He's Philly's longest-serving member of the Pa. House Irish-American Caucus

Rep. Mike O’Brien-16032018-0001
Rep. Mike O'Brien speaks during the first day of budget hearings on the 2017-18 state budget.

Philadelphia Democratic State Rep. Mike O’Brien is one of those gritty, irreverent Irishmen who can talk like a dock worker, but who has a soft side and laughs easily.

He lives in the same Hagert Street house he grew up in, which he says is in Kensington, Port Richmond, or Fishtown depending on which neighborhood is deemed to have the higher real estate value.

The 63-year-old, six-term incumbent represents a River Wards district running from Allegheny Avenue to Washington Avenue, and including landmarks such as the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.

“I take great joy in representing Speaker Franklin’s district,” he says. (Benjamin Franklin was Pennsylvania House speaker in 1764.)

O’Brien is the city’s senior member on the House Irish-American Caucus. Mid-March seemed like a good time to chat with him. I caught up with him at his Capitol office.

What exactly does the Irish-American Caucus do?

Once a year, [Chester County Republican Rep.] Tim Hennessey brings in a group of skilled young girls with curly hair to perform Irish dancing. Then we host a lunch here in the Capitol. And that’s about it.

And lunch is?

Corned beef and cabbage, of course.

When I looked up the caucus, I couldn’t find any list of Republicans. Why’s that?

Because they’re ashamed of it. [Note to reader: There’s no indication this is true.] Because there’s Irish, which means they’re all Dems. But then there’s Scotch Irish, who are not God-fearing Democrats, but heathen Republicans and Presbyterians.

The sign on the transom over your office door reads, “Legislate like a champion today,” a play on the iconic Notre Dame football locker room sign, “Play like a champion today.” Do you leap up and slap it on the way to sessions?

Absolutely. My daughter went to Notre Dame. The sign is autographed by Joe Montana [former Notre Dame quarterback and NFL Hall of Famer].

What issue in your time in the House most got, shall we say, your Irish up?

Casino issue. [SugarHouse is in his district.] It was jammed down the people’s throats by Ed Rendell and company. The process of getting it here, of how it was done, could have been a lot better.

Too little openness, too few negotiations on basics such as distance from curbs to the casino, setbacks, distance from river set-asides. Now, thanks to the fierce battle of a lot of the neighbors, thanks to other waterfront development under Mayor Nutter, I think it turned out OK.

What do you hear about most now from your constituents?

Understand that in my district [the 175th] there are lots of very rich people and lots of people life hasn’t smiled on. People living on dollars from the ’70’s. When they retired, say in 1980, they were doing all right. A pension, Social Security, maybe $1,000 a month.

But living on 1980 dollars don’t make it in 2018. These are folks who worked hard all their lives. Took their kids to Mass every Sunday, coached baseball. Now they’re not cutting it. So, one of the things we spend a lot of time working on is welfare issues. It’s heartbreaking.

What has changed most for you since you came to the House?

The House changed with the loss of Matt Ryan [the late House speaker and longtime Delaware County representative]. I’m a Democrat. Matt was a Republican. I was a member of House staff. Nonetheless, he was truly a gentleman. He was tough. But he was a man of the House. The man of the House.

There was the institution, and respect of the institution. And that’s gone now. It tends to be a free-for-all. And that’s the biggest change I’ve experienced.

Philadelphia isn’t always popular in the legislature. Do you think the city gets too much, or not enough, or what?

I was talking to a member today from Monroe County who said, ‘They’re starting to campaign against me’ for giving everything to Philadelphia. And when that stuff starts, I tell my colleagues, introduce a bill to have Philadelphia secede and I’ll be the first cosponsor. Separate state. I’ll gladly give up two congressmen for two senators.

The Peoples’ Republic of Philadelphia. Then you know what we do? Keep all our money. All our tax dollars. Then tax your tickets to the Phillies, all sporting events. Not for Philadelphians — for everybody else. Put a surtax on our hospitals for non-Philadelphians. I tell them, ‘We’re self-sufficient. Are you?’

What do you think the legislature does well?

What it does exceedingly well is this. There’s a mentality in this building and a different mentality when you go home.

I’ve had some members of this House who are absolute total cretins. But they’ll call my office and say they have a constituent who has some problem in my district. Can I help? They say. `Will you help me help them?’ That’s what’s done well. Taking time to reach out and help people.

What’s the best part/worst part of your job?

The best part is you can help people. The worst part is you can’t help everybody. One Friday afternoon, quarter to 5, I get a call in my district office. A woman screaming, ‘The baby’s dead! The baby’s dead!’ Young couple living across the street. Sudden infant death. Standing at the window trying to figure what I can do, that was the worst feeling, the worst part.

But there’s also a funeral parlor across the state. I call. Funeral director tells me when his grandfather came from Ireland, he was working with St. Vincent’s Home for Unwed Mothers. One of his jobs was burying stillborn infants. He became a very successful funeral director, credited the Holy Innocents, and promised that his family would never charge to bury a baby. I just stumbled upon that. So, I could help.

Philly’s delegation is often viewed as cloutless when it comes to Philly’s needs. Given almost all are Democrats in a Republican legislature, is that fair? Accurate?

I see a great future for Philly in Harrisburg. I have such great regard for the young people in our delegation: Donna Bullock, Joanna McClinton, Jordan Harris. Those who are coming along. I tell them, ‘Any one of you can be speaker someday.’

What are you doing for St. Patrick’s Day?

Listening to Irish music and having a parting glass for friends that have left me behind.

Why are there no female leprechauns?

Actually, there are no leprechauns, period. [Note to reader: There’s no proof that this is true, either.]