Pete Gleason learned politics from two pros — Governors Ridge and Schweiker. Now he’s the pro, heading up the government affairs practice at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart
Published in 2005 Pennsylvania Rising Stars magazine
on November 25, 2005
Updated on March 3, 2016
“You and your wife are just like James Carville and Mary Matalin.”
Pete Gleason hears this all the time. And sure, there are similarities. Both he and Carville are experienced political advisers, the Ragin’ Cajun for the left and Gleason for the right. And like Carville, he is married to someone from across the political aisle (his wife, Shannon, worked for 15 years for Democrat State Rep. Bob Belfanti before leaving to stay at home with their children, Maggie, 4, and Patrick, 3). But Gleason insists there are important differences. “I have more hair than Carville,” he laughs, “and Shannon is even lovelier than Mary Matalin.”
There’s one more distinction: Gleason still practices law. Gleason today leads the government affairs practice at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham in Harrisburg after spending many years in politics. At 38 he has built a thriving career around his love of both legal and political work, which are passions he shares with his father, Patrick, who was an attorney and three-term state representative before passing away at age 42. In fact, if Gleason resembles anyone from public life, it wouldn’t be Carville. It would be his dad. “He was a superb lawyer, smart as hell and dedicated to public service,” says Gleason.
Gleason hails from Johnstown, Pa., an old steel town that disappeared in the 1970s like so many industrial towns of the time. He remembers his family sticking out in the community for its political views. “We were a Republican family in a town that was heavily Democratic,” Gleason says, noting how his father taught him and his two sisters how to get along with neighbors of different opinions. “My father was the consummate diplomat.”
He excelled in baseball at Bishop McCort High School and at one point aspired to play pro ball. He was recruited to pitch for Arizona State University and performed well during four seasons (“I had more wins than losses, which was not difficult for a middle relief pitcher at a powerhouse like Arizona State”). When he realized he’d never take the mound for the Pittsburgh Pirates — he figures he could have gone as high as A or AA ball — Gleason turned his sights on a career in government.
After graduating from college in 1989 with a bachelor of science degree in history, Gleason snagged a position as a special assistant to Sen. John Heinz, a longtime family friend, serving as a public liaison between the senator, the business community and political supporters. His tenure ended when the senator died in a plane crash in 1991. “I always look at him as the type of politician I was taught to admire and emulate. He never gave up when he wanted to accomplish something,” he says. He took away the same lesson from Heinz’s early death as he did from his father’s: Live life aggressively.
After Heinz’s death, Gleason’s uncle advised him that if he was serious about pursuing both law and politics, like his father, he should attend law school at night and find a day job in government. “That was the best advice I ever got,” Gleason says. He enrolled in night courses at Widener University in Harrisburg and worked during the day as the senior staff person managing a host of high-profile projects for the Republican leader of the State House of Representatives, Matt Ryan. He also worked for John Perzel, who is now the House Speaker, heading a task force on House legislative reforms of the rules of procedure.
After graduating from law school in 1995, he joined Gov. Tom Ridge’s administration in the Department of Labor and Industry to manage legislative policy and constituent priorities. In 1997 he moved to the governor’s office and became deputy secretary of legislative affairs, advising Ridge on issues such as business tax reform and legal liability reform that impacted more than a dozen agencies. It was a heady job for a young man. Among his proudest achievements was serving as the point man for the workers’ compensation reform.
In 2001, after Ridge departed office to become the head of Homeland Security, Gleason became secretary of legislative affairs under Gov. Mark Schweiker. This time his work centered on tort reform. His initiatives pitted the business and medical communities on one side against organized labor and the trial bar on the other, with the insurers stuck in the middle.
“It was a momentous battle,” Gleason remembers. The business and medical communities had been trying to get action on tort reform for decades, he explains, and Schweiker pledged to move it forward no matter what the political fallout. “In turn, that put me in an awkward position with committee chairs on both sides,” he says.
Adding to the tension, the administration was also trying to fill a $1.4 billion budget gap. Just as it was ramping up on budget reform, tort reform came to a head. “It put us in a very difficult position with leaders that were not as sympathetic about getting tort reforms passed or, equally frustrating, with those who were more committed to getting the budget done first. Mark was a bit idealistic and could be stubborn as heck, and there were some very difficult moments when we were lobbying the rank and file.”
Schweiker, now president and CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, recalls Gleason’s role in getting the budget approved. “It’s a time when your savvy is really tested. There are 253 legislators and 30 or 40 committee chairs. You have to be available at a moment’s notice to deal with legislators and committee chairs to make sure the budget document meets with their considerable interests, so you operate on minimal sleep,” he says. “The balancing act falls to someone like Gleason, who did a superb job. The strength of his work ethic rivaled the strength of that pitching arm.”
Schweiker, in turn, taught Gleason about dogged optimism. “He convinced me that if you truly believe you can and must win, you can,” says Gleason. The budget was passed and the administration’s tort reform efforts, the “Fair Share Act,” was signed into law in June 2002.
After Schweiker left office in 2002, Kirkpatrick & Lockhart offered Gleason a newly created position to expand the firm’s government affairs practice. He serves as lawyer-lobbyist, concentrating on legislative and regulatory matters and representing Fortune 500 companies such as U.S. Steel, H&R Block and CSX Transportation. In addition, Gleason has structured his practice so that it complements Kirkpatrick & Lockhart’s traditional legal services with a political overlay when appropriate.
Gleason used to see the governor’s arrival each day from his first office, which overlooked the state capitol. “Gov. Rendell was always running late,” he says with a smile. In August the firm moved to a building with a slightly more modest view of the capitol.
Gleason’s office is cluttered, he admits — with regulations, bill analyses, letters and memos scattered everywhere. But he insists he’s not unorganized. It’s the nature of his work, and it’s not a lot different from when he worked in the governor’s office. “You have to figure out how to balance dozens of issues at a time, and you might get an unexpected phone call from a committee chair, for instance. I like to have everything at my fingertips,” he says.
Matt Tunnell, a consultant at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart who has known him for more than a decade, adds, “The stereotypical lobbyist has great relationships and can wine and dine and glad-hand people and attend the right receptions. Pete has all that and knows how to network, but what separates him from the pack is his ability to grasp issues and understand them not only from a political perspective, but for how they affect Pennsylvanians.”
And if Gleason ever needs to know how an issue will be debated from another angle, he can always ask his wife. Not only can they not resist debating issues at home, they are both doing their best to lay early claims to the political allegiances of their children.
“My lawyer instincts lead me to believe a compromise is in the works and one child will grow up as Carville and one as Matalin,” he laughs. “But my political instincts tell me that neither one of us is going to stop trying to win both our children to our respective sides.”