New Pa. auditor general mixes old-school politics with new transparency

Eugene DePasquale , a Democratic state lawmaker from York County, is congratulated by Charlene Lewis on his statewide win. JASON PLOTKIN / Daily Record
Eugene DePasquale , a Democratic state lawmaker from York County, is congratulated by Charlene Lewis on his statewide win. JASON PLOTKIN / Daily Record
Posted: November 27, 2012

HARRISBURG - His first love may have been baseball, but for the newly elected state auditor general, Eugene DePasquale, politics runs a close second.

DePasquale's late grandfather was a popular, pothole-fixing city councilman in Pittsburgh who got things done the old-fashioned way - backroom deals and favors.

Next month at age 41, the three-term Democratic state lawmaker takes office as Pennsylvania's top fiscal watchdog.

DePasquale was first elected to the state House in the aftermath of the legislative pay-raise scandal of 2005. As the representative of an urban district in largely Republican York County, DePasquale quickly made a name for himself as a true reformer.

His decision to post his expenses on his website set the standard for transparency, and his decision to furnish his district office with yard-sale desks and chairs established him as a model of government efficiency.

Now he is preparing to take his campaign of government openness to a statewide level, where he hopes to shed light on state spending.

DePasquale says he decided last year to run after being concerned about some of the spending decisions Gov. Corbett was making, particularly cutting funding and staff at the Department of Environmental Protection - where DePasquale had worked as a top deputy under Gov. Ed Rendell - and shifting funding away from public schools and into economic-development programs.

"Whether you are pro- or anti-drilling, you still need a vigorous department," DePasquale said. "What type of jobs are being created with government assistance? And what is the true employment picture? Do we have a net gain or loss in jobs?"

DePasquale has had a fair bit of good fortune in his relatively short career.

He was serving as head of economic development for the City of York when he was tapped to serve as a deputy DEP secretary in charge of reclaiming old industrial sites and recruiting alternative-energy companies to come to Pennsylvania.

Then the legislative seat where he lives opened up in 2006. He ran and won.

And just three weeks ago, facing a formidable opponent in Republican State Rep. John Maher, DePasquale was swept into office on the high Democratic turnout for President Obama.

DePasquale says that although he campaigned on a platform of holding Corbett accountable, he had no intention of launching a crusade against the governor.

"I'm just interested in making sure the dollars go where they're supposed to go," he said. "Sometimes the government is doing the right thing and sometimes government is doing the wrong thing. I'm working for 13 million people, not looking to get one person."

Raised in the diverse, middle-class Pittsburgh community of Squirrel Hill, where his family ran a neighborhood bar, DePasquale grew up idolizing Pirates Hall of Famer Willie Stargell. He made a name for himself early on as an athletic standout at Central Catholic High School.

His grandfather, the late Eugene "Jeep" DePasquale, was head of the ushers' union at Forbes Field before landing a spot on City Council in 1971, the year DePasquale was born.

The elder DePasquale went on to become famous as the blunt-speaking council president who ruffled feathers while fighting for the little guy.

DePasquale says he is incorporating lessons he learned from his grandfather even as he leaves some of the old-school politics behind.

"I think it takes a mix of old and new to be successful," he said. "Many people today lost track of the grass roots and are so obsessed with big money and TV, they lose track of little things. I return every phone call and pay attention to little things."

While still in high school, DePasquale - who was both a star quarterback and shortstop - got an invitation to try out with the Kansas City Royals.

It was there the reality of pro sports became apparent: The guys in the major leagues were bigger and faster, he said.

So he settled for a Division III school, the College of Wooster in Ohio, where he says he got a great education and was able to play football and baseball.

In 1995, while studying for his master's in public administration from the University of Pittsburgh, DePasquale got a life-altering jolt of news: His father, Alfred, had been arrested on drug-trafficking charges; he ended up serving eight years in federal prison.

Three years later, he lost his brother Anthony to muscular dystrophy.

"My father went to my brother's funeral in shackles," DePasquale says.

His close-up experience with the justice system made him an opponent of mandatory minimums for nonviolent offenders.

"You ask yourself, Are we really winning the war on drugs?" DePasquale said, recalling the stream of women with young children on visiting days at the West Virginia prison. "What really happens is you take these dads out of the communities."

In an interview in his legislative office in the Capitol last week, DePasquale, who went on to get a law degree from Widener, pointed out that sons whose fathers are in prison have a 35 percent chance of ending up there, too.

"I'm on the other side of that statistic," he said.

His father eventually kicked his addiction and is back in Pittsburgh, where he works fixing up houses.

His mother, Josephine, a South Philadelphia native, still runs the family bar, the Panther Hollow Inn with his brother Vincent.

DePasquale met his future wife, Tracey, at a copy machine in the Capitol in 1996 when he was an intern with the House Democratic caucus and she was a high school teacher doing research. They have a son, Benjamin, 13, and a daughter, Sarah, 9.

DePasquale is still a fitness buff who works out daily and is a devotee of the P90X workout routine made famous by GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan - something that made his mother nervous during his campaign.

"My mom said she was worried people would get me mixed up with the guy who wants to get rid of Medicare."

Does DePasquale see the Auditor General's Office as a springboard for higher office? Five previous auditors general have run for governor, including Robert P. Casey, who served two terms, and his son Bob, who lost a Democratic primary in 2002 to Rendell but went on to be elected to the U.S. Senate.

"As I like to tell people, the only two who actually have been successful have had the name Casey," DePasquale said. "I'm 41. If I am fortunate to serve two terms, I'll be 49 and I'm going to need to something else.

"My feeling has always been if you do the job you have well, the other stuff takes care of itself."


Contact Amy Worden

at 717-783-2584, aworden@phillynews.com or follow @inkyamy on Twitter.

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