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Norman Berson, 93, longtime state representative and champion of liberal causes

Decades before most politicians took up the issues, Berson pushed legislation in the 1970s that would have protected gay rights and lessened penalties for marijuana possession.

Norman S. Berson of Center City Philadelphia, a member of the state House of Representatives from 1967 to 1982, died Saturday at 93.
Norman S. Berson of Center City Philadelphia, a member of the state House of Representatives from 1967 to 1982, died Saturday at 93.Read moreCourtesy Berson family

Norman S. Berson, 93, of Center City, a longtime state lawmaker who pushed to protect gay rights and reduce penalties for marijuana possession decades before those issues entered the political mainstream, died Saturday, Dec. 7, of complications from Parkinson’s disease.

A native of Manhattan, Mr. Berson attended Temple University as an undergraduate and earned a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania before he was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1966.

Often identified in news accounts of the day as a “Center City liberal,” Mr. Berson defeated establishment Democrats in his first three primaries for his House seat. He won the first time by just 10 votes, recalled his son, Peter, a retired assistant district attorney.

In a 1979 interview with Walter M. Phillips, as part of a civic oral history project of Philadelphia, the elder Mr. Berson attributed his political success to the campaign smarts of his wife, Lenora, who died in 2011 at 84.

“I think I was able to win because my wife’s a better politician than they are,” he said, referring to members of the party’s establishment wing.

In addition to introducing bills to reduce penalties for marijuana possession and protect gay people from workplace discrimination, Mr. Berson also sought unsuccessfully to enact a state law that would legalize abortion — until 1973, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Roe v. Wade that women had a constitutional right to the procedure.

“He was a forward-thinking person,” his son recalled.

Michael S. Freeman, city editor at the Daily News from 1985 to 1988, recalled Mr. Berson as a politician who did not seek the limelight, working effectively behind the scenes.

“He was famously reticent,” Freeman said. “He would answer you if you asked him questions."

Mr. Berson served 16 years in the state legislature, until 1982, later working as an attorney.

His son said one of his father’s clients was the Villa di Romo restaurant, a South Philadelphia landmark that is depicted in the new Netflix film The Irishman.

A lover of dry martinis, classical music, and baseball, Mr. Berson was a fan of the New York Giants before they moved to San Francisco, and later “gradually got comfortable” following the Phillies, his son said.

In addition to his son, Mr. Berson is survived by a daughter, Erica, and grandson, Matthew.

The family is sitting shiva on Tuesday, Dec. 10, from 5 to 9 p.m. at 2421 Spruce St., and welcomes friends to join them.