An Inside View of Pennsylvania’s Master Wonk

Posted by By at 7 January, at 10 : 42 AM Print

Scott Paterno

The first time I met Steve MacNett I had no idea who he was – that is, I had no idea that he was one of the most brilliant strategists I would ever know.  In truth, I was quite the naïf then; I interviewed with Bob Jubelier and Mike Long, Chip Brightbill and Jake Corman, all the while thinking to myself “man, look at the wood paneling.”

They were just guys to me – in some cases guys, I had known for a couple of decades. Jake was “J. Doyle’s Boy,” a title I should have dismissed having been merely “Joe’s youngest.” Jubes and Jake were known quantities; Mike Long the type of tactical genius with a love for the sucker punch; and dear old Chip the aw shucks Pa Dutchman who just loved “the folks.”

And then there was Steve. I only worked for him for about 100 days – I left shortly in my tenure to pursue a congressional seat – but in that short time and in our dealings since I came to realize he may have been the one thing that kept it all running. When you consider both his success and his longevity, it is a wonder they haven’t named a room after him yet.

To see Steve in action was to be both amazed and overwhelmingly confused. His “war room” was a conference table, the floor, a desk in the corner, his desk, YOUR desk – you name it. And the crazy SOB knew where it all was. You could ask him about any piece of legislation pending and if he said he didn’t know it he was both lying, and telling you it was DOA.

In those first few days, in the beginning of the fall of 2003, I thought he was just a sleepy Government Bureaucrat. I had just spent the previous 3 plus years in a big law firm, working 80-hour weeks and HATING friends with Government gigs. The pace in the Senate was 8-4:30, sleepy, and too dull for me (hence the quick exit). But that was the bulk of us – Steve was always busy, always working, and indispensable to the people for whom he worked.

Steve was always nice enough to give me counsel when I was running, explaining the ins and outs of legislation he had, in the main, drafted, introduced, shepherded and passed – all while never holding an elected rank. He was affectionately called the 51st senator, a title that indicated the total number of senators in the chamber plus him, not his rank in importance among those 51 people.

The loss of Steve to the chamber is almost too great to summarize. While his role will be filled, no one – no one – will ever be able to replace him. His tenure dated back to the Johnson administration; he outlasted Pro Temps, Governors, changes in majority status and even the pay raise. Through it all, his counsel was wise and realistic.

You may not have agreed with all he helped achieve, but at least respect this: he accomplished those goals regardless of the lay of the land. The powers that be merely set the rules – Steve was the master of winning once the parameters were established.

This may seem overly flattering, and it probably is. None of what I am saying has anything to do with the substance of what he achieved – I was then and always will be impressed by his mastery of the process. Few people understood all the ways to get done the business of Government. For five decades, through his knowledge and his counsel, Steve MacNett has set the standard – and he will be missed.

And with Steve the last legend of the Jubelier Era is out of the building.

The last 7-8 years have witnessed a remarkable change in Pennsylvania politics. There is no more Santorum, Specter, Jubelier, Brightbill, Mellow, Perzel, Fumo, Murtha or Bud Shuster. The loss of experience and clout – and now the loss of the staff knowledge – makes the future very interesting for Pennsylvania.

With Tim Holden the dean of the delegation – and now a minority party Pariah, assuming he votes to repeal Obamacare – and with Casey saddled to a weakening President in a caucus sliding toward the minority as well, the most influential national Pennsylvania congressional member is…

We are about to witness the emergence of the next Pennsylvania leadership class. Steve’s retirement was just the marker that the transition is now complete – and notice that the next chapter will be written in a different hand.

(MacNett usually managed to stay out of the fray, but after more than 40 years in the legislature he got caught up sometimes in the debacles of the day, you can read more about that on Rock The Capital.)


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This post was written by:
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Scott Paterno is an accomplished policy analyst and political consultant based in Hershey, PA. Mr. Paterno, never one to sit still, has practiced law, run for a house seat, and worked as lobbyist in Harrisburg and Washington. Paterno is Vice Chairman of the Sustainable Energy Fund and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Political Science. He is happily married with three children. - Email scottp

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