Meet a Member: Changing the Game of Politics to Benefit People

Pennsylvania Rep. Pam DeLissio believes many people involved in politics today see it primarily as a sport.
That leaves a lot of people out of the equation, she said.
“You see policy that’s for the greater good of the citizens taking a back seat to the politics involved, almost as if politics were a sport and it’s about who wins,” said DeLissio, a 2013 CSG Toll Fellow. “While people are engaged in that sport, with that mindset, the citizens are the losers.”
When she was elected more than three years ago, DeLissio decided she wasn’t interested in that game.
“I am engaging in trying to effect change for the process,” she said, “and I’ve been doing that by whatever part of the process I control.”
She started with engaging her constituents with regular roundtable discussions about her service. She also looks at issues and tries to make sure she brings all the stakeholders to the table when those issues are being discussed.
Not only does that get people involved, but it also eliminates some unforeseen problems at the end of the process.
“I have colleagues who go through the legislative process and are surprised they hit a speed bump at the other end from stakeholders that they either didn’t include or included in such a brief way that they missed all the nuances of it,” she said.
Her efforts at inclusion are the result of a long career in long-term care, what she calls “the second most regulated industry behind nuclear energy.”
“I have been, from a professional standpoint, the victim of poorly drafted legislation on the state level, as well as the federal (level from) … unfunded mandates,” she said. “I refuse to the perpetrator now that I am in this seat.”
So when someone asks her to sign onto a piece of legislation, DeLissio does her homework. She finds out who would be affected and tries to learn the effects a particular bill might have on them.
For instance, she was faced with a piece of legislation last year that had been in the works for a couple of years. She spent the summer talking with stakeholders who were opposed to it; she already knew the point of view from supporters.
“It came down to somebody trying to protect market share and their turf. Again, the greater good of the citizens wasn’t of interest,” she said.
That extra effort has enhanced DeLissio’s reputation as a person of substance.
“People know I will endeavor to hear both sides of the story and get facts independently of that,” she said.
That, she believes, will help her reach the goals she has set for the Pennsylvania legislature.
“I’m on a mission to effect change by getting this process to be more responsive and a more fair process and not driven by transactional politics, but by transformational policy,” she said.
DeLissio wasn’t sure she would run for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives when presented with the opportunity. In fact, she sought input from people—some who said she could create more change in the private sector before noon on a given day than in the legislature.
DeLissio made her decision after a day shadowing a legislator at the capitol in Harrisburg. She was standing on the outside steps of the building with a view of the river. She turned around and saw the capitol dome.
“It was literally an epiphany,” she said. “I think all of us can relate to a handful of true epiphanies when you are just struck with, ‘This is the moment. This is the thing. The moon, planet and stars are lining up. This is something I should do.’”
The rightness of her decision is reinforced regularly, particularly when she thinks about the dearth of women in the Pennsylvania legislature. She’s made that a mission—to get more women elected to state government there.
One way she hopes to entice women—and others—into public service and involvement in government is by inviting constituents to shadow her in the legislature.
“I’m determined to engage citizens because we’ve worked hard to disengage and disaffect citizens,” she said.
Those roundtable discussions she holds are another effort at engaging the people she serves. She likes how they have responded. The sessions are part civics lesson, part legislative priority—but it’s all dialogue.
“I said I represent you; it’s in the title,” DeLissio said. “I can’t represent you unless I know what’s on your mind.”
DeLissio spent much of her career as an administrator and leader in long-term care. She graduated Penn State University in 1978 with a bachelor’s degree in health policy and administration. She was an administrator at her first nursing home at age 24.
“I truly, truly, truly passionately adore older adults and how we age and how we can do it well and gracefully,” she said.
She’s also been an entrepreneur, managing a small technology company with a friend.
Now, however, her efforts are focused around the capitol, representing parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery County.
“I wish more people would become more engaged and would feel confident that they could, in fact, through their vote make a difference,” she said.
DeLissio, herself, is trying to make a difference … “in my corner of the world,” she said.