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The Orie sisters steal the show

Sunday, August 17, 2003

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

On a dewy morning in May, it was getting a little wild at state Sen. Jane Orie's seventh annual Senior Expo.

Judge Joan Orie Melvin, left, and state Sen. Jane Orie in 2001. (Senate Republican Committee)

Outside, the traffic was backed up beyond a parking lot on Community College of Allegheny County's North Campus and onto Old Perry Highway. Inside, the Pine-Richland High School band was midway through a brassy set that Doc Severenson would envy, when, over the din, a woman in a yellow sweat suit yelled to Orie the words she'd been waiting all morning to hear: "The governor is five minutes away."

That's governor as in Ed Rendell. As in Democrat. Orie is a Republican. As in staunch.

It might seem like an odd coupling, but it made perfect political sense.

For Rendell, a visit to affluent suburbia was a chance to pitch his budget plan to an important constituency and to make nice with the event's hostess, whose vote he'd like to have in Harrisburg.

For Orie, whose signature Senior Expo attracts thousands from all over the area, an appearance by the state's top executive could only reinforce her image as a legislator with clout.

Actually, make that two Ories with clout.

Standing beside the state senator from McCandless, who was resplendent in blue pinstriped pantsuit and high heels, diamond earrings and bracelets, and long blond hair, was a slightly smaller woman, also a blonde, in a slightly darker pantsuit and quieter jewelry -- Joan Orie Melvin, Jane's sister, and the Republican nominee for state Supreme Court.

It was a revealing moment.

Slowly but surely over the past decade, the Orie sisters have risen through the ranks of local North Hills politics to dominate the fastest-growing Republican district in Western Pennsylvania. They're also blazing new trails in a region known for male family alliances and dynasties, standing out among brothers and fathers and nephews -- the Zappalas, the Wechts, the Costas.

The North Hills may be a place where conservative family values hold sway, but it's positively feminist when it comes to electing public officials: In 1996, Orie won the 28th District House seat vacated by Republican Elaine Farmer, who was ill with cancer, and in 2001, Orie succeeded Melissa Hart in the state Senate's 40th District. Jan Rea, a local GOP activist and homemaker married to an influential banker, represents much of the same territory in Allegheny County Council. And Hart represents the region in Congress.

Today, Orie is perhaps best known as the strongest advocate for domestic violence prevention in the Senate, where she is widely credited with obtaining funding for a new law that requires 83 medical facilities across the state to train their staffs to screen patients for signs of domestic abuse.

Melvin was the first Republican woman elected to Allegheny Common Pleas Court. Earlier, as the city's chief magistrate, she established Pittsburgh's first domestic violence court, and later, an alternative sentencing program for juvenile offenders. Later, in 1997, she also became the first Republican woman elected to Superior Court -- although not without generating some headlines about her gender, when a member of a Pennsylvania Bar Association committee asked during an evaluation session how she would take care of her six young children if elected to statewide judicial office.

Talk is rife in political circles that the sister act is going statewide: Melvin, 47, is aiming for a spot this fall on the state's highest court. And while Orie, 41, insists she's happy where she is, some have talked her up as a candidate for auditor general.

"Absolutely not," Orie said with a laugh. "They're mixing me up with Jane Earll," the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor last year who also has been frequently mentioned for other statewide offices.

Nonetheless, the lineup of local and state officials appearing at the Senior Expo was impressive. Besides Rendell, there was Jim Roddey, patiently turning the raffle barrel and announcing the winners over the microphone. Later, Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll arrived to say hello. Even rookie Nick Kotik, a newly elected Democratic state representative from nearby Coraopolis, made an appearance. Nodding toward the two women on the stage, he said somewhat sheepishly: "I was hoping to pick up a few pointers from them."

The ties that bind

Despite their appearance together at the expo, Orie and Melvin are sensitive about seeming too close politically.

But their lives are connected -- professionally and personally.

Orie chairs Melvin's state Supreme Court campaign, and when the House and Senate leadership recently held a fund-raiser for Melvin, the invitations included personal notes from Orie urging the recipient to support her sister.

When the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference sent out questionnaires to candidates about their positions on various issues, it was Orie, not Melvin, who responded, expressing concern "as her campaign chairman and sister" that answering the questions in the survey would compromise Melvin's judicial ethics.

Melvin, for her part, tries for a slightly lower profile given her position as a judge, but it's not always easy to stay out of Orie's political disputes.

In 1997, an anonymous caller dialed Orie's office and berated her secretary for Orie's failure to support a half-cent sales tax to fund new stadiums that the caller said she had publicly promised to back. The caller said he'd work against both Orie sisters in the future.

After the secretary traced the call to Scott Baker, a lobbyist for the tax initiative (and not the WTAE anchorman), Melvin went public. She said she was angry that, as a judge, she had been dragged into a political debate, and she told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the time: "I will not take that from anyone. He was confronted and he was caught. These things will not be tolerated."

Today, a contrite-sounding Baker says he has mended fences with the Ories. "Jane and I are very close. There is no one who is a stronger advocate in Harrisburg for Magee-Womens Hospital, which I represent, than Jane."

