirone's advance notice of what he was going to do--as brief as it was--gave a strong purpose for pubblic pressure to get him to change his mind.

          I said that if his vote was decisive in electing Perzel, House Democrats would certainly seek to work with Democratic Party officials in Reading to enforce his stated inclination to retire in 2008.

          If, however, I said, we were able to elect a candidate for Speaker without his help, we would want to work him to pass a Democratic legislative agenda in 2007-2008.

          Rosita Youngblood and Angel Cruz, unlike Caltagirone, gave us no advance notice of their intention to vote for Perzel.  Their support for him had no effect on the outcome of the election.

          Certainly, people who cast key votes or take key actions against the interest of the Democratic Party alienate many Democrats, and seriously weaken their base within the Democratic Party.  It is difficult to rebuild a weakened fabric of trust, and this can greatly affect what positions of influence one holds within the legislature and what responsibilities are assigned.

          But neither I nor my Democratic colleagues are powerful political bosses who can purge legislators at will for voting against Democratic Party positions.  Any action against incumbent legislators ultimately depends upon the will of local Democrats, and the willingness of local Democrats to work cooperatively for a common purpose.

          Progressive Democrats have done a lot of good for our country in the past, and can do a lot more in the future. Let's keep going strong.

          by State Rep Mark Cohen Dem PA on Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 01:09:46 PM PST

          [ Parent ]

          •  In that regard PA legislators differ from... (1+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            State Rep Mark Cohen Dem PA

            ...those here in Illinois.  Our House Speaker (for Life?) is Michael Madigan, who is also the Chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party and the Democratic Committeeman of Chicago's 13th Ward on the city's Southwest Side (home to among other things the manufacturing plant of all the Tootsie Rolls in the world).

            By the way, the problem O'Brien had in the vote when his kid tinkered with the togglwe switch would not have happened here in Illinois.  That is because the vote for Speaker is a vocal roll call vote, not an electronic one.

            Most of the legislators here in the Chicago area are major players in local political circles,  either as committeemen (like Speaker Madigan), relatives of committeemen (like one representative who is the daughter of a powerful Hispanic committeeman) or are key members of local political organizations.

            Best wishes to you and to Speaker O'Brien.

            Secretary/Treasurer, Illinois Committee for Honest Government, Chicago

            •  Democratic Perzel Backers Are Active Democrats (0+ / 0-)

              All three Democratic Perzel backers are active Democratic leaders in their respective communities.

              They all represent district where there is little Republican presence and the Democratic Party is very close to being a universal community organization.

              People in Philadelphia tend to speak of being a  committeeman instead of a Democratic committeeman, or a wardleader instead of a Democratic wardleader.

              Ward business tends to be disproportionately community service: getting streets and traffic lights fixed, working on zoning problems, improving the delivery of governmental services,  getting voters registered, making sure everyone knows where the new polling places are.  Since virtually everyone is a Democrat, little persuasive activity goes on, and few people talk about the Democratic Party as opposed to the Republican Party.

              We need active partisan Democrats in local political organizations.  Community service is great, but there are important reasons why people are Democrats as opposed to being Republicans and political leaders need at least occasionally to be reminded of that.

              Progressive Democrats have done a lot of good for our country in the past, and can do a lot more in the future. Let's keep going strong.

              by State Rep Mark Cohen Dem PA on Sun Jan 07, 2007 at 07:35:12 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

  •  Voted (b), but the real answer is (5+ / 0-)

    (a) and (b)

    And when I go back and review the history, with enough time that some of the heat's died down... I still feel the same.

    "I desire what is good. Therefore, everyone who does not agree with me is a traitor." King George III

    by ogre on Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 12:37:36 AM PST

  •  Hi Mark (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AntKat, Allogenes

    Do the pols care that Pennsylvania extends west of Harrisburg? Sounds like everything is Philly this or Philly that.

    Please keep Western PA in mind as you build your website and ask for contributions.

    •  Until Rendell became governor (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      brittain33, Adam B, jerseycorn, Allogenes

      the state totally dissed and forgot about the most populous part of the state, east of Harrisburg. Now when somebody represents the state from Philly, the western part of the state feels shunned. Mark is from Philly, and his dad was one of the great political conscience leaders in our city's history.

    •  You shouldn't worry too much... (0+ / 0-) there seem to be a lot of rising Democratic Party stars in Western PA.

      Pittsburgh has a young new Mayor who I think is going to go places and do important things.  And I think Dan Onorato has the makings of a future governor.

    •  Two Philadelphia Speaker Candidates (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      There were two Philadelphia Republican Speaker candidates because anti-Perzel Republicans, all from outside of Philadelphia, would not vote for Western Pennsylvania Democrat Bill DeWeese for Speaker, even though DeWeese was from a rural area which had many similarities to theirs. My first choice for Speaker was DeWeese.

      They agreed though to support Perzel's fellow Philadelphia Republican Dennis O'Brien.

      The dynamics of the relationship between the two Philadelphia Republicans are of statewide importance now because of O'Brien's defeat of Perzel with 99 Democrats and 6 Republicans other than himself on his side.

      Had DeWeese been elected instead of O'Brien, the Perzel-O'Brien relationship would have been of little importance.  It is the votes cast by rural and Western Pennsylvania legislators for O'Brien that make him suddenly a major statewide figure.

      Progressive Democrats have done a lot of good for our country in the past, and can do a lot more in the future. Let's keep going strong.

      by State Rep Mark Cohen Dem PA on Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 02:35:31 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  Washington County here, south (0+ / 0-)

      of Pittsburgh, way over in the west? keep us in mind, ok?

