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Steady-as-it-goes Kenney aide key to labor peace

In the middle of contract negotiations with AFSCME District Council 33, Richard Lazer, Philadelphia's point man in the talks, had to deal with another labor issue - his wife giving birth to their second child.

Richard Lazer, the deputy mayor for labor (left), is Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney's key to labor peace.
Richard Lazer, the deputy mayor for labor (left), is Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney's key to labor peace.Read moreStaff Photos

In the middle of contract negotiations with AFSCME District Council 33, Richard Lazer, Philadelphia's point man in the talks, had to deal with another labor issue - his wife giving birth to their second child.

With an agreement in sight, Lazer, the deputy mayor for labor, couldn't afford to take time off.

"We went to see the baby and Richie was in the kitchen on the phone with [DC33 president] Pete Matthews, saying 'No, we can't do that. I'll see about that,' " said Jim Engler, deputy mayor for policy and legislation and Lazer's brother-in-law.

It was a classic Lazer moment, according to those who know the 31-year-old aide to Mayor Kenney.

Lazer's dedication helped establish a trusting relationship with union leaders, which ultimately led to a four-year contract with the city's 7,900 blue-collar workers - the largest of the city's unions. The $170 million contract had wins and losses for each side, with both the city and union claiming victory.

The contract was signed July 15, two weeks after baby Abigail was born.

Lazer, who grew up in a blue-collar family in South Philadelphia, is the city's first deputy mayor for labor since Jerry Murphy held the post in the 1990s in the Rendell administration. Some say Lazer is more than just the labor chief - he's Kenney's right-hand man.

U.S. Rep. Robert Brady, who was a deputy mayor of labor in the Goode administration, said Lazer is Kenney's David Cohen, a reference to former Mayor Ed Rendell's legendary chief of staff.

"He has the authority to say 'yes' or 'no,' " Brady said. "He's smart as whips. . . . If I need something done, I call Richie."

Lazer and his sister were raised on Wolf Street, off Second Street, with a sheet-metal-worker father and a stay-at-home mother. His grandparents and uncles were union workers.

Like most people in his neighborhood, Lazer is a lifelong Mummer. He first met Kenney as members of the Jokers Fancy Brigade club when Lazer was a young boy.

As he got older, Lazer became active in the upkeep of Burke Playground and helping coach the younger neighborhood kids in various sports.

Lazer was majoring in political science at La Salle University when he approached Kenney about interning for the then-councilman.

"He said, 'No problem. Call Debbie,' " Lazer recalled, referring to Kenney's longtime chief of staff, Deborah Mahler. Lazer started June 21, 2004. The rest is history.

When Lazer graduated in 2007, Kenney offered him a full-time job as a constituent services representative. Mahler said that she figured Lazer would want a few weeks to enjoy the summer before joining the staff.

"He said, 'No, I want to start now,' " Mahler recalled last week. "He took no time off, jumped right in there, and he's still here."

Kenney's Council office was next to that of First District Councilman Mark Squilla, who said that he often used Lazer for tasks of his own.

"Since he also lived in my district, it was 'OK, Rich, can you handle this?' And he would never say no," Squilla said.

Lazer got to know almost everyone in politics and city government quickly. He had to, in order to be able to help the constituents calling daily about street plowing, taxes, gas bills, etc. He became known as a fixer, someone who could get things done.

When Kenney became mayor, he handed Lazer the important task of negotiating new contracts for all the unions, but also creating a better working relationship between non-city labor unions and government. Along with that came a big pay raise. He went from a $72,450 salary as a constituent services director to a $150,000 salary as the city's labor czar.

"He's the salt of the earth - that's the best way you can describe him," Kenney said Friday. "He's just a regular guy, who was raised by really good people and really good grandparents, and has a really stable base of what's right and what's wrong."

Lazer's quiet demeanor is one of his strengths in dealing with sometimes loud and boisterous union leaders.

Engler, whose office shares a wall with Lazer's, recalled that during one of the many meetings with Matthews and other city and labor officials, Matthews could be heard raising his voice - but Lazer's voice was inaudible through the wall.

"He's really good at reading situations and remaining calm," Engler said.

Lazer, along with city director of labor relations Monica Marchetti-Brock and outside labor attorney Shannon Farmer, led a team of about 30 city officials in the negotiations with DC33, which had Matthews at the helm and other representatives.

Both sides asked for big things. Among the requests, the union wanted wages to go up 28 percent over four years. The city wanted to cut postretirement health-care benefits from five years to three years and get some pension reform.

The final contract keeps health-care benefits at five years postretirement but mandates higher pension contributions for many city employees. Wages will go up 111/2 percent over four years.

Matthews declined to comment for this article.

When Lazer got the call from Matthews on July 15 that the union agreed to the city's final terms, he grabbed Kenney and off they went with a few others from the negotiating team to DC33's headquarters at 30th and Walnut Streets. After signing the contract, the team celebrated over drinks at World Cafe Live.

It was a good feeling for Lazer, who lives in the same neighborhood in which he grew up - and which is home to more than a few DC33 members.

Lazer felt like he accomplished his goal to make sure city workers "are protected in their jobs and that they can come home with a decent wage to feed their families."



Staff writer Julia Terruso contributed to this article.