As the black Suburban SUV pulled away from his Overbrook home on Thursday morning, U.S. Rep. Robert A. Brady told his guys that it might be the last time they had “to do this.”
"This” was waking up before dawn, hitting Route 1 by 6 a.m., and winding through what can sometimes be a treacherous four-hour drive to Washington. A pit stop at the Royal Farms in Port Deposit, Md., to use the bathroom and gas up. Then hours of chaos on Capitol Hill, where the government was on the verge of shutdown. And back home on I-95 late at night.
“The only thing I reflected on about the first day is that it was like yesterday," Brady said as he got settled into the passenger seat, while one of his aides drove.
Brady has been doing the round trip to D.C. four times a week for most of his 20-year tenure as the representative for the First Congressional District, which until the end of this year represented a large part of Philadelphia and a chunk of Delaware County. He decided at the beginning of the year to not run for reelection. He cited his family, but people also suspected that redistricting and a federal investigation into his campaign finances played a role.
In Philadelphia, Brady is known as the affable and long-standing Democratic City Committee chairman who runs to the rescue in labor disputes or any threat to the Mummers Parade. But in Washington, he didn’t seek the limelight or high-profile committee appointments. (Though he loves name-dropping VIPs — Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi, Paul Ryan, each a great friend.)
His rough-around-the-edges teddy bear persona has endeared him to many. Brady’s legislative accomplishments were few, but he is still known as the Mayor of Capitol Hill, from his time as chairman of the House Administration Committee.
On the Administration Committee — which oversees federal elections, the Capitol Police, the Library of Congress, and the day-to-day functions of all congressional offices and standing committees — Brady cultivated loyalty from Democrats and Republicans. If he granted a member a waiver for overspending their budget due to fuel costs for a private airplane, or gave them a nice office, or, in one case, waived the fire-hazard rules so a “wacko from Texas” could barbecue on his office balcony, they might be more inclined to help him.
“I don’t want to use the term owe him, but they were very appreciative,” said Stanley White, Brady’s longtime chief of staff. “When he goes back and says, ‘Hey, there’s something I need for my district,’ people remember that.”
Brady said his good relationships helped him bring $15.5 billion in earmarked federal appropriations to his district for projects that included the dredging of the Delaware River, the Roberts Proton Therapy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
“But I’m a ‘do-nothing congressman,’ ” he says, bristling at the decades-long knock on him.
In his 20 years in Congress, Brady was the primary sponsor for 11 bills signed into law, the most recent in December 2010. His bills ranged from renaming post offices in Philadelphia to improving facilities in the House and the merging of the Capitol Police and Library of Congress Police.
He served as a cosponsor for hundreds of other bills, including the recent #MeToo legislation that requires federal lawmakers to repay any harassment settlements and that such agreements be made public.
Brady was a sure vote with Democrats on almost everything. He believed in voting as a pack to protect one another — and even offered to resign if he ever voted against the Democratic leader.
When he arrived at the House in 1998 via special election, Brady said he gave then-Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, a Missouri Democrat, an undated resignation letter.
“I said to him, ‘If I ever vote against you, fill in the date,’ ” Brady recalled. He did the same with Pelosi.
Why? “Loyalty,” he said. “I’m a chairman of a [local] party, I want my guys to be loyal to me. They’re my leader. I want to be loyal to them.”
Born and raised in Overbrook, Brady became a union carpenter, and then a broken streetlight launched a new career.
The local committeeman wouldn’t help get it fixed. Brady ran against the committeeman in 1969 and won.
City Council President George X. Schwartz, who was also Brady’s ward leader, became his mentor and got him a job as a Council sergeant-at-arms. Brady eventually took over Schwartz’s 34th Democratic Ward leader post after the Council president was convicted of accepting bribes in the Abscam scandal. In 1986, Brady became party chairman with the backing of then-Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr.
In 1998, Brady announced he was running for Congress. He wielded so much power by then that at his campaign announcement, the room was overflowing with every city politico who mattered. Brady had little to say but promised to fight for “real jobs … not just flipping hamburgers.”
He didn’t sugarcoat how he would get them: by delivering votes. “They’ll listen,” he said then.
When he arrived, one of his first votes was on whether the Ken Starr report — detailing President Bill Clinton’s affair with an intern and lying under oath — should be made public. Brady voted the party line: no.
Over the years, he helped get the funding to repair and light the George C. Platt Memorial Bridge in South Philadelphia; was instrumental in finding a buyer for the former Sunoco refinery, saving hundreds of jobs; and got millions for the Navy Yard.
“He didn’t come up with many shmanzy legislative ideas, but he was a bull on things that make America move and make Americans bring food to their families,” said U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D., N.J.), a good friend of Brady’s on the hill.
House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) said he is “like a brother” and someone whom members could confide in about any staff or administrative issues.
“He would be very confidential about it. But he knew how to get the job done,” Pelosi said.
Brady became a ranking member of the House Administration Committee, and when Democrats won the majority back in 2006, was appointed chair by Pelosi in her first term as speaker.
But not long after, he took his first step to find another office. In 2007, he launched a bid to be mayor of Philadelphia. But the dream didn’t last long. He came in third in the Democratic primary.
For the last seven years, he has been the ranking Democrat on the Administration Committee, and also the second-ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.
As chairman, he changed the rules so police officers could wear shorts, during the summer, and he had white lines drawn on the pavement so the police dogs’ paws wouldn’t burn on hot asphalt, a story he told as his SUV pulled Thursday morning into the checkpoint for the congressional garage.
“Merry Christmas!” he yelled as Capitol Police waved him through.
Once inside the Capitol, Brady made his way to a conference room he was using as a makeshift office, which he bragged was a perk compared with the cubicles reserved for other outgoing members.
He stopped in to see Joe Quattrone, a barber who has been cutting congressional hair for 48 years. The men exchanged big hugs and Merry Christmases. “The family is going to get a husband, a father, and a grandfather,” Quattrone told him.
The 73-year-old Brady and his wife, Debbie, even have two great-grandchildren.
On the House floor, Brady mostly hung out by himself, looking almost bored as he and his colleagues voted on a host of routine measures. The “Pennsylvania corner,” which became a known spot to gather when U.S. Rep. John Murtha (D., Pa.) was in Congress, is still a thing, and Brady lingered in the area, along with some of the other Pennsylvania delegation.
Back in his office space between votes, staffers who work on the Administration Committee came in and out to thank him and say goodbye. At lunch in the House dining room, where he munched on pulled pork and cornbread — “I love cornbread. Is this Southern?” he said in a Philly dialect that two decades in Congress couldn’t dissolve — the parade continued. Former U.S. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D., Pa.) came by to talk about a consulting gig for a documentary.
Brady already has two job offers that he is considering, which he declined to describe.
“Most people don’t necessarily want me to work for them, just don’t want me working for their competition,” he said.
He will continue as chairman of the city Democratic Committee, an unpaid position.
On Thursday, he stayed in Washington until 8 p.m., when the House narrowly approved a stopgap funding bill that included $5.7 billion for the border wall insisted on by President Trump — a measure that sent the government reeling toward a shutdown.
“Nancy [Pelosi] asked me to stay. We need people to vote against this thing,” Brady said.
After doing so, he headed home, planning to do it all over again the next day -- and until Jan. 3, when his term officially ends.