Indeed, in interviews with Orie friends and foes, former associates and current supporters, one refrain surfaces again and again: You'll never find harder-working and more-dedicated public servants.

Just don't cross them.

"These are not weak women," Democratic political consultant and KDKA newsman Jon Delano said. "These are very strong women. There's no doubt that Jane and Joan play political hardball. That's their reputation, and that's part of the reason for their success. It's no different from what a number of men in politics do."

Orie did not deny this characterization. "I do play hardball," she said. "I am strong and determined. I will not be outworked by anyone."

"All of us are driven to do the right thing," added their brother Jack Orie, a lawyer known for his blunt, colorful language and intense loyalty to his sisters. "They don't harbor grudges. I do."

Filed two lawsuits

For the past four years, in fact, Jack Orie has been fiercely defending Melvin in a legal battle with AOL to identify an anonymous author who claimed on a Web site called Grant Street 99 that Melvin had lobbied on behalf of a lawyer seeking a judgeship.

Melvin has vigorously denied the claim and wants to sue the author for defamation, in an effort, she says, to clear her name. Witold Walczak, executive director of the ACLU's Pittsburgh branch, counters that Grant Street 99's claim is protected political speech, the kind of anonymous commentary found throughout the nation's history, starting with the Federalist Papers.

"We're seeing the subject of criticism use the courts simply to unmask her critics, when, in fact, she could use the bully pulpit to defend herself. She's a public figure, and if she can't stand heat, she should get out of kitchen," Walczak said.

Jane Orie also is aggressive about defending herself against political slings and arrows. During her first run for the House, she filed two lawsuits against her Democratic opponent, Michael C. Smith, one regarding what she said was a negative phone campaign against her and the other charging defamation of character and slander over allegations that she had fraudulently written and forged an endorsement by then Allegheny County District Attorney Bob Colville.

The suits were later dropped, and Orie defeated Smith and a third candidate. Then, in 2001, she handily defeated Jim Rooney, of the Steelers family, in a special election for Hart's Senate seat and was re-elected to a full term last year by a 2-1 margin. But some GOP officials still grumble about her push to become the party's nominee in the 2001 race.

Under GOP rules, the nominee was selected by a group of conferees chosen from across the Senate district. But her Republican competitors, Mike Turzai and Jeff Habay, complained publicly that the conferees were stacked to favor Orie, who was strongly supported by Roddey.

While Orie says she had nothing to do with the process, some felt it was unnecessarily heavy-handed.

"It's like when you have a game between the Yankees and the Pirates, and you feel you have to rig it for the Yankees," said a former campaign associate.

Turzai, who later won Orie's House seat, did not return phone calls requesting comment. Today, Habay says he has a good relationship with Orie, but he declined to be interviewed further.

Hart, on the other hand, declined a request to discuss Orie at all. That frayed relationship, which most people chalk up as the clash of two strong personalities, seems to pain Orie. She grew up on the same street in McCandless as Hart, is the same age and attended many of the same schools Hart did until their teen years, when she went to Vincentian High School and Hart, to North Allegheny.

After recruiting Orie to run for her House seat in 1996, Hart broke with her two years later, backing a Downtown lawyer for the Republican nomination instead. That prompted House Speaker Matt Ryan, a Republican from Delaware County, to come to the district and campaign for Orie.

Orie survived, and two years later, she won Hart's Senate seat, even though Hart opposed her then, too.

"I can't make head or tails of it," Orie said. "There have been all kinds of rumors for years. They say I beat her up in the schoolyard, or stole her boyfriend, all sorts of things. I've tried to address it, but I can't make heads or tails of it."

All in the family

There are actually nine Orie siblings, all of them with names that begin with J, and all overachievers. Two, Judith and Joseph, are cardiologists; five -- Jane, Joan, Jack, Jerry and Jim -- are lawyers; Joy is working on her master's in education, and Janine is a human resources manager who runs Joan's office.

It was a highly competitive household, very sports-oriented, overseen by two strong parental figures -- John Orie, a quiet doctor, and Jean Orie, an extroverted homemaker, who died in 1989. John Orie, who practiced medicine for 50 years, would take the kids with him on Saturday mornings while volunteering at a clinic at St. Francis Hospital.

Now retired, Orie described his two political daughters in knowing, affectionate terms. Jane is all "perpetual motion," full of jokes, a politician from day one, student council president at every school she attended, "although she drove the nuns bananas at Vincentian."

Joan on the other hand, "is a little more serious than Jane."

He's fiercely protective of both. When asked about the Grant Street 99 tipster's accusations, there is a pause. "I'd like to break someone's neck!" he said.

"Our father always told us it didn't matter that we were females, that if we worked hard, and got good grades, that nobody would ever stop us from whatever we wanted to do," said Melvin, who was one of the first women admitted to Notre Dame University.

Orie, the youngest, graduated from Franklin & Marshall College, and, like Melvin, attended Duquesne law school. But they pursued different paths: Jane got a job as an assistant district attorney, and later, as the only woman in the state attorney general's office, where she prosecuted more than 200 cases, including fraud, homicides and violent crimes against women and children.

