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Harrisburg’s Smartest Staffers: House Democrats

Lawmakers are great, but staffers are the people who make government happen. Here’s our third edition of the best and brightest in each of the four caucuses in Harrisburg. Today: the top 10 House Democratic staff members.

Like 3 of 4 caucuses, the House Dems staff underwent a number of post-Bonusgate changes. Add two sessions in the majority, one session out, and a host of leadership changes, and you have a recipe for change and tumult. But you also have the seeds of a strong team balanced with seasoned staffers. Particularly on labor-related issues (unemployment compensation, prevailing wage, liquor privatization, etc), the caucus has stuck together.

Terrance Alladin, Director, Legislative Policy and Research

Alladin was a New York state trooper who at one time protected Gov. Mario Cuomo before he got his PhD from Penn State. He took over an office in shambles after years as destination for Bonusgate staffers (it was known for document shredding and its former director was indicted). This former ED of the Legislative Black Caucus took it from a member-based to an issue-based organization. He’s hard-working and knowledgeable, though more scholarly than political.

David Brogan, Counsel, Frank Dermody

Like a master tactician organizing his troops for battle, Brogan is charged with Dems’ strategy on the House floor. This parliamentary guru knows every aspect of every procedure in and out: which motions take precedence, who can speak when and on what, and how to find opportunities to trip up the majority. Democrats have one big goal on the Floor: make Republican procedural moves look bad. He does it with regularity.

Bob Caton, Director of Broadcast and New Media, Frank Dermody and Jennifer Mann

We won’t hold Caton’s twitter feed – one of the most active in Harrisburg – against him. This devoted Philly sports fan and Penn State grad has been all around the caucus, including with Speaker McCall and he cut his teeth in Mike Veon’s office. He’s responsible for the Dems’ aggressive new media strategy – and he’s also pretty funny.

Miriam Fox, Executive Director, Appropriations Committee

Not too many top-level staffers survived the transition from Dwight Evans to Joe Markosek on this key committee, but Fox did because she’s intelligent and indispensable. A good go-to-person and one of the strongest women on staff in the caucus, her institutional knowledge is a big asset. Originally from Idaho, she got her Masters from Carnegie Mellon and spent two and a half decades in the government, including a decade at PSERS.

Bill Patton, Press Secretary, Frank Dermody

He’s always among the smartest people in the room – a must-have quality for someone who has survived 23 years of leadership changes. Everyone wants him on their trivia team: he knows the ins and outs of most pieces of legislation from the past quarter century and has an encyclopedic memory of members and when they served. He’s earned a reputation as a hard worker, a good writer, and a spokesman that doesn’t waste time with BS attempts at spin.

Chuck Quinnan, Executive Director, Finance Committee

A quiet guy and a hard worker, Quinnan is a meticulous, sharp and organized staffer. He went from the Aging and Older Adult Services Committee to Finance – not exactly an easy transition – and picked it up quickly. He’s a skilled drafter who’s also good with public policy statements – and he always keeps the forest and the trees in perspective. He’ll sometimes agonize over the last sentence of a letter or a statement just to make sure it’s perfect.

Rebecca Sammon, Analyst, Health Committee

Remember when the ultrasound mandate blew up in the GOP’s face? Sammon was at ground zero, parsing the legislative language and getting co-sponsors to pull out. It’s one of the Dem’s biggest wins so far this session. Sammon started as a point person within the caucus on table games legislation before moving to Health, where she has worked to temper the wave of pro-life legislation in the wake of the Kermit Gosnell case. She’s also politically active – a Luzerne Co. state committeewoman and Executive VP of PA Young Dems.

Mike Schwoyer, Special Counsel, Frank Dermody

Sometimes direct, public opposition isn’t the best way to postpone a vote. For those times, Dems call Schwoyer. He can delay a GOP bill simply by uncovering a technical error in its language. A former staffer for Denny O’Brien, Schwoyer maintains good relationships with members and staff on both sides of the aisle. He’s legally, legislatively and politically savvy and a talented bill drafter. He can focus on about 20 things at a time and still keep the details straight.

Andy Surra, Floor Manager, Mike Hanna

A splintered minority is an ineffective minority. Surra knows the whip count, works his members, and helps keep the caucus together on key votes. He was a frequent face on PCN last session as Mace-bearer to Speaker Keith McCall. There he had a front row seat to parliamentary debates and deal-making, and built relationships with Democratic and Republican members. But his amiable relationship with Reps started at an even younger age: his father, former Rep. Dan Surra (D-Elk), served for nearly two decades. His wife, Sara, is an entertainment reporter for the Patriot News.

Nora Winkelman, Chief Counsel, Frank Dermody

Any time the caucus takes legal action, you can bet that Winkelman is in the room. This Villanova Law grad, former Rendell Deputy Chief Counsel and former Chair of the Lower Merion Township Dems handles the big ticket items. She’s currently directing the challenge to the voter ID law and, if Republicans seek a battle on collective bargaining, they will find Winkelman ready and waiting. Finally, she plays caucus cop, making sure that legislators and staff in the post-Bonusgate world keep in compliance with the law.

A quick explanation of criteria. The smartest staffers are those whose savvy, institutional knowledge and work product make them indispensable to their caucus. Our list is based on submissions, interviews and conversations with lawmakers, lobbyists, reporters and other staffers. With apologies to talented district staff, this list contains those who do their work in Harrisburg.

Editor’s note: this project started back in November, but redistricting and the primary intervened. Thanks to all for patience.

9 Responses

  1. If Quinnan is so bright then why was he named by the Grand Jury as having allegedly taken an illegal bonus?

  2. In the minds of too many registered PA Dems, the party has been hijacked by unpleasant to work with and even more inept at fundraising. Why waste your resources when back room deals always seem to cut down quality talent that doesn’t pass the consortium’s litmus test? The undervote in the past three elections indicate enough voters who feel squeezed out and find the Powers That Wanna Be are driven by an agenda they simply don’t support. They’re riding out this crop of hackers with a diplomatic “No Thanks.”

  3. Well Reason, you can’t blame redistricting when the Democrats held the majority for 4 of 10 years under this map. How exactly is redistricting to blame for turning a 104-98 Democratic majority in 2009-10 into a 112-91 Republican majority in 2011-12?

    Besides, Rep. Dermody seems to like the way that Rep. Turzai draws maps, since he’s voted for both of the LRC maps.

  4. Well Jimbo, the GOP has essentially compensated for the actual will of the people of PA with gerrymandering and “redistricting” – hence the democratic minority in a state with more Democrats than Republicans. I’d say this is PA’s GOP at it’s most politically deceitful and malicious – but honestly, it’s not.

  5. A casual observer would be forgiven for mistakenly thinking that these master tacticians had led their troops into something other than a devastating 19-vote minority in a state with a 1 million Democratic registration advantage.

  6. Can’t we just be happy and applaud those nominated and put on the list? Jealously undermines everything. Congrats to everyone put on the list!

  7. The only correct selection is Andy “Son of Saliva” Surra…his a** kissing skills are unsurpassed…I’m certain nepotism has had nothing – NOTHING – to do with his career.

  8. This list explains why the House Dems are right behind the Senate Dems on the “Harrisburg’s Least Effective Groups” list.

  • Understanding that basic education funding should/will be first, what should be the next highest priority for the General Assembly?

    • Raising The Minimum Wage (25%)
    • Legalizing Adult-Use Marijuana (24%)
    • None of the above. Something Else. (20%)
    • Economic Development (14%)
    • Higher Education (8%)
    • Public Transportation (8%)
    • Workforce Opportunities and Innovation (2%)

    Total Voters: 51

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