Perzel called an effective leader who courted power

Posted: August 30, 2011

At his political peak, John M. Perzel wielded more power at the state level than any Philadelphia Republican in decades.

A stubborn, streetwise kid from Lincoln High School in the Northeast, he conceived and carried out the 2001 state takeover of the Philadelphia Parking Authority - a move that gave the GOP control over a rich patronage bastion in a mostly Democratic city.

Perzel, 61, who is expected to plead guilty Wednesday to unspecified corruption charges, was also a major player in the 2002 state takeover of the School District of Philadelphia and the subsequent creation of the School Reform Commission.

Former Gov. Mark Schweiker, a fellow Republican, said that regardless of recent "turmoil" within the SRC, Perzel shares credit for "nine years of sustained increases in student achievement."

Perzel was also largely responsible for a 2001 pension act that gave legislators a 50 percent increase in their retirement benefits. To buy support from unions, Perzel and other legislative leaders gave a 25 percent pension increase to all state employees and teachers - obligations the state may struggle to meet in coming years.

He was, essentially, a nonideological Republican, said political analyst Larry Ceisler. As the GOP leader in the House and, later, the speaker of the House, he cared more about getting things done - for the state, for the city, for his party - than about any political philosophy.

"It's sad," Ceisler, a Democrat, said of Perzel's downfall - his arrest and imminent plea agreement on charges of using public money for purely political gain.

"He had the best qualities of a legislative leader," Ceisler said. "And that's to have as little ideology as possible, and to know how to make a deal."

Perzel, who knew that his power as speaker would vanish if Democrats regained control of the House, was a fanatic about employing the most up-to-date computer technology to analyze every important House race in the state down to the block level.

In the end, he forgot - or didn't care - where the boundary lines were. He was accused of spending state money on his computer programs.

"In order to acquire that kind of power, deals have to be made and compromises have to be made, and sometimes those compromises catch up with you," said Mark Nevins, a Democratic consultant.

What motivated Perzel, both friends and enemies said, was what power could do - and the simple thrill of wielding it.

A graduate of a not-well-known college in Alabama - Troy State University - he had washed dishes and worked as a waiter in Northeast Philadelphia.

He seemed to have the same sort of chip on his shoulder that for a long time characterized his part of the city - the feeling of not being respected.

"John tells people all the time, 'My mother worked at a diner in the Northeast. I was a waiter and a maitre d',' " the late Matthew J. Ryan, a former House speaker, said of Perzel in 2001. "I think he is trying to prove something - to himself and to the world."

Everything he accomplished was from guts and moxie.

Schweiker said of Perzel's fall: "In my opinion, it is the height of tragedy. John M. Perzel was not only my friend but someone whose zeal for both public service and politics was boundless."

Whatever else he was, Schweiker said, Perzel was "a hardworking Philadelphia kid who never forgot the people."

Contact staff writer Tom Infield at 610-313-8205 or

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