Senator manages to stay grounded in political world
Monday profiles are published on the first Monday of each month.
BLOOMSBURG - John Gordner says he knew from a young age that he wanted to be a politician.
He didn't have his high school yearbook at his district office on Main Street when interviewed last week, but he knew what it read beneath his senior photo: "You will see in it 'lawyer/politician.' That's what I wanted to do."
Gordner, 50, did just that, first passing the bar and becoming an attorney in his mid-20s before winning his first state House election at the ripe old age of 29.
He has won many more elections after that, serving 11 years in the state House for the 109th Legislative District before joining the Senate for the 27th Senatorial District, which includes Northumberland County, for the past eight years and counting.
In the Senate, he chairs the Labor and Industry Committee and is the majority caucus administrator, a leadership role for the state Republican Party.
Gordner admits the story behind his initial foray into politics is a bit hokey.
A high school freshman, shy and quiet, loses a bid for student council. As a more outgoing junior, he and friends seek office together as a slate. Their goal: upgraded senior yearbooks with color pictures and padded covers.
Thought to be thrown to slaughter in his bid for presidency against Berwick High's football star, he pulled the upset after campaigning for votes.
"It showed me the excitement of running and being part of a slate. And then the challenge was, 'OK, you got elected, now you have to deliver.'"
Together, the Gordner slate raised more money than any other previous senior class. They got their yearbook, color pictures and all.
"That sort of cemented the fact that I wanted to be involved in government, and hopefully be involved in solutions."
From House to Senate
It was an election loss in 1991 that opened the door to his career at the state Capitol.
Gordner was campaigning for district attorney of Columbia County that year and fell just 70 votes shy of victory. He wasn't deterred, since just days before the election, longtime state Rep. Ted Stuban announced he wouldn't seek re-election in the 109th in 1992.
Gordner, at the time a conservative member of the Democratic Party, threw his hat in the ring, and won.
While a state representative, he cited three things he was most proud of: his involvement with the Ben Franklin Technology Development Authority, of which he remains a representative for the Senate; working on professional licensure issues and reforming workers compensation law, lowering rates for business owners.
The latter issue, he said, is how he eventually became of interest to the Republican Senate leadership.
In September 2001, Gordner traded in blue for red when he joined the GOP.
His Senate opportunity came much in the way his House opportunity had.
Ed Helfrick, longtime state senator for the 27th Senatorial District, gave up the office in 2003. Gordner took over after a special election and earned his first four-year term the following year.
Leaders laud expertise
This past November, the district's constituents kept him in office for another four-year term in an election in which Gordner ran unopposed. He will remain chairman of the Labor and Industry Committee after having turned down an offer to chair the Commerce, Economic and Recreational Development Committee.
Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-25 and president pro tempore, who appointed Gordner chairman, lauded his colleague for negotiating a tricky bill that passed with bipartisan support this summer, providing solvency to the state's Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund.
"John has done a remarkable job at balancing the needs of business and industry with keeping in mind that those that work in the Commonwealth are important and their issues are important," Scarnati said, noting that at times the needs of labor and industry clash.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-9, also credited Gordner for his work on unemployment compensation reform.
Gordner's an expert in that field, Pileggi said, and his expertise is valuable when thorny issues arise. And when that occurs, Gordner maintains an even keel, he said.
"His approach is always consistent, even outside committee issues," Pileggi said.
More than simply expertise, Gordner has the right personality for the job, his colleagues said.
"John has never lost his sense of humor and doesn't lost his sense of humor through some of the most complex issues," Scarnati, echoing statements made by Pileggi about his character. "It's not about Harrisburg, it's about where you come from. We see a lot of people lose their way after quite a few years, but John hasn't."
Gordner credits his upbringing in Berwick for that.
"I think I realized right away that it was important to be grounded, and, thankfully, I was raised that way by my parents. ... There's folks that go to Harrisburg and get caught up in Harrisburg. There's a lot of distractions there," he said.
As he tells it, his family life helps keep him grounded, too. And it will keep his political ambitions in check, with Gordner saying state senator is the only job he wants.
Gordner married his wife, Lori, in 1990. The couple had their first child, Allison, in 1994, and their second, son Cole, in 1996.
While in session as a House member, he'd drive from Harrisburg to Berwick each Monday only to return to the Capitol the next day. It's nearly a two-hour drive one way, he says, but well worth having been under the same roof as his wife and children, even if the kids were already asleep.
"He's definitely a person who's achieved a balance in life to dedicating himself to his work and to his family, which is something we all strive for," Pileggi said.
Now young adults - Allison a freshman and budding trumpeter at Slippery Rock University and Cole a high school junior - Gordner continues to work his schedule to spend time with family.
He volunteers as an assistant cross-country coach and runs at practice with Cole and the team, and he and his wife work to meet up with Allison at college.
He also includes his kids in a certain passion he has: rock concerts. He's been to three shows this year, including Coldplay, and will see The Who this weekend.
Lori had been game many times, but she stays away from the rock shows these days, Gordner said. Blame it on a loud Cheap Trick concert.
"We stood the whole concert," he said before stopping. "I stood the whole concert. Everyone around us stood. My wife eventually sat down. It was loud and she said ... 'if you go anymore, you're taking the kids.'"
As ambitious as he's been, Gordner says the 29th District is enough for him. He has no plans to seek out higher office, despite his growing clout in the GOP. The size of the district and its 260,000 constituents, as well as the term length for a state senator - four years, compared to two for House members - are perfect for him.
"I like a four-year term. I like a manageable district, and I like being active with my family," he said.
Education: Berwick High School; bachelor's degree, Dickinson College, 1983; law degree, Dickinson School of Law, 1987
Career: state representative, 1993 to 2003; state senator, 2004 to present; continues practicing law on limited basis
Family: wife, Lori; daughter, Allison, 18; son, Cole, 16
Hobbies: Running, rock concerts