The story behind a spokesman of many hats, Marty O'Rourke

Marty O'Rourke speaks for a lot of people. In thirty years as a communications consultant in Philadelphia he's worked for Democrats and Republicans, the Philadelphia Parking Authority, the Carpenter's Union, the City Controller's Office and the First Judicial Court System. At the start of his career, he was the spokesman for the Mummer's Fancy Brigade division. He is shown in Port Richmond near Allegheny Avenue on July 13, 2017. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

Read a news story about the city’s parking authority, and there is a good chance you will see his name. News reports on the carpenter’s union, the First Judicial District, or Mayor Kenney’s political campaigning? He’s likely quoted there, too.

Martin “Marty” O’Rourke has built a career speaking for others, pushing out their messages and putting out their fires. His name appears as a spokesman for multiple individuals and entities hundreds of times in newspaper clippings dating to the 1980s.

“Marty is a pro. He’s good at what he does because I think he understands the first rule of our work: Try to stay out of the headlines yourself,” said Frank Keel, another longtime Philadelphia media consultant. “One of the criticisms I get is I tend to lead with an overhand right, whereas Marty is much more discreet and diplomatic.”

O’Rourke, 60, is one of the most visible media consultants in Philadelphia.

His biggest clients in 2016 included the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA), which paid him and business partner Kevin Pasquay $120,000; the Northeast Regional Council of Carpenters, which paid him $7,500 monthly; the Kenney for Philadelphia campaign committee, which paid him $70,000; and the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, which paid him $50,064.

Taxpayers covered much of the $1.6 million O’Rourke has been paid in the last decade by city and state agencies.

“Marty has done a good job for us; he has represented the PPA well,” said Joseph T. Ashdale, chairman of the PPA board. Ashdale said O’Rourke has provided a singular voice for the eclectic six-member board.

“It’s easier to get our message out and respond through one person than have the mike stuck in six different places,” Ashdale said.

O’Rourke, a Democrat who works with clients on both sides of the political aisle, is described by peers as mild-mannered, reserved but efficient. Several spoke highly of his professionalism and willingness to mentor young colleagues, but could offer few personal details about him.

“My life is boring. … With what I do, it’s generally not about me,” O’Rourke said in an interview last week.

O’Rourke, whose father was born in Scotland, of Irish ancestry, and whose mother is from Northern Ireland, immigrated to the United States from Scotland with his siblings and parents when he was 5.

He says his ability to stay calm under pressure comes from two traumatic incidents, both within a two-year period in the early 1980s. He almost lost his brother to leukemia and he had a run-in with British Security Forces while visiting relatives in the conflict-riddled Northern Ireland.

On that trip, O’Rourke, then 26, was interrogated with a machine gun pointed at his head.

“You go through something like that, there’s not too much you can’t put in perspective,” he said.

O’Rourke grew up in Bucks County. He played defensive tackle on the Bishop Egan high school football team and was all-Catholic. He attended Albright University on a full scholarship and played football there.

After serving as a VISTA (now Americorps) volunteer out of college, O’Rourke worked briefly as a congressional aide in Washington. He started working for Jim Kenney shortly after Kenney became a councilman in 1992 and now serves as his political spokesman. The two men have a lot of similarities: They share a deep interest in their Irish heritage, and a tendency to become emotional when discussing immigrants or human rights.

Kenney said he hired O’Rourke as a campaign consultant because his City Hall staff — as city employees — are not permitted to be involved in his political work. Kenney called O’Rourke “thorough and efficient.”

Over 30-plus years, O’Rourke has also worked for the Mummers Fancy Brigade Association; City Controller Alan Butkovitz, a Democrat; and former State House Speaker John Perzel, a Republican, among various politicians; and city and state agencies, some of which can have competing interests.

“I know that he has other clients, but we have never had any conflicts with anybody else that he represents, which is important,” said Joseph H. Evers, First Judicial District Court administrator.

O’Rourke said he handles conflicts as they arise. “I try to avoid that and if there is any conflict, I will recuse myself from one side of it or I will let both sides know,” O’Rourke said.

There is potential for some overlap in his own home, which he shares with his partner of 20 years, Harvey Rice. Rice is executive director of the city’s fiscal watchdog Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, charged with reviewing the city’s annual budget and five-year plan.

“We just don’t discuss it,” O’Rourke said. “He has to be impartial. We discuss other stuff: art, books. We don’t talk about specifics of his position or mine.”

Rice, who met O’Rourke while working on Ed Rendell’s 1987 bid for mayor, called his partner a serious man to his clients who is sweet and compassionate in private.

“He comes off very matter-of-factly but he’s very sensitive. He’s very family-oriented, whether it’s his family or my family. He takes care of people … he’s very loyal to people,” Rice said.

O’Rourke and Rice, 60, have been caring for O’Rourke’s mother, who has Alzheimer’s, for seven years in their Rose Valley home.

“He amazes me every day how he deals with it. She doesn’t know who he is. He does everything for her,” Rice said.

The couple, both vegetarians, have two dogs and recently took in a kitten, which O’Rourke nursed back to health after finding it in the garage.

State Rep. John Taylor, a Republican from Northeast Philadelphia, who also pays O’Rourke to help with his political campaign, also shared a story of O’Rourke’s soft side:

In 2002, Taylor said, O’Rourke was on the campaign trail with him taking photos. It was an extremely hot and humid night.

When they knocked on a door, an elderly woman answered. Taylor said the woman looked “ill from the heat,” and asked her if she had any air-conditioning. The woman said she had one, but didn’t have anyone to install it.

“All eyes of my team turned to Marty who, after all, seemed the most expendable considering his role,” Taylor said. “An hour later, he returned to the group soaking wet with black grease marks on his meticulously starched white shirt. ‘Well, mission accomplished!,’ Marty exclaimed.  ‘I think we have her vote!’ ”

Staff writer Chris Brennan contributed to this article.

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