Republicans oust Senate majority leader; Turzai wins election to become Speaker of the House
Majority Leader Mike Turzai is poised to take on the most powerful role in the state House after more than a decade of climbing Harrisburg’s political ladder.
The Republican caucus and its 119-member majority voted Wednesday for Turzai, of Marshall, to become speaker of the House. Rep. Dave Reed of Indiana will take the majority leader post.
“Leadership is moving a principled agenda forward, and our caucus has led and been the driving force behind commonsense policies which are bringing positive change to Pennsylvania,” Turzai said in a statement. “Being recognized and chosen by my colleagues to be speaker of this historic institution is a high honor and one not taken lightly.”
Turzai’s ascension coincides with another power shift. In the state Senate, former Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman, R-Centre County, defeated Sen. Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County, for majority leader.
Conservative members of the 30-person GOP majority had expressed dissatisfaction with Pileggi. Corman will head a caucus with five new members and handle negotiations between their agenda and that of Democratic Gov.-elect Tom Wolf.
The elections keep Allegheny County well-represented among statehouse leaders.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, and House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, were re-elected to their posts.
County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a Democrat, said the county has collaborated with Harrisburg’s bipartisan leadership, pointing to a county pension administration bill passed last year. Turzai’s speaker role will be beneficial, he said.
“It’ll be important for this county and this region to be able to capitalize on that,” he said.
Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, filled the vacant caucus chairman seat among the 20 Senate Democrats. In the House, Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, will continue as caucus chairman.
Leadership roles come with salaries larger than the base legislative salary of $84,000. In 2014, the speaker earned about $131,000, compared to about $121,000 for majority leader. The full House will vote on Turzai’s promotion in January.
Turzai began his career in the House in 2001. Before that, he was an attorney at Downtown law firm Houston Harbaugh, an assistant district attorney for Allegheny County and a congressional candidate. In Harrisburg, he was minority whip before majority leader.
“Mike is certainly one of the most driven, intelligent, committed people I’ve worked with,” said Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, who has lobbied in Harrisburg for more than 20 years.
“I’ve seen him to where he gets very animated about these things,” Barr said. “He believes passionately in changing Pennsylvania’s liquor system; he believes passionately in spending no more than you have.”
As leader, Turzai often encountered criticism from interest groups opposed to his decisions or the majority’s agenda. His comment that the state’s now-defunct voter identification law would allow presidential candidate Mitt Romney to win Pennsylvania received national attention and derision as evidence of a GOP plan to influence the election unfairly.
Recently, animal rights advocates urging Pennsylvania to ban organized pigeon shoots aired ads questioning why Turzai did not advance a Senate-approved bill outlawing the practice.
Wendell Young IV, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, which represents liquor store workers, said that despite Turzai’s quest to end the state’s monopoly on liquor sales, Turzai never met with him to discuss the system or its workers.
“His proposal was completely flawed. He only listened to people inside his own echo chamber, and I think it’s why a lot of things he set out to accomplish were never accomplished,” Young said.
House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin said Turzai has a track record of consensus building, including legislation that passed with bipartisan majorities.
“He meets with people on the other side, that’s how you reach consensus,” Miskin said.
Turzai reached a highwater mark with the privatization effort during a late-night session March 21, 2013. The House passed a sweeping privatization bill, the first since the state store system began in 1934. The proposal stalled in the Senate. As recently as election day, Turzai extolled the benefits of privatizing the liquor system while speaking to reporters at Gov. Tom Corbett’s election party.
Third District Judge Mike Fisher, former state attorney general and a longtime Turzai friend and former colleague at Houston Harbaugh, said he respects Turzai’s determination.
“To his credit, Mike has strong opinions and he’s forceful,” he said. “He’s stuck to those.”