Influential state Capitol reporter DeCoursey is remembered

Posted: January 04, 2014

HARRISBURG In the state Capitol, Pete DeCoursey was both the guy you wanted to talk to - and the one you didn't.

The Philadelphia native, who uprooted himself more than two decades ago to pursue a journalism career, made his name in government and political circles not just by the stories and columns he wrote for the online news service Capitolwire, but by who he was: a sometimes stubborn, sometimes prickly, always whip-smart reporter with a penchant for telling the political story behind the story.

"He was the preeminent truth-seeker in the state," said former Gov. Ed Rendell, with whom DeCoursey often got into verbal sparring matches during news conferences.

"He wasn't one of my favorites," said Rendell, but he added: "He was indefatigable, relentless, and never let up. And as a result, most politicians either feared or hated him. Because most politicians do not tell the truth."

DeCoursey, 52, died Wednesday after a years-long battle with pancreatic and lung cancers.

In the Capitol on Thursday, politicians, lobbyists, government workers, and former and current colleagues paused to swap their favorite stories about DeCoursey, usually referred to by his last name. Social media sites lit up with tributes. His death became a news story.

Though not the longest-serving correspondent in the Capitol newsroom, DeCoursey quickly established himself as one of its most influential. Writing first for the Harrisburg Patriot-News and later for Capitolwire, DeCoursey's stories and columns were a must-read for anyone who worked in the government or who had a stake in state business.

After they were no longer constrained by print news holes, DeCoursey's columns were long - some joked, painfully so - and contained his own analysis of the facts after exhaustive reporting on the news or issue of the day. He was not shy about expressing his opinion.

"He had a huge intellect and a huge ego, and the two mixed together made him a really good reporter," said Brad Bumsted, a friend and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter who occupied a desk near DeCoursey for a decade.

Gov. Corbett put it this way: "Pennsylvania has lost a great political writer."

Longtime friend Mark Bernstein, a writer in Philadelphia, said DeCoursey early on showed a passion for politics and history, as well as the history of politics. He recalled how the two loved to play the board game Mr. President when they were young, and how DeCoursey, who grew up in Mount Airy and graduated from William Penn Charter School, relished debating his teachers on issues such as the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War.

"Pete always believed that people wanted to know what the actual truth was - and the way to get to that was to debate," said Bernstein. "So Pete would debate everything."

While attending Yale University, DeCoursey volunteered on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's presidential campaign, and later worked on James J. Florio's New Jersey gubernatorial campaign.

He later returned to Philadelphia, where he worked as an aide to City Councilwoman Ann Land and, later, as a press secretary to U.S. Rep. Robert A. Borski (D., Phila.).

But DeCoursey decided that politics only let him tell half the truth, said Bernstein, so he switched careers to journalism. He landed in Harrisburg in 1997, after seven years of working for the Reading Eagle, and chronicled the ups and downs of four governors. His colleagues on Thursday called him "a student of politics" with an encyclopedic knowledge of state government.

Even after his diagnosis, DeCoursey doggedly continued writing and reporting. His last Capitolwire column appeared Monday.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati said he called DeCoursey, who had recently undergone surgery, on Christmas to see how he was feeling.

"He told me about his surgery and then he proceeded to interview me about a story," said Scarnati. "I just think that the man was brilliant and he loved what he did."

Mr. DeCoursey is survived by children Ben and Ellie; parents Robert and Marjorie; a brother, Sam; sisters Mary John and Ruth Jacobs; and ex-wife Diana Fishlock.

Funeral services will be at 11 a.m. Jan. 11 at Christ Church and St. Michael's Episcopal Church, 29 W. Tulpehocken St., Philadelphia.

Donations may be made to a scholarship fund for Mr. DeCoursey's children at 157 Lucknow Rd., Harrisburg, Pa. 17110.



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