Elections Not Yet Over: Legislative leadership election will determine agenda for the coming two years

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

For voters the 2008 elections are over, but for members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly a number of very important votes are still to be cast. In the coming weeks, legislators will be selecting leaders for the new session. The men and women elected to those positions will set the agenda for the coming two years – and frame the debate for the 2010 gubernatorial election.

Leadership elections in the General Assembly are usually viewed as "inside baseball," but in recent years the importance of those positions and public attention paid to them has risen. Two years ago voters purged the highest ranking Republicans from the state Senate, the President Pro Tempore and Majority Leader; and House Speaker John Perzel was ousted from leadership after the GOP lost its majority status in the lower chamber.

As for the Senate, there is little drama. New President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati and his leadership team have unified the Republican caucus – the lone remaining bastion of GOP control in Harrisburg. In fact, Senate Republicans achieved the remarkable feat of adding to their numbers with an upset win in Beaver County. If anything, Senate Democrats might be looking for new leadership after failing to make gains in this the most Democratic of election years.

It is a completely different story in the state House where both the Republican caucus and the Democratic caucus are dysfunctional. This dysfunction is the result of a unique convergence of circumstance including the razor thin one-seat majority the Democrats held in the last session; the impact of the Attorney General’s Bonusgate investigation on the Democratic caucus; and a general ineptitude on the part of House Republican leadership.
All of that lead to the election of Dennis O’Brien of Philadelphia – a Republican – as House Speaker in a chamber controlled by Democrats.

Representative Bill DeWeese, leader of House Democrats could not hold his fragile caucus together to claim the speakership, so a last minute deal created a coalition of Democrats and principled Republicans who refused to support Perzel resulting in O’Brien’s successful compromise candidacy.

O’Brien has in fact created a new model for the speakership, operating it in a non-partisan fashion. O’Brien told the Pennsylvania Press Club last month he would like to remain in the post. But, the partisan winds are now blowing strong and the Democrats, who appear to have added a net gain of two seats to their numbers, will want the speakership for one of their own. Democratic State Representative Keith McCall of Carbon County has emerged as the early favorite. McCall could face competition from one or more of the longer serving members of his caucus.

Aside from the Speaker, leadership questions abound in both caucuses. Bill DeWeese won a tough re-election battle on November 4th and has made it known he would like to return as Majority Leader. But, he operates under the shadow of the Bonusgate scandal. Although no charges have been brought against him, the question for Democrats is can they take a chance on re-electing DeWeese and then possibly being embarrassed if he is indicted?

DeWeese already faces strong opposition for Majority Leader. Representative Kathy Manderino of Philadelphia has thrown her hat into the race. Her late father, James Manderino, served as a powerful Majority Leader and Speaker several decades ago. Also running for Majority Leader is Representative David Levdansky of Allegheny County. And Todd Eachus, who steered the House Democratic Campaign Committee during the past election cycle also appears interested in a top leadership post.

On the Republican side of the aisle, a leadership ticket appears to be emerging. State Representative Sam Smith of Punxsutawney, a protégé of John Perzel’s is running for re-election as Republican Leader. State Representative Mike Turzai of Allegheny County has announced his bid for Republican Whip, the number two position. Turzai distinguished himself both as GOP Policy Chairman for the past two years, and as head of the House Republican Campaign Committee which held GOP losses to a minimum in a difficult year. A wild card is former Speaker Perzel, who is rumored to be interested in a return to a top leadership post.

And so campaign 2008 goes behind the closed doors of the General Assembly where key decisions will be made affecting the direction of Penn’s Woods over the coming two years. Despite the fact these leadership elections have a profound impact on the legislative agenda; rank and file voters have little input into the process. If you have a favorite, the only way to make your voice heard is by contacting your senator or representative.

(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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