Though he’s new to his office, Councilman Dennis O’Brien is the elder statesman of Philadelphia’s City Council — an unbridled optimist who takes a long view of the city’s problems and prospects.
“Resolution to some of the biggest problems can take three, five or seven years,” he said, adding that he’s very enthusiastic about a chance to put his energies to helping the city. “Philly’s demographics are always going to be challenging, but we have great opportunity.”
Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 2007 to 2008, O’Brien was once the third most powerful politician in the state. Now one of six new freshmen on City Council, with a career of 35 years as a state legislator, he is hardly a novice.
That said, O’Brien admits he’s still trying to find his niche on Council.
“I’m trying to find my voice, as I did in Harrisburg, and I’m trying to find my voice around issues, as I did in Harrisburg,” he said.
As a Councilman-at-large, O’Brien is now free to focus on the entire city rather than on a specific district, as he did for most of his career in the statehouse, or during his tenure as speaker, on statewide issues.
“As an individual legislator, you’re limited,” he said. “What I’m hoping to do is take the relationships I had in Harrisburg and bring them back down here. I just have to re-engineer it.”
His perspective gives him a long view of city politics. In his first several months, he’s introduced little legislation - but said that’s simply his style.
“It’s about quality not quantity,” he said.
It’s difficult to rein in a conversation with O’Brien – an enthusiastic talker with an obvious interest in people – he couches all of his conversation in terms of the things he’s done to help his constituents, often using medical terms, evidence of his long history as an advocate for those with autism.
He’s known across the state for that advocacy. His private office walls are filled with photos, notes and drawings from friends he’s helped during his 35 year career in politics.
“These are my friends,” he said as he explains the significance of each memento.
Summing himself up as an optimist, O’Brien is a rarity in Philadelphia’s political scene – a Republican.
But, his political philosophy does not mirror that of the larger party.
He believes that government plays a vital role in society – largely to act as a facilitator to make sure that everyone – including the poor and disabled – have a voice.
O’Brien was not the party darling when he sought his Council seat. He ran without the blessing of either the committee power brokers or their opponents, a group known locally as the Insurgents. Nevertheless, he won.
His anger at his party’s most powerful state officeholder – Gov. Tom Corbett - is palpable.
“Gridlock has risen to a level that is unrecognizable,” he said. “The partisanship just sucks the wind out of you. Chaos happens when you start limiting yourself to pointing fingers.”
O’Brien points to across the board cuts in the state’s welfare spending. He doesn’t agree with across the board budgeting. While agreeing that some cuts are needed, O’Brien said he’d rather see targeted cuts.
“You can’t just say we’re going to do more with less,” O’Brien said. “It’s always when you need the money is when the economy is the slowest. What we have to do is make sure the programs we have are integrated.”
One of his goals is to redesign the way counties deal with Community Block grants from the state. Under Corbett, the state has decided to cut the grants, and issue them in lump sums to the county, and then let counties decide where to make actual program cuts.
“It’s fatally flawed,” O’Brien said. “It’s all about money - it’s not about serving people.”
He wants to bring service providers together and let them decide where the money should go.
“Everybody that pays or collects the money has to be part of the conversation,” he said. “If you deny people access, their chronic or acute situation is going to get worse, then the costs are going to go up.”
O’Brien also plans to scrutinize spending at nonprofit service providers.
“There are people receiving exorbitant salaries, and that’s my direct care dollars,” he said.
Beyond those two items, he’s still surveying the lay of the land. But, he’s sure that by working together and including everyone in the city, Philadelphia can move forward.
“It’s how you harness that energy, and how you look at problems in a new and innovative way,” he said.