Police presence: If elected to City Council, Dennis O’Brien would like to bring a police station to the 2nd Police District.
If timing is everything in politics, Dennis O’Brien must have an atomic clock inside his head.
After almost three decades as a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, the Republican from the Far Northeast capitalized on the Democrats’ 2007 takeover of the chamber to become its first-ever minority party speaker.
In 2011, when it became clear that he would lose his 169th district seat due to statewide legislative remapping, he ran for City Council. Again the timing was perfect. Republican incumbent Jack Kelly opted not to run, and fellow incumbent Frank Rizzo’s support evaporated because he was seeking another four years despite enrolling in the Deferred Retirement Option Plan. O’Brien won one of the two Republican seats with more than 10,000 votes to spare.
Now, he’s banking on his bipartisan appeal to return to Council for another four years, touting his longtime advocacy for people with disabilities, firefighters, police and public safety. And he’s also calling upon his former Harrisburg Republican colleagues to buck up for public education.
The Northeast Times interviewed him before a recent guest appearance at a meeting of the Fox Chase Homeowners Association.
Northeast Times: Four years ago, you received the most votes among Republican at-large candidates. Are you the frontrunner this year?
Dennis O’Brien: Most people tell me I am, but I don’t take that for granted. I’m running as hard as I ever have. I’m still building the coalitions that I have with law enforcement, with my advocacy for individuals with disabilities, my advocacy for health care and I’m serving the community. For the last 35 years I’ve had the Democrats and the Republicans from all over Northeast Philadelphia vote for me. And I hope they’ll do it again.
NT: As an incumbent, what are your major accomplishments of the last four years? Is creating the Vacant Property Task Force one of those?
DO: (Firefighters Neary and Sweeney were killed) a couple of months after I became a city councilman. So I brought in the administration and said, “I think we ought to get ahead of this issue.” The NIOSH report was going to be scathing. The grand jury report was going to be worse. I asked the administration if we could work together and identify issues that could be curable and move as quickly as we could. The administration really wasn’t interested, so we worked with former commissioners, with national experts, with current and former battalion chiefs and others who had great expertise. … We wanted to make sure going forward that there’s a database for vacant properties so that we could avoid those kinds of catastrophes in the future and so, before anybody enters a building, they know what they’re going into.
NT: What are some of your other key initiatives that you’d like to highlight?
DO: We fought for focused deterrence. We fought against the administration’s plan to hire a private law firm for indigent counsel. And (we fought) notario fraud, because it doesn’t matter who the crime is against, if there’s a crime, we want to make sure the crime is prosecuted.
NT: What did you prioritize four years ago that you’re still working on?
DO: My biggest project is my Philly Autism Project. The first year we came up with 119 recommendations with 135 participants, the best experts from all over the world. We’re in the second phase now, doing the implementation of it. It’s the first municipally driven response to any disease malady in the history of the United States. We’ve got universities, academic health centers, regional health centers, institutions of higher learning and they’re embracing new strategies. We have the court systems. We’re into different conversations for adults (with autism) that have never taken place before. Every year we have earmarked money that will continue the process into the next phase. We have Human Services, Behavioral Health and the school district all involved. When you have those partners, we’ll be able to share infrastructure and have strategies across those agencies to better serve individuals.
NT: As the lone at-large member from the Northeast, how does your presence on Council benefit Northeast constituents?
DO: We’ve met with the FOP and toured all of the dilapidated infrastructure, which are the police stations, the fire stations and the like. We’ve put $25 million in the capital budget so we can start rehabilitating those. The 2nd Police District, their police station is on the other side of the Boulevard. We need a police station in the 2nd district and we’re going to get one. It’s issues like that.
NT: Is there enough police coverage in Philadelphia, specifically in the Northeast?
DO: No. No. Manpower is always going to be a chronic issue. It always has been. But the priority of the police department is to go where the high-crime areas are. I can’t argue with that. But you can’t ignore the quality of life issues that we have in Northeast Philadelphia. We can’t ignore that there are drugs, burglaries and other issues that are becoming systemic and problematic.
NT: As public schools continue to struggle financially and in performance, the city has repeatedly raised property taxes in recent years. How do we approach the problem?
DO: The first thing that has to happen is we have to stabilize education in Philadelphia and that means we need more money in the coffers for education, period. Right now we don’t have a (state) budget, which means your public schools aren’t getting money and your non-public schools aren’t getting any money. So it starts with Harrisburg paying its fair share. They cut us by $350 million. We’re being reimbursed for the school district at the 2007 level. All you’ve got to know is that we have 11 percent of the kids and were cut by 30 percent. And we cannot make that up with property taxes.
NT: Do you support the expansion, reduction, status quo of charter schools?
DO: I think there has to be a tightening of the requirements. There are a handful of really good schools and some of them aren’t performing any better, some probably worse, than the public schools. That has to be changed and they have to be accountable. I think we have to look at new ways of educating kids. My view is to look at kids who learn differently. That’s where we’re failing — kids with ADHD, dyslexia and language processing (differences). We have to get better tools in the classroom to respond to them and then approach the different systems of learning.
NT: Do we need a new prison? If so, where should it be built?
DO: The question of where it should be built is second to the fact … we have a prison that is so old. And the net result will be if we don’t replace that, the Prison Society will file an action in federal court. And a federal judge will say either move (inmates) into a better facility or let them go. And that’s not an option. So we have to look at building better facilities. Would we rather spend money on something else? Absolutely! But the Constitution says that we have to do it for public safety reasons. … The first thing that has to be decided is that we’re going to commit dollars to build a new prison, then we find out where the right location is.
NT: What is your personal motivation for continuing as an elected official?
DO: There are so many issues and communities within communities that I’ve advocated for over these many years and I will continue to do that. I see the opportunity for bringing some of the strategies and models that I created on a state level right here. We’ve implemented them in other parts of the commonwealth and I want to do it here in a robust fashion. ••