Central Figure

Dennis O'Brien has made a career in the middle of the political spectrum. Can he lead from there?
by | March 2007

Dennis O'Brien is fond of joking that if he'd made plans for New Year's Eve, he'd still be a backbench member of the Pennsylvania House. As it was, he was handed an unlikely gavel, as the only minority-party speaker in the country. The question is whether he will be able to achieve any sort of working consensus in a bitterly divided chamber and an equally fractious state.

After weeks of recounts and court challenges, it appeared that when the legislature convened this year, Democrats would take control of the House--by a 102-101 margin--for the first time since 1994. But John Perzel, the Republican leader, persuaded one wayward Democrat to support his reelection as speaker.

The Democrats answered with an even bigger surprise. They reached out to O'Brien, a moderate Republican from Philadelphia, to see whether he would be willing to serve as speaker in a bipartisan arrangement. Democrat Josh Shapiro, who placed the initial New Year's call to O'Brien and now serves as his deputy and "new best friend," believed O'Brien could be sold to Democrats while garnering support from a few members of his own party. That's exactly what happened.

O'Brien was a known quantity. At 54, he'd spent nearly three decades in the House, having been elected in 1976 as its youngest member. He had earned a reputation as a law-and-order Republican from his work as Judiciary Committee chairman, but he had supported Democrats on a number of key issues, especially education and aid to the disabled. One reason he agreed to take the speakership deal, he says, is because "on those issues I can be a convener, rather than an advocate."

But O'Brien has a broader agenda as well. He says he would like to refashion the speaker's office as a nonpartisan position that caters to the whole House and not just the interests of one caucus. He has hired staff from both parties and has pledged not to raise campaign cash for colleagues on either side of the aisle. He wants to play a central role in finding the balance among the splintered House, the Republican Senate, and Democratic Governor Ed Rendell.

It will not be easy. O'Brien may be sincere about bipartisanship, but he owes his election almost entirely to Democrats, and his initial appointments indicated a clear willingness to give his Democratic patrons what they wished for. One Republican representative suggested that O'Brien is merely a Democratic puppet.

Still, this may not be a bad time for an unorthodox legislative leader. Fully one-quarter of the House membership is made up of freshmen, elected largely on pledges to clean up Pennsylvania's notoriously stodgy--and dodgy--legislative practices. O'Brien's first order of business was to appoint a bipartisan commission on legislative reform.

It's true, of course, that O'Brien was made speaker in a classic backroom deal, cut in secret and revealed to the whole House only at the last minute. That disturbs some of those pining for change. "Hopefully," he says, "people will see the opportunity rather than the challenge of the way this thing happened."

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