Politicians from West Chester who have served as U.S. Representative for Pennsylvania’s 6th Congressional District hold remarkable and sometimes colorful biographical histories.
Like the private in the U.S. Army during the Civil War (Smedley Darlington, who served from 1887-1891) who grew to be a banker and the eventual grandfather of a military man known as the “Fighting Quaker;” and the businessman who began his career (William Everhart, 1853-1855) in Congress 30 years after surviving the sinking of the ship Albion off the coast or Ireland; and the war veteran (John Hickman, 1855-1863) who led the impeachment hearing of a federal judge from Tennessee in the 1860s; and the Everhart scion (James Bowen Everhart 1883-1887) who supplemented his work as a Harvard-educated attorney by publishing works of poetry, notably “The Fox Chase.”
Now we have the tall, lanky attorney who was born in northern Chester County and described spending his youth in the East Vincent village of Sheeder “always outside with a ball — soccer, football, Whiffle ball, basketball” or with his nose in books about sports heroes and the Hardy Boys.
Ryan Costello, 38, of West Chester, on Jan. 6 will become the 49th person to represent the 6th district, a Congressional seat that has moved across the state as legislative boundaries have been linked with it since 1791, when Andrew Gregg first held the office. Entering the 114th Congress, Costello will take his place alongside the Darlingtons and Butlers and Everharts and Hickmans who have held the office, and will succeed James Gerlach, who Costello met as a young township supervisor and purposefully modeled his political career after.
In a recent hour-long interview, Costello related his history as a boy in East Vincent, a student at Owen J. Roberts High School, a history major at Ursinus College and eventual law student at Villanova University Law School, and his somewhat off-handed entry into Chester County Republican politics and elective office.
But asked whether his contemporaries would have guessed in the 1980s when they were playing ball that he would someday take to the floor of the House of Representatives, Costello grinned, chuckled, and said, in all frankness, “No.”
“There are some of my friends that have a smile on their face and probably just shake their heads” when they think of him in Washington, D.C., Costello said. “But I think there are a lot of people who are proud of me and of the fact that I own who I am, and I am a Chester County boy.
“I think that it is exciting for a lot of people to know somebody that’s been elected and also somebody who is from here. I am who I am, and I think people have a sense that I know what it is like to live here and grow up here,” he said of the county. “There is something sort of exciting about knowing someone who was born here and raised here, and that you can live vicariously through their experiences.”
Costello was born in the Bicentennial Year of 1976 to two school teachers, Anthony and Sharon Costello, who had graduated from then-West Chester State College and purchased land for a home near French Creek in East Vincent. His father taught gym and later became principal at Methacton High School in Montgomery County and superintendent of Garnet Valley School District, while his mother raised him and his brother, Christopher, and worked as a substitute until taking a position as a physical education teacher at Fugett Middle School in the West Chester Area School District.
In the interview last month, Costello recalled that his parents were registered Republicans, but not necessarily involved in that world, and that he himself paid more attention to his athletic pursuits than to politics until his college days. He grew up respecting Present Ronald Reagan, most likely because he was the country’s leader at the time Costello first became aware of life beyond the ball field and not so much because of his party affiliation.
“He’s my favorite president,” he said. “There was a moral clarity and a sunny optimism to him. I read some of his speeches, and there are certain elements to them that ring as true today — that our federal government has gotten too large and the bureaucracy has made life more difficult. The notion of individual responsibility, a strong defense, lower taxes rates — those are all a traditional brand of Republicanism that I believe in.”
Costello grew to appreciate American history and government as a teenager and studied it when he enrolled in Ursinus College. Then, in 1997, he spent a semester during his junior year attending classes at American University in Washington, during the time when the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was in full swing. “It was a very eye-opening experience,” he said.
“It was about paying attention every day to what was going on,” he said. “I knew I was interested in political stuff, but I didn’t know want I was going to do about it in any capacity. I went to college to go to law school, but I did not know what I would do after I went to law school.
The thought of running for office, however, didn’t occur to him until much later. “I am sure I thought maybe that is something I’d like to do, but I don’t think I had a well developed sense of my career path in school.”
Then one Election Day when he was about to enter Villanova, he stopped by his precinct polling place and struck up a conversation with the local GOP committeeman. “I asked him, ‘How do you do what you do?’ He said, ‘Well, it is pretty much easy.’”
