After decades in the public eye and years of playing political hardball, former U.S. Congressman Tom Marino is embracing civilian life at his quiet country home in Cogan Station.
A champion for term limits at the federal level, Marino intended his fifth term to be his last. But a decades-long struggle against kidney cancer culminated with an emergency hospital visit in January and a quick resignation from the General Assembly.
Decades of kidney cancer
Marino has battled kidney cancer since the late 1990s when he was the Lycoming County district attorney. But he never considered leaving public office until January of this year when total kidney failure while on a business trip in Harrisburg sent him to the ER.
His first kidney cancer scare came in 1999 when he sought emergency treatment for excruciating back pain. Marino was told he had a tumor on his kidney and would need the entire kidney removed immediately. Instead, he opted for a new procedure to have only half of his kidney removed. The successful operation gave him 10 years of good health.
In 2009, the cancer returned and another procedure removed the rest of his left kidney. Again, it was back to business as usual until 2012 when the cancer spread to his right kidney. Another procedure removed half of the kidney and Marino enjoyed relative health until January of this year.
Total kidney failure in January forced the determined congressman to resign.
“I can’t be driving back and forth to D.C., I can’t be running around the district – I had the largest district in the state – and I can’t serve my constituents well, it (was) time for me to leave,” Marino said.
A private man, Marino would have been happy not to make the reason for his resignation public.
“That’s a private thing, and I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me,” Marino said. “I didn’t want to tell anybody anything.”
But after his staff and close friends encouraged him to let his constituents know what was going on, Marino had his office send out a statement and talked with two trusted journalists, but declined all other media requests.
Because he still has the potential of cancer, Marino said he is unable to be put on a donor list, but he added that anyone can voluntarily donate a kidney.
“It’s overwhelming, it’s humbling. I had so many people text me, call me, email me and say, “You can have one of my kidneys,’ ” Marino said.
From blue collar to the ear of the president
Known as a hard-hitting political force, Marino attributes his, sometimes brutal, honesty to his father, the patriarch of a blue collar family who worked as a firefighter and supported his family with a number of other jobs.
“We were a lower-socioeconomic middle class,” Marino said. “But we didn’t realize that. We had a good life. We had food, we had clothes, a couple presents at Christmas – life was good.”
After years of working at factory jobs such as Stroehman’s Bakery and Frito Lays, young Marino found a passion for criminal justice. He completed law school in a surprising five years and began working for the private sector.
Marino now is known for his long career as a prosecutor, but it all started when he was elected to the county district attorney seat in 1992 – then a part-time position.
The seat turned from part-time to full-time during Marino’s tenure, making him the first full-time district attorney in Lycoming County. He was reelected twice.
In 2002, the Lycoming County native set his sights on the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Pennsylvania and was appointed by former President George W. Bush.
“I never wanted to go into politics,” Marino said. “I was an elected district attorney and I enjoyed that. It’s still one of my favorite jobs.”
But enjoyment aside, Marino said he chose to go to Washington to get things done. Running against incumbent Democrat Christopher Carney was no small task, and Marino said even the Republican Party didn’t believe he could win. He landed the seat with a 10% margin and became the U.S. congressman for the then-10th Congressional District.
Over his 10 years in office, Marino said he passed at least one piece of legislation each year and worked with political peers on both sides of the aisle.
Most notably, Marino was one of the first legislators to voice support for President Donald Trump. His show of early loyalty gave him a position of distinction in Trump’s inner circle during the campaign. Marino, with Congressman Lou Barletta, spearheaded Trump’s campaign efforts in Pennsylvania, ultimately helping to secure the state, and the election, for the president.
Marino never took for granted his trusted, high-level position. He said he always gave the president his honest opinion and even though he has a direct line to the president, only called him once while in Congress.
“I was constantly hounded on, ‘Call the president,’ ” Marino said. “I wouldn’t use that chip unless it were critically important to my constituents and the country.”
Key legislation and a glimpse at drug czar
Marino credits much of his success to surrounding himself with good people and a dedication to passing legislation that made his constituents’ lives better.
As his popularity grew, the margin between Marino and his political opponents widened. He spearheaded bills to increase benefits for seniors, provide pepper spray to prison guards, support the military and make animal fighting a federal crime.
Perhaps one of the most controversial pieces of legislature to be passed was the 2016 Ensuring Patient Access and Effective Drug Enforcement Act. It was this piece of legislation, which Marino still stands behind, that caused him to step down from his nomination as drug czar for the nation.
As a hard-hitting prosecutor against drug dealers and corruption by Big Pharma, Marino’s nomination to Director of National Drug Control Policy, most commonly known as the drug czar, seemed like a good fit.
“I would have made a good drug czar,” Marino said, explaining a plan he had in place to implement an advisory board of fellow legislators, as well as plans for cracking down on drug dealers and creating secure medical institutions for addicts.
But the nomination was followed shortly by controversy after the Washington Post and 60 Minutes alleged that Marino’s bill hindered the DEA from prosecuting pharmaceutical companies and fighting the ever-growing drug epidemic. The report was backed by DEA members and soon calls for the drug czar nomination to be revoked came flooding in.
Marino countered that the intent of the bill was to ensure DEA agents couldn’t simply shut down any pharmacy, but would conduct a thorough investigation while still ensuring people, especially seniors and terminally ill, could get their prescribed drugs.
“Our legislation was designed for people to get the drugs that they needed and at the same time, prosecute those who were abusing the system,” Marino said.
A media firestorm ensued and Marino, ever the Trump supporter, elected to recuse himself from the position rather than cause an issue for the president. He said the investigation was more about hindering the president than it was about him.
“They were going after Trump, they weren’t going after me,” Marino said. “But I pulled the rug out from under them because I called the president and said, ‘I’m withdrawing my name, so they can’t go after you anymore.’ ”
Term limits – the D.C. ‘game-changer’
Marino’s sudden departure from the Legislature in January left some unfinished business, primarily a bill to impose a term limit of 12 years for legislators.
“That is the game-changer in D.C.,” Marino said about the bill.
The bill has been introduced each term and would eliminate what Marino called “back benchers” – legislators who have been in office for decades but have no sponsored legislation to their name. This opens up the floor for new, young congress members to introduce new ideas and fill leadership roles.
“If we have term limits we get rid of the dead wood,” he said. “It allows newer members to get into leadership roles and committee chair roles faster.”
Marino encouraged constituents to ask their legislators what they are doing to improve the lives of the people in their district.
Life after Congress
Post-congressional life is a welcome relief for Marino, but he’s not done working yet. In a very real sense, he has flipped the political coin and now works as a consultant for a company that makes software for online games of skill.
Marino works to create regulations for the industry, including ensuring game owners pay their fair share in taxes and that minors can’t purchase them.
“We’re in an industry that needs regulated,” Marino said. “When I go talk to the legislators about it they say, ‘Wait a minute, you were a legislator and you’re saying you want your industry regulated?’ ”
His new job requires some travel time, but most of it is at home. While he says he misses his staff and constituents, the quiet life allows him to spend more time with his family and focus on his health.
“If I live another 10 or 15 years … I think I would like to do a little teaching,” Marino said. “I like working with kids.”
But, never one to forget his first criminal justice passion, Marino added that he may even like jump back into the district attorney’s office as an assistant.
“I love to be in the courtroom,” he said. “It’s rewarding to put the bad guys away and be somebody fighting for the victims.”