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Meet the most influential man in Pennsylvania you’ve never heard of

Pat Deon has run SEPTA for 20 years, but has managed to keep a low profile even as he's influenced elections and public policy statewide.

Pat Deon — a man of many hats.
Pat Deon — a man of many hats.Read moreJon Snyder

He’s shaped how people in Pennsylvania travel, buy their beer, and vote. Although he has never held elected office, his influence sprawls from Philadelphia to Harrisburg to Washington, D.C.

It’s no exaggeration that as chairman of the nation’s sixth-largest transit agency for 20 years, he has played a critical role in the blossoming of modern Philadelphia and the region.

Yet odds are most people don’t know the name Pasquale T. Deon Sr.

Pat Deon, 60, keeps a low profile, preferring to stay close to his Bucks County home, but looming financial crises for the Pennsylvania Turnpike and public transit are pushing him toward the spotlight.

“Nobody can doubt the fact he’s the most powerful Republican in this area," said Willie Brown, president of the union that represents city transit workers. "Anything he touches, he’s like the golden boy.”

Deon is a rarity these days: a Republican from the Philadelphia region with the clout to sway state legislative leaders.

“He’s extremely valuable,” said Leslie Richards, Pennsylvania’s transportation secretary and a Democrat. “He understands how transportation is tied to development. He has seen how the economy improves when the investment in SEPTA increases.”

>>READ MORE: Suburban rail stations lift value of houses nearby, says SEPTA report

At the same time, he can be a ruthless operator.

“You don’t want to be on his bad side because he has too many friends," said Tom Ellis, a former SEPTA board member and Montgomery County commissioner, and friend to Deon. “At some point you’ll probably need him."

Many hats

In Bucks County, Pat Deon is known for the chain of beer distribution stores that carry his name. Though the stores have been passed on to his children, he still owns the land the buildings sit on and remains active through a slew of ventures.

Deon listed 13 separate sources of income, including an AM radio station in Levittown and a stake in Bethlehem’s Sands Casino, in financial disclosure forms. His company Progressive Management handles real estate, consulting, and operates taverns and bars.

His properties — at least 14 under his name — include Bucks County homes, a waterfront apartment in Atlantic City, a restaurant, and the Fairless Hills shopping center Deon Square.

For most of the last decade, state law barred casino owners from fund-raising for state candidates, until Deon successfully sued. He remained a rainmaker for national candidates, committees, and PACs, though, raising almost $300,000 from 1997 to 2018.

Eight of the top 10 recipients of Deon’s donations were Pennsylvania candidates or PACs. He’s been particularly generous to Michael and Brian Fitzpatrick, brothers who have represented Bucks County in Congress.

He’s not averse to Democrats, either. U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans, of Philadelphia, a former SEPTA board member, received more than $7,000 the last two years.

After Deon won his casino suit, he founded Building Together, a political action committee established to raise money for candidates who support infrastructure projects and job creation. He personally gave $25,000, according to state finance reports.

“As the progressives are coming into some of these areas," he said, "I even look at helping some of the Democratic guys that are pro jobs, pro infrastructure.”

Of about 100 initial contributions to the PAC, more than half were from companies that do business with SEPTA — law, engineering, and public relations firms — or their workers. Some others came from Union League members, politicians, and transportation officials. The PAC has raised $214,000 since September.

Deon’s positions at SEPTA and on the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission are central to his fund-raising — a time-honored dynamic, said David Thornburgh, president of the good-government nonprofit Committee of Seventy, who noted that one of America’s most famous power brokers, New York City’s Robert Moses, learned how governmental agencies like SEPTA could be potent tools.

“It was the power of contracts, legal services, architects, engineers, unions,” Thornburgh said.

Brown, the union leader, noted that in contract negotiations Deon has been most concerned with protecting the transit agency’s ability to hire subcontractors without interference from SEPTA workers.

“You know what he’s interested in,” Brown said. “He’s interested in that subcontracting. He wants to be king.”

Deon said the companies that do business with SEPTA support his political efforts not because they expect favors, but because candidates who favor public transportation will inevitably create work in their fields.

“Do they believe in infrastructure?” Deon said. “Do they believe that SEPTA does a good job? And that if we’re successful when they give to these campaigns … yes, it’s in their best interest.”

Reshaping a region

Last year, the final segment of I-95 was finished, thanks in large measure to Deon, who raised almost half the money from Chinese investors he and U.S. Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick courted in 2014. They’d traveled to China to promote a funding mechanism that gives U.S. residency rights to foreigners who invest in American job-creating projects.

