Senior Democrat Doyle anchors Pennsylvania delegation in U.S. House
WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle has earned the seat of honor in the House chamber's “Pennsylvania corner” as the unofficial dean of the state's congressional delegation.
He won't take the seat during the 114th Congress, however, reflecting his reputation for getting along — and for being politically savvy.
“I am not a hard-core partisan. I think to have collegiality in Congress is a good thing,” said the Forest Hills Democrat who is marking 20 years in office.
Although the House has no assigned seats, the Pennsylvania delegation typically reserves for its senior member a seat once used by the late Rep. Jack Murtha, D-Johnstown.
But the last two representatives to sit in it, after Murtha's 2010 death, lost their re-election bids.
So Doyle jokes, “I'll just sit in the seat beside it.”
Doyle, 61, a Swissvale native, began his political career as chief of staff to a Republican, former state Sen. Frank Pecora, 84, of Penn Hills; both switched their party registration in 1992. During two decades in Washington, Doyle, a father of four, has co-sponsored 3,028 bills.
His 14th District is somewhat compact — Pittsburgh and parts of its suburbs, from Natrona Heights in the north to Clairton in the south and, east to west, from Monroeville to Moon; his 600,000-plus constituents live in working-class or middle-class households.
Doyle doesn't keep track of the tens of thousands of miles he spends on the road.
He considers it a quirk that he became the state delegation's senior member, since he arrived in Washington in the same year as Rep. Chaka Fattah, D-Philadelphia.
“When you get your seniority number, it is based on the alphabet,” he explained, “so I have more seniority than Fattah by virtue of my last name.”
When he graduated from Swissvale High School, Doyle expected to work at U.S. Steel's Edgar Thomson plant in Braddock or on the Union Switch & Signal Co. assembly line in his hometown.
Then, he said, “the opportunity to go to college came, and I went in that direction.”
He became an insurance agent and Swissvale Borough Council member. He worked for Pecora for 16 years, until the moderate Republican fell out with party leaders in Harrisburg and switched his affiliation, prompting a redistricting that moved his state Senate seat 247 miles away. Pecora won a 13-person Democratic primary race for Congress in 1992, but lost to Republican Rick Santorum that fall.
When Santorum decided to run for U.S. Senate in 1994, people encouraged Doyle to run for the House seat. But not his wife, Susan.
“ ‘You can run if you promise two things,' ” he recalls her telling him. “ ‘Don't use any of our money, and when you lose, you will get out of politics.' ”
Doyle won by 10 percentage points, one of only 13 freshman Democrats sworn into office in 1995. That election was the year of the Republicans' “Contract with America,” which put the GOP back in power after 40 years.
His “was a lonely class,” Doyle recalled.
He thought he might lose in 2000, when redistricting merged his suburban seat with the Pittsburgh seat held by his friend, the late Bill Coyne: “I figured this was where it ends. But Coyne called me and said he was going to retire.”
‘Mike is the real deal'
The biggest difference from his first term to this one is technology, according to Doyle.
“When I came into Congress in 1995, the Internet was just coming into being. There wasn't any cable news, blogs, social media, and there weren't any smartphones.”
People got news differently then and scrutinized Congress differently.
“Today everybody has a video camera on them, blogs and social media are prolific, every member has a Twitter and Facebook site, and now we have 24-7 cable news,” Doyle said.
“That beast that must be fed daily. It has an insatiable appetite, and if you are the meal of the day, well, you just sit there and clench your fist until someone else becomes the meal of the day and takes you off the menu.”
Yet Doyle — who rose in stature when President Obama took office and included him in his early get-togethers with Congress — has developed a way to get along and get things done, said Tony Podesta, a Washington lobbyist and Democrat.
“Mike is the real deal,” Podesta said. “He has the knack for being able to cross party lines and side with the opposition, or get people to support something they might not consider, because of his unique experiences” as a Republican-turned-Democrat from Western Pennsylvania.
Now the only Western Pennsylvania Democrat in the state delegation, Doyle said he “gets along famously” with Republican colleagues and often rides to and from Washington with Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair: “Forest Hills is before the South Hills on the turnpike, so he literally drops me off at my doorstep.”
He and Murphy have worked together on energy issues.
The state's delegation for years has had “almost an unwritten rule” of not interfering with one another in matters affecting their districts, he said.
“We try to work cooperatively, so that it didn't matter who controlled the House of Representatives. Still, it's much better to be in the majority.”
He blames the unpopularity of Obamacare for the five seats Democrats lost to Republicans in Pennsylvania in 2010, ending four years of majority control.
Proud of hometown
Some days, Doyle confesses, he still chokes up when he rounds the bend to see the Capitol dome and thinks about the opportunity he has had to represent the area where he grew up.
“I am proud to have lived in the same area all of my life,” he said. “And three of my four children also own homes in the district.”
His fourth child moved to Cranberry, in Republican Rep. Mike Kelly's district.
“I told him, ‘You are going to be sitting on that (riding) mower, chewing tobacco, listening to country music, and the next thing I know you are going to be voting Republican.' ”
In his own largely Democratic district, Doyle does not worry about the GOP; he handily beat Republicans who ran against him in 2010 and 2012, and he ran unopposed last year.
“I don't have to worry about a Republican rival; I have to worry about my own people,” he said of a potential primary challenger. “That's what you have to watch out for.”
Salena Zito is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at email@example.com.