My favorite Garth Brooks song, about having friends in low places, has a great lyric where he sings "I showed up in boots and ruined your black tie affair." That refrain could be sung by Pennsylvania’s newest state senator, Scott Wagner, who just months into his term, has called for the ouster of the reigning Senate Republican leader.
There is no doubt that Senate Majority Leader Domenic Pileggi is out of step with both his caucus and with his party. The most frequently asked question I get is: Why have Republicans – with control of the governor’s office and both houses of the legislature – failed to enact reforms near and dear to the heart of the party’s grassroots. The blame in large measure rests squarely on the shoulders of Pileggi and a handful of other southeastern Republican senators whose loyalty lies not with their party or voters, but rather with the labor unions who financially support their campaigns.
Senator Wagner had the temerity to challenge Pileggi directly on this issue. In a strongly worded letter saying he supports a change in leadership Wagner told Pileggi: "I suspect many of your actions can be explained by the company you keep . . . It has become crystal clear to me that you will not allow any piece of legislation onto the floor for a vote that would in any way be opposed by the public or private sector unions."
Reaction from the Senate leadership team tellingly focused on concerns that: "Public disagreements within our caucus are not the norm; we always hope such differences can be resolved in a collegial manner."
I guess he ruined their black tie affair.
Interestingly, among the "accomplishments" of Senator Pileggi cited by his fellow leaders was passage of the Transportation Infrastructure Plan, essentially a massive gas tax hike that is enormously unpopular among fiscal conservatives. No mention, of course, was made of pension reform or liquor privatization – key legislative goals of Governor Tom Corbett and of House Republicans respectively.
Conservatives know that resolving matters in a "collegial manner" only means the clubby status quo of the Senate remains intact. The past four years have proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that such business as usual cannot and will not yield reform. The same situation existed across the capitol rotunda in the state House during the speakership of John Perzel, who – before being sent off to prison – ran that chamber in a manner contrary to both the principles of his party and the will of most members of his own caucus.
History is now repeating itself. Electoral trends across the state have resulted in Republican representation in both the Senate and in the House shift from the formerly Republican southeastern Philadelphia suburbs to central and especially western Pennsylvania where voters have elected more Republicans and more conservative Republicans. Pileggi, of Delaware County, is on the wrong side of the trend line.
The question now becomes when will enough Republican senators realize that they are enabling the labor union agenda by allowing Senator Pileggi to remain as Majority Leader? It is not enough, back in their districts, to use the excuse that leadership won’t bring issues to a vote. Every senator has the power to shed the black tie, put on their boots and change leadership so it more accurately reflects the principles of the Republican Party’s grassroots.
Wagner, meanwhile, has nothing to lose. Pileggi & company pulled every trick in the book to prevent him from being elected to the Senate in the first place. In an embarrassing defeat for Pileggi, Wagner beat the leader’s hand-picked candidate in a special election by waging a write-in campaign – the first write-in victory for a state Senate candidate in the history of the commonwealth.
Putting a cherry on top of the sundae, Wagner recently gave the Senate Republican report at the Fall meeting of the Republican State Committee. Such reports typically lull members to sleep, but Wagner animated the crowd with a fiery speech denouncing labor unions and those who have blocked the GOP’s reform agenda – specifically pinning the blame on southeastern senators.
He received numerous and thunderous ovations.
Wagner is not speaking for just the conservative wing of the party, he is speaking for all Republicans who are angry that they have worked for decades to gain control in Harrisburg, and have seen critical reforms derailed by elected officials of their own party. And those reforms have not failed because of the governor or the state House, but because of the Senate. Senator Wagner has correctly identified the "number one obstacle."
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)
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