That experience, she said, strongly influenced her interest in domestic violence issues when she entered the Legislature.

Joan chose corporate law, going to Federated Investors as the first female lawyer in the executive suite. She met her husband, Greg Melvin, there, and describes him as one of the few men who could understand her strong personality, "and just accept it, and not be turned off or challenged by it."

But after three years, she left for the more competitive atmosphere of a courtroom, first working with her brother Jack as a litigator, then as a district magistrate, then as the first woman and first Republican appointed chief magistrate in the city of Pittsburgh, during which time she signed an arrest warrant while in labor at Magee-Womens Hospital.

"I was really interested in the courtroom because of my personality," she said. "I'm very extroverted, outgoing, gregarious, a Type A kind of person. It was a good fit."

In 1990, she won both the Republican and Democratic nominations for Common Pleas judge, and in 1997, became the first Republican woman on the Superior Court. When she was asked during an evaluation session how she would find the time to care for her six children, she remembers feeling angry, but she kept her cool.

"I knew they were thinking, 'She wants to be a judge, let's see how she handles this, how even-keeled she is,' " and answered succinctly: "It's like any other working family, where there are so many members of our family with two parents working. You make it work."

Today, both women seem comfortable in their jobs, if not always with the scrutiny that goes with public life.

Melvin is a respected judge, a plugger who works hard. She is perhaps best known for a landmark decision allowing people to sue their HMOs. And while a number of lawyers say she tended to be pro-consumer in some of her earlier decisions as a Superior Court judge, in some recent meetings with business and physicians groups as a Supreme Court candidate, she has handed out a list of 28 pro-physician decisions and 26 pro-business decisions.

She received some unwelcome publicity in 1996 when the Post-Gazette reported that she had spent days away from the courtroom campaigning for the Superior Court position. She said she was using her vacation time to campaign and had "basically" taken no vacation that year, but had to backtrack when it was discovered she had spent a week at the New Jersey shore.

Pursuit of power

As the fall elections approach, Republicans are relying on an organization that produced a series of wins in recent statewide judicial races to give Melvin the edge over her Democratic foe for the state Supreme Court, Common Pleas Judge Max Baer.

Democrats hope that the Philadelphia mayor's race, the Allegheny County's chief executive race and Rendell's backing of Baer will draw high Democratic voter turnout in the state's two largest cities.

In the male-dominated state Senate, Jane Orie is known as a loyal soldier on property tax reform issues and recently got her first committee chairmanship -- Youth and Aging.

Her work on domestic violence also has also raised her profile, despite initial skepticism by some.

Domestic violence programs emerged in the 1970s out of the women's movement, which was in turn mostly populated by feminists and liberal Democrats. So when Orie, a conservative, anti-abortion Republican, came to Harrisburg and announced her intentions to make this her signature issue, some advocates were suspicious. Today, most have been won over by her push for a statewide screening program that requires health-care workers to check patients for abuse and then connect them with counselors and, if necessary, lawyers.

"Her tenacity, doggedness and fearlessness are undeniable," said Nancy Durdorow, of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "We now have 83 health systems training their staffers on domestic violence, and it's because of Jane."

The pursuit of political power can be exhausting, but Orie and Melvin seem energized by crowds and tightly packed schedules, reveling in the rough and tumble that might resemble one of those touch football games they use to play in the back yard of the ranch house on Montgomery Road in McCandless.

Both sisters will need to work hard in the months ahead.

While Rendell was cordial at the expo, chatting up both women, he will be doing all he can to defeat Melvin in her high court bid. He'll also be trying to persuade Orie to support his budget, even though it would require her to abandon her long-held opposition to gambling.

A vote for slots would play just fine with this crowd of seniors.

"Tell Jane Orie 'thank you' for all she's done for this community," said a woman representing the West View Arts Group. "And tell her we want gambling."

"Slots, governor!" shouted another woman in a pink blazer, as Rendell moved through the crowd.

After seeing Rendell out a back door, Orie headed through a quiet hallway, where she encountered a figure from her past, Sister Dorothy, from Vincentian, her former history teacher.

Her shoulders relaxed and she gave the nun a big hug. Sister Dorothy grabbed a reporter's wrist.

"She's a good girl," she said, nodding to Orie, who began laughing, remembering perhaps the pranks she was famous for in high school.

"Keep me in your prayers," she told Sister Dorothy.

"That's what I want to be," said Orie, half to herself as she walked away.

"Wise, like her."

Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at or 412-263-1949.

Correction/Clarification (Published Aug. 19, 2003): When Judge Joan Orie Melvin was a candidate for Pa. Superior Court in 1997, she was asked by a member of a Pennsylvania Bar Association committee how she would take care of her six young children if elected to statewide judicial office, a question that prompted a storm of controversy. A profile of the judge and her sister, state Sen. Jane Orie, published Aug. 17, 2003 incorrectly said the question came from an official with the local bar association.

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