      And Rep Mark, read every one of your diaries, and am especially grateful for this detailed description of this unprecedented change.

      *Needed* A Dem who can win PA-18 in 2008!

      by AntKat on Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 09:06:05 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  I Know Something About Washington County (0+ / 0-)

        I've been to Washington County a good number of times, and my first choice for Speaker Bill DeWeese represents part of Washington County along with part of Fayette County and all of Greene County.

        I went to college with former Washington County Representative David Sweet, and we were in the Young Democrats together.  Sweet's successor, Tony Colaizzo, maintained a vacation home in Philadelphia (he loved the cultural life of Center City Philadelphia, and being able to walk around without being recognized) and we often often talked about the contrasts between Washington County and Philadelphia.

        Among former members, Vic Lescovitz sat next to me, Leo Trich and I were good friends, and Barry Stout gave me solid advice at the start of my tenure and warm greetings whenever I have seen him since.

        Among current Washington County legislators, Pete Daley and I went to law school together, and  have sat near each other on the House floor for over a decade. Tim Solobay and I have often talked about many issues, and I have supported his passionate interest in volunteer firefighters.  Jesse White and I have talked about our respective interests in blogging, and I look forward to getting to know him better.

        Washington County and Philadelphia have in common areas with a strong sense of community, strong desires for civic improvements, and needs for services and infrastructure relevant to the needs of their respective citizens.

        If there is something about Washington County that you think I should know, please get in touch with me.  If you want to know what Washington County legislators think of me, just ask them.

        Progressive Democrats have done a lot of good for our country in the past, and can do a lot more in the future. Let's keep going strong.

        by State Rep Mark Cohen Dem PA on Sun Jan 07, 2007 at 08:18:22 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

  •  Thank you very much for the "behind the scenes" (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    andgarden, kurt, AntKat, Randall Sherman

    account of this leadership battle in the Pennsylvania House.  It is enlightening and relevant to see what factors lead to the elevation of O'Brien to House Speaker.  

    Once upon a time, stories like this would actually be researched and published in newspapers, like the Patriot News, for example.  But modern media is more concerned with a house fire than a political one.  Sad.

    Thank you for shining daylight on the internal workings and the politics of the Pennsylvania House!  Well done!

    "Make it so." - Jean Luc Picard, USS Enterprise

    by chrispadem on Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 11:28:11 AM PST

  •  Thanks for writing this (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    AntKat, quadmom

    I always appreciate your insightful articles on PA politics.

  •  So are you the guy who approached (0+ / 0-)


    Be good to each other. It matters. [me] --o-- Odd Republican politician: Bill Sali

    by AllisonInSeattle on Sat Jan 06, 2007 at 11:43:33 PM PST

    •  Conversations with Dennis O'Brien (3+ / 0-)

      In the 1993-1994 session, when several Democratic legislators switched to the Republican Party--an early warning of the trouble the Democratic Party would face nationally in 1994, I talked to Denny about switching now or sometime in the future after the death of Republican leader Billy Meehan, whose protege O'Brien was.

      He warmly thanked me for initiating the discussion, but made clear that he thought his future was in the Republican Party where he had many friends and where he was allowed to vote as he chose to without repercussions.

      Numerous other people had similar conversations with him before and since.  Both his voting record and his district showed increasing affinity with the Democratic Party over time.

      Rep Joshua Shapiro of Abington heard how he had responded to an inquiry made of him in 2005.  He laughed heartily and said he would only switch to the Democratic Party if the Democrats would elect him Speaker.  His inquirer also laughed heartily at this bizarre suggestion and walked away.

      Shapiro deserves credit for recognizing that the Democratic takeover of the House by an election, and the betrayal of the voter mandate by elected House Democrats (we knew of one at the time but ultimately there were three) had created an unprecedented situtation in Pennsylvania politics.

      He also knew how highly O'Brien was regarded by both Governor Rendell and many House Democrats.

      So he thought that it was worth checking whether O'Brien's "joke" might now really be a bargaining position.  O'Brien was stunned to find out that Democrats were interested in him for Speaker, but not so stunned that he refused to engage in discussions about how he would handle the Speakership.

      In the end, the Democrats were convinced that a) having O'Brien would not be as good as having a Democrat, and b) having O'Brien would far, far better than having another term of Perzel.

      "We have no choice, " Democratic Majority Leader and Speaker nominee told me and others with passion and vehemence and some language that it's not appropriate to quote.   "He's the only one we can support who can beat Perzel and it's far better for us to have him than Perzel. "  DeWeese added we should try to work out differences with O'Brien over time.

      Progressive Democrats have done a lot of good for our country in the past, and can do a lot more in the future. Let's keep going strong.

      by State Rep Mark Cohen Dem PA on Sun Jan 07, 2007 at 07:58:01 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  Fantastic story (0+ / 0-)

        Thanks for taking the time to share it.

        O'Brien sounds like a man of honor.

        Congratulations to Shapiro for following through with the opportunity, same to the rest of you.

        Was just in a conversation elsewhere with some gal who tosses out gratuitous insults at Republicans here, like she's adding the Parmesan to spaghetti. I gotta tell you, it just grates on me. We need honorable Republicans. The whole party isn't going to evaporate overnight, and we might not be well off if it did.

        Be good to each other. It matters. [me] --o-- Odd Republican politician: Bill Sali

        by AllisonInSeattle on Sun Jan 07, 2007 at 11:27:13 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

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