Editor’s note: This Chester County Leadership profile of Alan Novak was originally published on February 2015.
West Bradford native Alan Novak rose from the ranks of a soda jerk at his uncle’s Coatesville pharmacy to the longest serving Chairman of Pennsylvania’s Republican Party. Some 19 years after resigning as Chairman of Chester County’s Republican Party to take the same post at the state level, his bipartisan approach to local politics remain at the heart of Chester County politics today.
One political power broker described Novak as someone with the “ability to persuade, cajole and convince somebody they should do something.”
We sat down with him last week and asked him about growing up in Downingtown and Coatesville, his work in politics and his plans are for the future.
VISTA Today: Where did you grow up?
Alan Novak: I grew on the same road in West Bradford Township where I live now. West Bradford was much more farmland and had fewer developments back then than it is now. When I was growing up, I never envisioned there would be the mansions along West Chester Road there are now.
I went to St Cecilia’s elementary school in Coatesville and then to Downingtown Junior and Senior High for high school. It’s funny because I claim both the Downingtown and Coatesville community as my own. I was on the Downingtown side of the school district line but spent my summer playing sports in Caln. My summer sports teammates were Coatesville kids and my fall, winter and spring teams were kids from Downingtown. Even though those two communities were arch rivals, I had a set of Downingtown and Coatesville friends. All those friends came in handy as I built my law practice in Coatesville years later.
VT: What was your first job?
AN: When I was 14 or 15 I worked as a busboy at the Crescent Inn, an Italian restaurant and local tavern my cousin owned in Valley Township on Route 30 west of Coatesville. Following that job, I worked behind the soda fountain at Piccolo’s Pharmacy on Third Avenue in Coatesville owned by my uncle. Those jobs and others I had while I was growing up on the assembly line at Davey Paper Company and Lukens Steel enabled me to connect with people. I’ve always had this view that everybody is the same. We all do different things in life, we have different issues and challenges, but how I was raised and the jobs I did grounded me.
VT: What was the break that put you on the path of where you are today?
AN: I graduated in 1971 from Ursinus College in Montgomery County and then did a stint in the Army for a year. My draft lottery number was 61, so I went down to the draft board and enlisted in the Army Reserve. In college, I thought I was going to be a Ph.D and a lawyer. Then I had that down year in the army and I decided what I really wanted to do was practice law. I didn’t accept either Northwestern or Boston College offer and choose instead to go to Villanova Law School.
When I graduated from law school in 1975, I got a job in the public defenders office in West Chester where I worked for five years. I left the public defenders office and became John Duffy’s partner for a couple of years. While building a practice with John, I helped run Alex Endy’s campaign for county judge. When Alex won the election, he invited me in to take over his Coatesville law practice on Third Avenue. The irony was that his law practice was in the same space, renovated of course, where I had worked years earlier as a soda jerk in my uncle’s drug store. I moved to the west end of Coatesville where I served as the local Republican Committee person and then as a member of Coatesville’s City Council.
VT: So you’re getting a taste of local politics. How did you work your way up to Chair of the state party?
AN: I built up my law practice and served on the City Council for several years until I was elected Republican County chairperson in 1994. My law practice began to shift so I merged with Conrad O’Brien, a Philadelphia firm who wanted a Chester County presence and moved the practice from Coatesville to West Chester.
The next big event in my career came in 1994 when Tom Ridge was elected Governor. My ability to find common ground and build consensus helped me get my next position. Anne Anstine, the state’s Republican Party chairperson at the time, saw I was able to keep people with different points of view on contentious issues from walking away from each other and tapped me to be her successor. When Anne became ill in March of 1996, Governor Ridge, on Anne’s recommendation, asked me to run for State Chairman, a job I ended up doing for eight years.
VT: How did Novak Strategic Advisors, your lobbying firm, come about
AN: When my second term as party chair was drawing to a close, several people suggested I start a lobbying and government affairs firm. I knew how government worked, and I had built a lot of relationships with people in the legislature. I started Novak Strategic Advisors and recently added a new company to the family of companies. I formed a new firm with T. J. Rooney, the former Chair of Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party, called RooneyNovak Group. We started talking about doing business together about a year ago and so far it’s working out great.
VT: What challenges do you see for yourself in the new year?
AN: In 2015, I want to grow the business and take time to do more on the bipartisanship side. At the same time, I want to make sure work doesn’t consume me. I recently remarried and I want to make sure my new wife and I have a good quality of life together. I can’t imagine I’ll never work, I’ll always do something, but I don’t want to work as hard as I am now. I want to get down to the ranch I have in Stephenville, Texas and enjoy that place a little more. I get down there eight or nine times a year. I’m full-time here, part-time there. I want to flip that over time.
VT: What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
AN: My English teacher in high school who told me life will change many times along the way, and you’ll change many times along the way. Learn from each thing you do. Take a lesson from each thing you do because it will help prepare you for the things you don’t even know you’ll have to do later. I draw something from every job I’ve ever done that helps me better process and understand some challenge I may be facing right away. For example, when I tried cases in the public defenders office it gave me the confidence to do public speaking.
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