ACT TWO FOR JOHN TAYLOR: A Long-Serving Lawmaker Looks Back on His Career

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JOHN TAYLOR: “Someday the public’s going to get tired of this bickering.”

BY TONY WEST
From his office in a Center City law firm, former State Rep. John Taylor can see Harrisburg with the observant eye of someone who served for 34 years in the General Assembly.

Taylor’s legislative career was storied. He served as chair first of the Liquor Control Committee and ultimately of the powerful Transportation Committee, mostly as majority chair. This gave him enormous influence, which he deployed skillfully to advance the interests of his hometown; as one of the few urban Republicans in the House of Representatives, Taylor had clout that none of his Democratic colleagues could muster.

City officials who needed something from the State legislature routinely went to him for help. A modest, practical man, Taylor won respect from both sides of the aisle.

“You’re not a bad person because you belong to the other party,” Taylor said.

Taylor retired from his 177th District seat, which takes in Port Richmond, Bridesburg and Mayfair, last year. He now applies his expertise in transportation to his law practice.
Much has changed in lawmaking since Taylor entered that field – not always for the better, perhaps, in his estimation.

“The flow of leadership has shifted from top down to bottom up today,” Taylor said. “There was a time when leaders – in Harrisburg as in Washington – were very much in control. You would have to be daring to oppose the leadership because they could provide many things or withhold many things.”

Tailored grants for a representative’s districts, for instance – called “Walking Around Monies” or WAMs.

But there were other things leadership could give: a favored parking spot for a nice office – if a lawmaker behaved. Otherwise, Taylor explained, “You’d be sitting in the basement on a book crate.”

Media indignation over WAMs, triggered in Philadelphia by much writerly indignation over the powers of State Sen. Vincent Fumo, led to their abolition in the 2000s. “But they threw the baby out with the bathwater,” said Taylor.

Now, freshman legislators feel emboldened to challenge leaders privately and publicly. Increasingly they act as megaphones for the ideologies of their bases – a trend that started on the right, Taylor said, but now appears on the left as well: “You used to gear our activities to everyday interests, but now you focus on the fringe instead. And it is always safer to vote no than to vote yes on any proposal.”

“I’m not sure which method is best, but this is not the best method for getting things done,” Taylor judged.

Lawmakers Need More Staff to Research Big Issues

Taylor has also grown increasingly concerned about the funding for staffing at any level of government – another position that sets him apart from many would-be reformers.

“We do not spend enough money on staff to dig into opinions, bring in experts,” he said. “The session is short. Important issues are complicated and multidimensional. We need to make bigger investments in understanding root causes of problems.”

The last few years have seen a vogue for people to run for office as “non-politicians.” Taylor is politely dubious of this trend. After a career spent in government, he respects the task of governing as requiring its own separate expertise.

“Some of these guys today who’ve just come in from the private sector, they have no clue,” Taylor sniffed.

Transportation is a big-ticket issue and public transportation is the lifeblood of urban neighborhoods like the 177th District. PennDOT’s southeastern division is the largest in the state.

To get what he needed for his region, however, Taylor had to work sensitively with Republican colleagues from rural regions who often view Philadelphia with suspicion. To do so, he needed to learn their needs.

“My constituents need SEPTA,” Taylor pointed out. “But a guy from Potter County may need subsidization for a transportation network company. And the poor rural districts need Southeastern money.”

Taylor is not without hope for the future of today’s oft-gridlocked political arenas: “Someday the public’s going to get tired of this bickering.”

Taylor is also impressed by the new crop of younger State legislators from the city. “Philadelphia’s delegation is brighter and more educated than ever,” he said. “The new generation is less bombastic. It understands cooperation and compromise.”

Taylor cited State Rep. Jordan Harris (D-S. Phila.) as an example. First elected in 2012, Harris was chosen as Minority Whip in the current session – the second-highest position in the Democratic Caucus. State Rep. Martina White (R-Northeast) is being assigned important roles in statewide policy by the Republican caucus.

Taylor may have excelled at another function that goes almost completely unreported: the mundane chores of constituent service. Taylor’s working-class communities are full of people who need help navigating complex challenges. And Taylor was a champion in that field.

Most State reps only have one office; Taylor kept three. He selected his staff for patience and empathy.

Retirement from the legislature has its charm for Taylor. “I go home on Friday evening and don’t come back to work until Monday morning,” he smiled.

But he misses life on the streets – literally. I went out on the streets constantly, almost every night, knocking on doors,” he reminisced. “Just talking to people and listening to people.

“It was the best feeling in the world.”

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