Colin Ely

What do architecture and statesmanship have in common? More than you might think. Tim Kearney, AIA, who serves Pennsylvania’s 26th Senatorial District as state senator, is a practicing architect of over 30 years. He served on the Swarthmore Borough Planning Commission before being elected mayor of the city of Swarthmore, and has served in the Pennsylvania State Senate since 2019. He advocates for environmental protection and sustainability practices, fair and equitable policing, public education, and LGBTQ+ equality. Kearney will share his experience and expertise on the Mayor’s Panel at AIA’s 2020 Grassroots Leadership Conference.

Looking back on my career, I was fortunate enough to be with Venturi, Scott Brown and Associates for 16 years after graduate school. Up until that point, [my wife] Claudia and I had different work assignments and experiences. When we had a family, [the firm] hired Claudia to oversee interiors projects. In those days, I was working 70-hour weeks, so it was helpful that Claudia was able to work part-time to oversee and be involved in projects across the firm, and balance home and child needs. Being in a firm with a world-class architect like Denise Scott Brown, hon. faia, who was also a mother, paved the way for our family to balance home with the incredible demands of building two successful architecture careers.

While at VSBA, we moved from Philadelphia to Swarthmore and a few years later, in 2004, we started a small firm, which has grown into a fiveperson shop located in downtown Swarthmore. We wanted a sense of community with strong schools, walkability, and green space. When we moved, we immediately got involved in local pro bono projects. These projects led to involvement with the local planning commission, at which point I was asked to run for mayor. The town was undergoing some changes, and it felt timely for someone with my design experience coupled with my ability to build consensus across diverse stakeholders. I decided to run, and I won.

On the heels of my work as mayor I was approached about running for state senate by my local representative Leanne Krueger. I kind of laughed it off. [Eventually] Claudia and I discussed it seriously. We knew I was a long shot, but I felt compelled to make a run. The seat I was running for had been held by a Republican for the last 150 years, with one exception: one four-year term following Watergate. I ran and won the seat by a wide margin.

Since I’m the only architect in the Pennsylvania Senate, you might think architecture doesn’t lend itself to legislative discussions. In fact, my professional training and knowledge is extremely helpful. My approach to architecture has been key to my early success in the legislature. The ability to sweat the details while never losing sight of the big picture is unique to architects, and it really does make a difference. — As told to Katherine Flynn