At SEPTA, Deon has focused on fiscal management.

In 1995, when he joined the board, the agency had a $75 million budget shortfall and a reputation for waste. Under his watch, SEPTA’s budget has balanced, a necessity at an agency that relies on state money for half of its $1.5 billion operating budget, Deon said. "You can’t go back to Harrisburg or D.C. unless your hands are clean and you can prove your dollars.”

Deon sought to lead the board due to frustration with SEPTA’s management.

“Either you’re going to go change it and make the place better,” he said, “or you’re going to get off the board.”

In 1999, when Deon became chairman, SEPTA’s $413 million capital budget funded 38 projects. Two decades later, after Deon gave the board a more active role, it had a $749 million capital budget, with more than 70 projects in design or underway. Today, SEPTA moves about 430,000 riders a day.

“Twenty years ago we were still doing an enormous amount of deferred maintenance on the El, the railroad, power systems,” said Matt Mitchell, of the Delaware Valley Association of Rail Passengers. “The really, really big projects have now been taken care of, and the system is really in a pretty good state of repair.”

SEPTA officials tout the Market-Frankford Line, the western stretch of which received a protracted rebuild during Deon’s tenure, as a major driver for the city’s economy. Population increases along that line and the Broad Street line represent three-quarters of Philadelphia’s growth from 2010 to 2016.

Deon tries to reach consensus among his board through private discussions. He can remember only two votes of the 15-member board that weren’t unanimous. He dislikes a public dispute among board members, past members said.

“We have dissent; we have debate,” Deon said. “But the bottom line is we don’t do it at the board meeting.”

Others, though, see a board Deon dominates.

Said Brown, the union leader: “It’s no secret that everything goes through Pat Deon.”

Mitchell says Deon isn’t receptive to rider complaints.

“He very much did not like the idea of any kind of outside criticism,” Mitchell said.

Recent rider complaints have been about the slow, troubled rollout of the SEPTA Key fare card. Deon remains sanguine about its pace.

“You’re teetering on disaster if it gets screwed up," Deon said. "These guys slow-walking it to make sure it works right … it’s absolutely the right thing to do.”

The card system has cost $172 million to the primary contractor alone, about $50 million more than was anticipated when the project began in 2011.

“You look at the mess with SEPTA Key,” Mitchell said, “if we had a board chairman who was more willing to listen to outsiders, we would not be in the situation we’re in now.”

Thursdays with Pat

The region’s political establishment knows where to find Deon on Thursday afternoons: the Union League on Broad Street, maybe eating lunch, definitely smoking a cigar. When he wants to treat himself, he smokes a Cohiba Behike, a Cuban brand that can cost close to $80 a cigar. The Union League visits, where he mixes with politicians and policymakers, are largely apolitical, he said, with conversation as likely to be about golfing as anything else.

Deon is a storyteller, a teaser, friends say. He sprinkles light profanities into chats, giving the impression that every conversation is one with an old pal.

“He’s quirky, politically incorrect,” said Ellis, the former board member. “As long as he’s making fun of you, you know you’re in good stead.”

His political contributions and fund-raising have contributed to his strength, but he says it’s his skill maintaining relationships that keeps him relevant.

“I gave money,” Deon said. “But remember, a lot of it, you’re kind of discounting the relations part. There’s lots of people these guys are friendly with that aren’t really friends. I tend to remain friends.”

As SEPTA board chairman, he’s gotten to know people now among the most influential in the state. Along with Evans, other former board members include the state’s general counsel, Denise Smyler; U.S. Attorney William McSwain; federal Judge Linda Caracappa; and Chris Franklin, chairman of Aqua, America’s second-largest publicly traded water utility.

Deon goes to Harrisburg twice monthly for Turnpike Commission meetings, he said, and often will visit legislators’ offices “to make sure they haven’t forgot who I was.”

‘He’ll tell you you’re dead to him’

When Deon wants something, he isn’t shy about it.

“Pat Deon is one of the last great political characters of our time,” said John Taylor, a recently retired Republican state representative from Philadelphia. “He’s very abrupt; he’s very straightforward. He’s very funny. He’ll say what he thinks, and I don’t think he can do anything other than that.”

His advocacy for transportation can be fierce, friends said.

Taylor remembered when former State Rep. Jim Christiana approached Deon last year for support in his primary run for U.S. Senate against Lou Barletta.

