URBAN, NOT SURPRISINGLY, never envisioned becoming a lobbyist. A standout scholar-athlete in Aliquippa, he eschewed a chance to play football at Harvard to go to West Point. (His football career there was cut short by a spinal injury, though, he gleefully points out, he’s in the Black Knights’ 1982 media guide.) After West Point and a tour in the Persian Gulf, Urban went back to school: Temple Law and, concomitantly, Penn, for a master’s in government administration. Later, he would join Ballard Spahr, where he’d get his first real taste of power at events with the state’s movers and shakers. But he was still in law school when he met the man who would change his life.
Arlen Specter needed a squash partner.
Even in his early 60s, Pennsylvania’s senior senator was an avid squash enthusiast, and his regular playing partner, a mutual acquaintance of Urban’s, had thrown out his back. Urban became The Guy. Over the next couple years, the two bonded over weekend matches at Clarks Uptown in Center City. Then one day in 1996, Specter offered Urban a job running his Philadelphia office. Later — with the blessing of David Cohen, Ballard’s managing partner and former chief of staff to Mayor Ed Rendell — Urban took the job and excelled. So much so that a few months later, Specter gave Urban the chance to be chief of staff of his entire D.C. operation.
Urban had never done anything like run a political office. But the job was managerial — to keep Specter Inc.’s trains running on time —and that fit his personality and military leadership training just fine. It wasn’t his place to bog down in the minutiae of policy, though he was certainly among Specter’s top advisers on all matters political and legislative. Instead, he took pride in the little things: ensuring constituents received their Social Security checks, aiding Specter’s longtime efforts to better fund the National Institutes of Health, and so on. By the time he decided to leave government work, he’d amassed a surfeit of suitors.
That decision, he says, was “purely financial.” He had student-loan debts, a wife and son, and an aging father to care for. Plus, D.C. is an expensive place to live. His government salary of $136,840 paled when compared to what he could net as a lobbyist.
Big D.C. law firms wanted to bring Urban into their lobbying divisions, and they were willing to pay handsomely. But he wanted something more entrepreneurial. Fortuitously, then-ACG principal Peter Terpeluk Jr. accepted an ambassadorship to Luxembourg, and Urban jumped at the opportunity to replace him.