Sage advice: PA’s senior politicos dish on what their successors should – and shouldn’t do

Words of wisdom from both parties for the next generation of policymakers and public officials.

From left to right: Mark Schweiker, Ed Rendell; Katherine Gilmore Richardson with Blondell Reynolds Brown, Jim Gerlach and Bob Brady

From left to right: Mark Schweiker, Ed Rendell; Katherine Gilmore Richardson with Blondell Reynolds Brown, Jim Gerlach and Bob Brady Wikimedia Commons; Siavosh Hosseini/NurPhoto via Getty Images; KATHERINE GILMORE RICHARDSON; Universal Images Group/Getty Images; Wikimedia Commons

With age comes wisdom – and, when it comes to political experience, a whole lot of stories to tell.

City & State spoke with an array of former and current public officials to hear about memorable lessons from their time in office, what they may have done differently, and any advice they’d like to pass on to the next generation of public officials.

The responses were quite varied. From former Gov. Ed Rendell recalling the importance of communication, citing a crisis during his first year in office, to former members of Congress stressing the necessity of working across the aisle, Pennsylvania’s politicos had plenty of wisdom to share. 

In today’s climate, civility in politics can be in short supply, but those who spoke with City & State underscored just how important it is to work across the aisle, including with lawmakers from different backgrounds, to get things done. 

Bob Brady, a former Member of Congress from Philadelphia who currently chairs the Philadelphia Democratic Party, said those working relationships in Congress are becoming more rare. 

“When I was in Congress, we worked with people,” Brady said. “We had parameters but we still talked to each other and worked things out. That doesn’t happen now.” 

Brady pointed to farm bills as an example of how he built relationships with lawmakers representing rural districts. “If you’re a congressperson, you’re working for the district, but you’re still working for the American people. I voted for a lot of farm bills and the only farm in my district was the people growing pot plants outside their window,” he said. “But when I needed a vote for a city piece, the same folks whom I helped in their farming district helped me with my piece. We've got to work together on this stuff because (otherwise) the American people suffer.” 

Similarly, Republican Jim Gerlach, a former state lawmaker in Harrisburg who also spent more than a decade in Congress representing, at the time, Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District, echoed Brady’s sentiment. 

“It’s really important to – No. 1 – understand who you represent and set your goals and objectives around constituents’ needs’ in the communities you represent,” Gerlach told City & State in an interview. “No. 2, be willing to work with everybody across the aisle or even members of the same caucus who might have a different type of district that you have. Be willing to be open to the ideas and thoughts of your colleagues and willing to find common ground to move things forward.”

Gerlach stressed the importance of remaining civil during the legislative process and working to find common ground. 

“Most importantly, be civil. Understand that they’re representing their constituents and you’re representing yours, but you can always find common ground if you work hard enough,” he said. “If you’re civil and you’re open and you’re a serious legislator, in terms of wanting to get things done, you’re going to find opportunities to be successful.”

At the city level, Philadelphia City Council Majority Leader Katherine Gilmore Richardson recalled lessons she picked up from her mentor, former Philadelphia City Councilmember Blondell Reynolds Brown. 

“I had a front-seat view into her life and the world of politics. I had the opportunity to do meaningful work and I was able to see first-hand the impact government can have on people’s everyday lives,” Gilmore Richardson told City & State. 

“However, what I learned most is the importance of practicing good habits and remaining prepared,” she added. “I am reminded that you are what you do each day, and that excellence is not an act, but a habit.”

Maintaining civility and fruitful working relationships seems difficult enough in today’s political climate, but what about actually securing support from policymakers and getting things done? To do that, former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, who also served as mayor of Philadelphia, the city’s district attorney and head of the Democratic National Committee, said effective communication is key to obtaining buy-in on political priorities. 

“Communication is key,” Rendell told City & State in an interview. “If you want to be successful, if you want to make change happen, explain it again. Government is a two-way street. You can propose stuff, but you’ve got to get buy-in.”

Rendell admitted that no matter how well an issue is communicated, there will likely be times when public officials won’t get the buy-in on a priority or issue that they’re looking for. “You gotta communicate the good, the bad, why you're making changes, why you’re making cuts – and sometimes it doesn't work. Sometimes you can explain all you want and it doesn’t matter,” he said. 

However, Rendell also underlined the importance of using symbols to give people hope in times of need. 

He recalled reopening the city’s pools during his first year as mayor in 1992, a move that came despite the city facing financial hardships. There’s a well-known photo of Rendell jumping into a pool after the reopening – and Rendell views both the reopening and the photo as a prime example of how symbols can impact the public. “When we opened the first pool that had been closed, I jumped into a bathing suit and (dove) into the pool with the kids. That made the front pages. Again, these are symbols. I was giving the people symbols that things were changing and examples that things were changing. It made them feel that there was hope,” he said. “That was a lesson that I learned: Try to bring about hope in any political subdivision.”

Another former Pennsylvania governor, Republican Mark Schweiker, took over the office in 2001 following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks after then-Gov. Tom Ridge was selected to lead the U.S. Department of Homeland Security by then-President George W. Bush.

During his tenure in office, Schweiker oversaw the successful rescue of nine miners trapped in the Quecreek Mine in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, and was also a key figure as the state rebounded from 9/11.

In an interview with City & State, Schweiker recounted not just lessons he learned about governing and policymaking, but about how to take care of yourself as a statewide public official. 

“You’ve got to treat yourself right and not burn out,” he said. “What I mean by that is there are times when you need to kind of step back, and be reflective, and be more contemplative as it relates to the many challenges of the job – whether it’s legislative, emergency response, whatever it might be. That is one observation I’d share with anyone who holds statewide office, particularly governor, because the job is relentless.”

Schweiker also said it’s important for the governor to strike a balance between policy and administrative work and meeting with Pennsylvanians, especially in times of crisis, like 9/11. “My job was not just to be the top executive and guide administrative and legislative efforts; it was also to not be confined to that office in Harrisburg and get out there, venture forward and rally Pennsylvanians that we're going to be stronger when this is done,” he said. 

“You have to balance it, and that's where that reflection and treating yourself right comes in,” he said, later adding: “I don't think there's any more memorable way to fortify one’s outlook than to get out of the Capitol, rub elbows with regular people – because they’re a little more literate than some legislators acknowledge.”

On the policy front, Schweiker said the governor also effectively serves as the state’s top consensus builder. “The governor’s job is not just the CEO of state government, but Pennsylvanians expect you to fit the bill as the chief consensus-building officer, as well.” As for how to reach consensus in politically divisive and drought times, Schweiker urged policymakers to focus on areas of common ground.

“Let’s emphasize what unites us,” he emphasized, “and get away from that which divides us.”