Costello, living at the family home, became involved in East Vincent politics, became a committeeman, and eventually started attending township meetings. “I figured I could do this,” he said. In 2001, he ran for township supervisor and won. “I door-knocked that township like crazy,” he remembers. “(My opponent) was playing catch up.”
“Some of me just traces back to being an athlete,” he said of the way he approached that first run for office, and subsequent ones. “I was going to win that race, just like I was going to win the race for Congress. If you tell me what the rules are, I will follow them and win.” In an off-year election with an unusual high voter turnout, Costello won the supervisor race with 59 percent of the vote.
At the time, the face of East Vincent government had changed. A longtime Republican supervisor had been defeated for re-election by an active Democrat concerned about suburban sprawl and unchecked development in the township. Supervisor meetings became battlegrounds, and Costello was introduced to the “blood sport” side of local politics.
“It was a very intense period,” he said. “There were opportunities where I was either going to take the bait, or not take the bait. For the most part, I comported myself as an adult. If I didn’t it would have spelled the end really quickly.”
Beyond that, however, the mechanisms of government in the rural township began to modernize, with more employees and a more sophisticated emphasis on what the Board of Supervisors should do. There were countless public hearings on development proposals, and as Costello learned more about land-use law, an education he put to use when he joined the Pottstown law firm of O’Donnell, Weiss & Mattei. There, he helped open an office in Phoenixville and represented businesses that were opening in the borough in land use applications.
The East Vincent board, as much as there was disagreement, did manage to authorize and win approval of one of the county’s first open space taxes, in which a certain amount of revenue was dedicated to purchasing and preserving open space.
“We were either the first township or the second to do that,” he said. “Over the course of my years, we preserved more open space than any other municipality in Chester County.”
In addition, the board, with Costello now as chairman, changed the township zoning map to allow for the creation of a veterans’ cemetery at the former Pennhurst State Hospital site. The idea had been one of Gerlach’s pet projects, and although it was ultimately unsuccessful, it did introduce the two men formally.
“I remember going down to Washington, D.C. and meeting with Jim Gerlach,” he recalled. “It was the first time I had been back to Washington since that semester in D.C. and it was a really big deal. I was awestruck by it.”
He said as a GOP committeeman he had dealings with Gerlach in the past, but that the Pennhurst issue brought them together on a government level. The energetic congressman from northern Chester County became a role model. “Watching his trajectory was of interest to me,” he said. “I watched very closely how he was as a public official” and took notice of Gerlach’s interest in “smart growth” policies.
Costello was elected as county recorder of deeds in 2008, and then was appointed commissioner in 2011, following a pattern of learning as he went and letting it be known, however informally, that he would like to be considered for higher office. Gerlach’s seat was, however, not in the picture because it was the conventional wisdom at the time that he would serve at least another decade.
Then, out of the blue, came the word in January 2014 that Gerlach had decided not to seek re-election, thus opening the way for someone from Chester County to take his place. Costello had been commissioner just about two years, had been married in 2011, to the former Christine Thomas, and welcomed a child, Ryan Jr., the month before.
I found out about it on a Monday morning,” he remembered. “I immediately knew that it was something that I was going to do, but I needed to speak with my wife. I know that sounds trite but we had a 3-week-old baby boy. I needed to tell my parents. It was an intense couple of weeks.
“But it was the one opportunity that I would have to do this,” he said. “I said to someone recently that I will look back on 2014 as how much happened in my life.”
Costello has now been given his office space in the Cannon Office Building, assigned Lyndon Johnson’s old “split-in-half” office, and named to the Transportation and Infrastructure and Veteran Affairs committees. He has decided to keep much of Gerlach’s former district staff to make for a smooth transition, and has begun setting up offices in the four counties over which his district stretches.
His main office, however, will be in the Historic Chester County Courthouse, in space once used by the county solicitor. The window from which he will watch the passing parade on West Market Street will look out at the noted Lincoln Biography Building across the street.
The landmark building, known across the county, was coincidentally built by none other than former U.S. Rep. William Everhart, Costello’s West Chester predecessor who occupied the 6th Congressional District seat 160 years ago.
For more details, visit www.pottsmerc.com