Six years earlier, Deon couldn’t persuade Christiana to vote for Act 89, a state funding bill for public transportation. But in 2018, Christiana said, he hoped Deon would support him as a more attractive alternative to moderate Republicans in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

“There are consequences for votes and stances on things,” Taylor remembered Deon answering. “The consequence for your vote on Act 89 was I will never help you.”

“And then he walked away,” Taylor said.

Deon confirmed Taylor’s account. Christiana didn’t dispute it.

“As far as I’m concerned you’re either with me or against me,” Deon said. “And being against me doesn’t mean I don’t like you, it just means you’re against me on the issue.”

The exchange was in character for Deon.

“He’s not a yeller,” Ellis said. “He’ll just basically tell you you’re dead to him. That’s the words he will use.”

Far-reaching web

Deon’s business, political, and social worlds intersect to create a web that’s difficult to disentangle. In 2004, for example, when SEPTA was being challenged over the company it picked to build new train cars for Regional Rail, Al Mezzaroba, described as a regular fishing partner of Deon and a recent contributor to Deon’s PAC, worked for Hyundai Rotem, the winning company.

When those same railcars broke down 12 years later, a Bucks County company, PennFab Inc., manufactured replacement parts. The company’s president, Michael Mabin, once served on the board of the Bucks County Industrial Development Authority with Deon.

One of SEPTA’s construction subcontractors, New Jersey-based Jingoli & Son, employs Deon’s son. Deon himself once did management consulting for McCormick Taylor, according to federal contribution records, which was contracted by SEPTA to handle public relations for the plan to extend the Norristown High Speed Line to King of Prussia.

It’s inevitable, Deon said, that he would have relationships with people who work in or value transportation.

“I don’t see anything wrong with relationships," he said. “I’ve got friendly relationships with everybody I deal with. Everybody that I deal with, that I give to, believes transportation is a good place to invest your money.”

Some see Deon’s connections as an asset. Richards, the state transportation secretary, turned to Deon in October to gather political and business leaders to brainstorm solutions for funding transportation.

“When he asks people to come to a meeting," she said, "they show up.”

>>READ MORE: Lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s transit funding dismissed

Others, though, see Deon as someone whose public work often benefits himself. He ensured coordination among his home county’s legislators, Bucks County Republicans say, to keep private beer sales in Pennsylvania at bay for years, which benefited his business. That Chinese investment he secured for the Pennsylvania Turnpike created work for dozens of firms. Seven contributed to Deon’s PAC, and three others to candidates or PACs Deon has supported.

Never the subject of an investigation from the state’s ethics commission, Deon said his friends and political donors have no expectation that their connections with him will give them a leg up with the agencies he oversees.

“Citizens want public officials to do something,” Thornburgh said. “That requires power, because power is simply defined as the ability to act. We want that, we don’t want people involved in the process who are powerless, but we also want to have some assurances that that power is used for our purposes and not theirs.”

The tracks ahead

Despite his statewide reach, Deon remains ensconced in Langhorne, living in an English Tudor-influenced McMansion with a train caboose on its grounds. He converted the old-fashioned rail car into a playroom for his kids when they were young.

For all of Deon’s pull with Republicans and Democrats alike, the region’s demographics, including in Bucks County, may finally bring an end to his record term as SEPTA’s chairman. He acknowledged that as Pennsylvania’s suburbs become bluer, the one-vote advantage Republicans have on SEPTA’s board could tip to a Democrat majority that would want one of their own running the board. He’s considering making his current five-year term his last.

Before he leaves, he’d like to see new rail cars and the extension of the Norristown High Speed Line to King of Prussia.

And he wants a dedicated source of funding for the public transit in Pennsylvania — no easy task.

>>READ MORE: Lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s transit funding dismissed

Twice, in 2007 and 2012, Deon contributed to the legislature’s efforts to lock down significant funding for transit. Then, though, Southeastern Pennsylvania had a robust contingent of Republican legislators who were vocal advocates for transit, and SEPTA in particular. Some of those key players, like Taylor and Bill Keller, retired. Others, like John Rafferty, lost in the blue wave that swept the country in 2018.

Though Democrats traditionally support transit, Deon is concerned losing Republicans from this region could hurt SEPTA in Harrisburg, where that party dominates.

So Deon may have to be the region’s best hope for mass transit.

“That’s the best value I bring, I usually get a really quick answer,” he said. “It might not always be a yes, but then they have to come back to me for something else later.”

Staff Writer Mark Fazlollah contributed to this report.