In Pennsylvania capital, former spokesman fights powers he once promoted
HARRISBURG - Stephen Drachler was once the voice of Republican power in Harrisburg. As spokesman for then-House Majority Leader John Perzel, Drachler could be abrasive and combative delivering the fighting words of one of the state's top elected officials.
HARRISBURG - Stephen Drachler was once the voice of Republican power in Harrisburg.
As spokesman for then-House Majority Leader John Perzel, Drachler could be abrasive and combative delivering the fighting words of one of the state's top elected officials.
Now he is delivering the word of the Lord in the halls of the Capitol. And, in doing so, he is speaking against the very powers he once promoted.
Drachler, 60, is now director of United Methodist Advocacy of Pennsylvania, a post he has held two years. Working as a grassroots organizer in the social-justice movement, he spreads his message of faith in a place dominated by hardball politics, cynicism, and more than a few cases of corruption.
Once the consummate political insider, Drachler has adopted the mantle of outsider, sending letters and e-mails to lawmakers, holding news conferences on the Capitol steps.
Most recently, he made a personal sacrifice, giving up solid food to protest proposed state budget cuts that he says will harm the most vulnerable citizens.
"People get so embroiled in the numbers they forget it's about people," Drachler said of his fast. "Those line items represent hundreds of moral decisions."
His fast, now in its third week, comes amid the annual budget debate in the Capitol, a fight Drachler once witnessed from inside.
Between 1995 and 2002, he was Perzel's press secretary, waging regular battle with the Capitol press corps over the Philadelphia Republican's agenda.
Today his target is the Republican governor and the legislature, in fact the same House Republican caucus he once served.
Drachler, still a Republican, clings to the idea of "compassionate conservativism" at a time when the GOP-led House just passed a state budget that many say shreds the social safety net.
Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), disputed that notion, saying that while the GOP welfare budget might be less than Gov. Corbett's proposal, it is still $136 million above current spending.
Drachler said he ramped up his efforts after Corbett's March 8 budget address outlined deep cuts to education funding.
"There were enough signs of a crisis ahead during the legislative and gubernatorial campaigns last year and with the deficit," Drachler said. "The fact is poverty affects everyone and we have a responsibility to the children and the poor."
Drachler bristles at the notion advocated by many conservatives that government should not be in the business of helping citizens.
"Churches are the backbone of helping people in need, but they're overwhelmed," he said. "It's wrong to say it's churches' responsibility; it's everyone's responsibility."
Drachler's current life path has been more a methodical journey than a single leap.
He said he was always a spiritual person, true to his Methodist roots growing up in Upstate New York.
He did his first stint with the United Methodist Church in 1990, setting up drug programs in Washington between newspaper jobs.
He left his job covering state government for a small newspaper chain in 1993 to work on the gubernatorial campaign of Tom Ridge. After Ridge's election, it was a short jump to Perzel's staff as he ascended to the role of House majority leader.
As Perzel's spokesman, Drachler had a reputation for being confrontational with reporters. Longtime Capitol reporters recalled gloves-off run-ins with Drachler over stories.
"I was a type-A personality with a hair-trigger temper," Drachler said.
Then came heart-bypass surgery in 2005. "It was change or die," he said.
By that time, Drachler was in Nashville working as the spokesman for the United Methodist Church, a position he took in 2003.
In 2009, he returned to Harrisburg, where he lives with his wife, Michelle.
No one was more startled upon learning of Drachler's recent fast than his old boss, who in November lost the Northeast Philadelphia House seat he had held for 32 years.
"The spiritual side was always there, but I am surprised," said Perzel, who is awaiting trial in the so-called Bonusgate scandal, accused of using tax dollars to pay for political campaigns. "It's a little beyond what I thought, but I applaud him for it."
Perzel described Drachler as a man of faith and integrity, someone he has turned to for spiritual advice since being indicted in 2009.
Of the fast, Perzel said: "The budget could take a long time, I hope he doesn't die for it."
Drachler said he was pacing himself in his mission and on his diet, living off protein shakes and soups and nudging lawmakers not to forget the poor in a low-key way.
"I'd call it a quiet expression of care and concern," he said May 25, standing with two other faith leaders in the Capitol's east wing in a silent vigil by a podium with a small sign announcing the fast. "No podium pounding here."