When Joseph Petrarca talks about growing up in the borough of Vandergrift, PA, he focuses the discussion on two things: his love of family, and his hometown pride. That pride extends to fond words about his father, a borough councilman and steelworker who eventually became a state legislator from 1972-1994, holding the same seat in the House that his son now occupies and representing the 55th District.
It may seem from his heritage that Petrarca was practically born to serve his community and state, but he didn’t set out to be part of the Pennsylvania legislature. “I was always interested in politics,” he admits, “But I wouldn’t say I aspired to be involved.” Showing an early passion for history, he attended St. Vincent College for his bachelor’s degree, and then followed his leanings by graduating from the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Afterwards, he moved to Washington, D.C. It was there that he became immersed in the political realm whether he wanted to or not. “When you’re in D.C., politics is a part of everyday life,” he explains. “I worked at the intersection of 20th and L, practically four blocks away from the White House. You could walk by at lunch time.”
After several years getting his feet wet in the nation’s capital, Petrarca made the decision to move back to his hometown area due to his father’s ailing health. His father, who served his last two terms with a transplanted kidney, was instrumental in passing the first organ donation law in the Commonwealth. The elder Petrarca instilled in his son a very strong desire to continue the mission to support organ donation issues. Since being elected to continue in his father’s footsteps in late 1994, Petrarca has helped to create model organ donor legislation as part of a gubernatorial-appointed position on the Organ Donation Advisory Board.
As a legislator who has been on the job for many terms, Petrarca knows that his role isn’t glamorous, but that’s not why he’s involved. For him, being able to help his constituents on a daily basis, whether in Harrisburg or in his three busy district offices, is the reason he stays motivated. Plus, he deeply appreciates those he serves. “They are hard-working, down-to-earth… they have proud traditions.”
Of course, life isn’t all about politics. Petrarca and his wife have four boys and a girl. It was a full household (and still is when they return for celebrations), and throughout his children’s upbringing, Petrarca has tried to be as immersed as possible in their sporting and musical events. However, he admits it’s challenging to find a work-life balance as a state legislator. He recalls that when his daughter was very young, she would often cry when he put on a tie, a clear signal that he was leaving for a few days. Yet he and his wife have weathered the reality of his occupation, which he feels is tremendously important, and perhaps more than a bit misunderstood.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people I work with are working hard for their areas,” he says, emphasizing that the media tends to focus on the negatives of politics. He hopes that all the negativity doesn’t dissuade younger adults from taking an active approach in government. “We need young people to get involved in politics and vote. When you look at the statistics at who is voting, by and large, they don’t participate. We have about 15 to 20 percent of the people deciding who is elected, but those elected officials represent everyone.”
Petrarca isn’t planning to slow down any time soon, though he does have aspirations beyond his day-to-day public life that dovetail with his love of politics. One is to travel to other state capitals. “I would like to see how the legislatures in different states truly function to compare what we’re doing to what’s happening there,” he concludes, chuckling as he calls his vision of such visits as a veritable “Exchange Program” among likeminded politicians.