Kathy Speaker MacNett credits her parents for sparking her lifelong passion of public service.
“The way I was raised was to help other people,” said Speaker MacNett, who grew up in New Jersey before downtown Harrisburg became her home nearly 50 years ago. “My father was a volunteer firefighter, and my mother did a lot of volunteering around the community, as well.”
Today, Speaker MacNett, a labor relations attorney and a managing member of the Harrisburg law firm of SkarlatosZonarich, is known as a virtual powerhouse around the city, serving the community through a myriad of paths.
How so? Let’s count the ways.
In 2019, Speaker MacNett was appointed to a five-year term on the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, the state body that oversees Harrisburg’s finances. The ICA since has approved the city’s five-year financial plan, bringing Harrisburg closer to exiting Act 47, the state’s program for financially distressed cities.
She also sits on the steering committee of Capitol Area Neighbors, which meets to discuss issues and projects that affect the downtown Harrisburg neighborhood.
Then there’s her position on the board of the Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School, where a capital campaign is underway for a $5.7 million project that will renovate the circa-1950 Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School on Liberty Street and the adjacent, 109-year-old Shanahan Center on North Street.
“I very firmly believe in Catholic education,” Speaker MacNett stated. “We do it with limited fund-ship and give every student the attention they deserve. My daughters (Pamela and Colleen) graduated from Catholic schools, and so did I.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Speaker MacNett lives directly across the street from the Shanahan Center. She characterizes the upcoming school project as another step forward in the continued redevelopment of the Capitol neighborhood.
There’s that word again. Neighborhood. For all intents and purposes, you’d be hard-pressed to find a bigger advocate of Harrisburg than Speaker MacNett.
“I like the access here,” she explained. “I like walking around the city. I like it so much that I’m notorious for letting my car sit for a week. I walk to and from work. I like looking out the window and seeing the energy that’s here.”
Another downtown advocate, Harristown’s Brad Jones, has known Speaker MacNett for “15 or 20 years.”
“Kathy is like a bright ray of sunshine,” said Harristown’s president and CEO. “She’s always looking at the bright side of the city. She’s very observant about the things that need to be changed and really cares about this city.”
Speaker MacNett first came to Harrisburg as an Immaculata College (now University) student during the summer of 1968. She was a recipient that year of the prestigious James A. Finnegan Foundation Fellowship and spent the interim between her sophomore and junior years working in Harrisburg with the Republican State Committee.
It was the start of her long-term love affair with the city.
“One of the great things about Harrisburg is the river,” she said. “I love walking along it. It gives the city a sense of openness that other cities don’t have.”
After earning a bachelor’s of arts in history from Immaculata, she moved to Harrisburg full-time in 1971. Today, she sits on the board of the Finnegan Foundation. Her daughters haven’t moved far, living in separate homes just across the street, and Speaker MacNett recently purchased and renovated another house on the block to improve the neighborhood.
“Harrisburg is history,” she said. “I’ve worked to save 10 buildings in Harrisburg on my own and with my daughters.”
After settling in Harrisburg, Speaker MacNett worked on a political campaign before becoming research director to the state House Labor Relations Committee. She then went on to clerk at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and serve as assistant counsel at the state Labor Relations Board.
In the meantime, she earned a master’s degree in government administration from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s in industrial relations from St. Francis College. She went on to earn a law degree from Dickinson School of Law (now Penn State) in 1981. She first became a mother two weeks before her third-year finals at Dickinson.
In 1983, Speaker MacNett became an associate counsel for the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. After that, she served as an associate or partner for several law firms, focusing on management-side labor relations, employment law and related legislative and regulatory developments. In 2003, she began at SkarlatosZonarich, where she’s now a managing member.
SkarlatosZonarich counsel Jim Cawley has known Speaker MacNett “as a lawyer and as a friend” for around 40 years, he said.
“Kathy does what is right and advises other people to do what is right,” Cawley said. “She backs up her intelligence with a great deal of savvy. She’s a delightful individual and a darn good hard-nosed lawyer when she needs to be.”