Interviews & Profiles

Mentor de force: PA pols dish on who helped guide their careers

What PA politicians learned from those who came before them

Katherine Gilmore Richardson, L, with Blondell Reynolds Brown

Katherine Gilmore Richardson, L, with Blondell Reynolds Brown KATHERINE GILMORE RICHARDSON

There’s a lot to be said about working your way through the ranks. Politics is a realm riddled with conversations about who’s next and what they’re doing to position themselves for the future. 

In our discussions with sources for an upcoming feature, we came across similar responses regarding the impact that mentors and mentees can have in public policy. With that in mind, we asked several lawmakers – from newbies to retirees – about who took them under their wing and what it feels like to follow in the footsteps of their mentors. 

Philadelphia City Council Majority Leader Katherine Gilmore Richardson

Gilmore Richardson cited former Councilmember Blondell Reynolds Brown, recalling the first time she met Reynolds Brown at an assembly at the Philadelphia High School for Girls in 1999. “I was so inspired by her speech that I immediately went home, typed up a thank-you letter on my family typewriter, and hand-delivered it to her house. At 15 years old, I began volunteering and interning in her office. Upon graduating from West Chester University, I took on a full-time position in her office. I held every role you can have in Philadelphia City Council, from constituent services representative to chief of staff,” Gilmore Richardson said. “If it were not for meeting Blondell, her unwavering support, and working with her for 20 years, I would not be the woman I am today.”

Former U.S. Rep. and Philadelphia Democratic City Committee Chair Bob Brady

Brady credited former Philadelphia City Councilmember George Schwartz for helping him throughout his political career. Brady said that Schwartz emphasized the importance of devoting one’s undivided attention during meetings with constituents, stakeholders and others. “He would say, ‘If I’m meeting with you, it doesn’t matter who is waiting to see me. Nobody interrupts me and I don’t take phone calls,’” Brady recalled. Brady went on to share a story about when he put that advice into practice. “I was in my campaign office and an old friend of mine – a grandmother – came to see (me) and her toilet was broken. She was so embarrassed, a woman who was in her 90s having to go to the bathroom at night and dumping it out in the street. At that time I was in a meeting with her and Bill Clinton called. One of my team came in and said, ‘You have a call,’ and I said, ‘I’m talking to Mrs. Martucci.’ They said, ‘It’s the president,’ and I said, ‘I’ll get back to him.’” 

Former state legislator and U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach

Gerlach praised former state Sens. Joe Loeper and David “Chip” Brightbill, and also highlighted former Pennsylvania House Speaker Matt Ryan. “Whenever you start out in a legislative career, there are always leaders in your caucus that take an interest in and look out for you,” Gerlach said. “Matt Ryan was somebody who was there for me in terms of explaining the ropes and helping me understand the process – and taking an interest in my district.” In Congress, Gerlach recalled that another politician gave him great advice. “When I got into Congress, there was a particular committee chairman – Mike Oxley from Ohio, who was chairman of the House Financial Services Committee. Mike was the same kind of leader (as my previous mentors) – wanting to know what’s going on in my district and always wanting to help and give great input.”

Former Gov. Ed Rendell

Rendell recalled how Philadelphia District Attorney and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter had a significant impact on his career. “Arlen taught me a lot of things,” he recalled. “He taught me things that I should do: You’ve got to be the hardest worker in the office. If you want people to work on Saturdays for three or four hours, you’ve got to work on Saturdays for five or six hours. You can’t ask your workforce to do anything that you’re not willing to do yourself. That was as good a lesson as you can possibly learn.” Rendell went on to add: “He said: ‘You’ve got to always be honest, and when you screw up, tell people you screwed up.’ I (did) that in every office that I held; I was not afraid to make a mistake.”