The Lead

‘The best part of it is picking your own time to leave,’ Scarnati says, as Pa. Senate pays tribute to retiring GOP leader

By: - October 20, 2020 4:53 pm

The Senate applauds outgoing president pro tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, on Oct. 20.

Members of Pennsylvania’s state Senate paid tribute on Tuesday to outgoing Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, the Jefferson County Republican who will retire when his term expires in November. 

A 20-year veteran of the Senate, Scarnati announced in February that he would not seek reelection this year, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family. 

Senators spent more than an hour Tuesday recognizing Scarnati’s legacy, and sharing memories from his career. Their tribute included a pre-recorded video with messages from current and former lawmakers and Senate staffers, as well as Scarnati’s parents, wife and children. 

“Joe has been a consensus builder, diplomat and respected leader,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said. “We all love you and thank you for your friendship.”

Born to an Italian-American family in Brockway, Pa., Scarnati said he cut his teeth as a politician by working at his family’s bar and restaurant. It was there that an old friend encouraged him to run for an open seat representing the 25th Senate District, which stretches across seven counties in northwestern Pennsylvania.

“My immediate response was, ‘I’m not worthy,’” Scarnati said Tuesday. “Now, here I am.”

Scarnati’s first bid for state Senate was unsuccessful. He lost a three-way Republican primary in the 25th Senate District in 1996, but ran again in 2000 as an independent after an incumbent was arrested for illegal dumping. 

He won that race by barely 200 votes and has held the seat ever since.

He said Tuesday that his rise to the top leadership post has been improbable, the result of “unique circumstances” that landed him in the right place at the right time. 

“There’s people that plan their whole lives to get to these places in politics, and somehow I got to all these places,” Scarnati said. “But the best part of it is picking your own time to leave.”

Scarnati ascended to the president pro tempore’s office in 2006, in the midst of what Corman described as a “low point” in the Senate’s history. 

Lawmakers had voted one year earlier to authorize a pay raise for lawmakers, judges and executive branch officials – a scandal that inspired a grassroots anti-corruption movement that ousted more than a dozen incumbent lawmakers in the 2006 elections. 

The scandal also led to a “clean sweep” of legislative leadership, Corman recalled Tuesday, clearing the way for a fresh batch of leaders to be installed. 

Corman and other lawmakers credited Scarnati with ushering in a new age of transparency in the state Senate, beginning with his decision, in 2006, to make public documents related to another scandal – this one involving legislative aides who had also worked on political campaigns and who received bonuses on their state salaries. 

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said the outgoing leader had always shown “outstanding” fairness to the Democratic caucus.

Scarnati’s record has not been without controversy. In the last two years, he has faced scrutiny for his decision to pay more than $20,000 worth of legal bills for a Senate security guard who was accused in federal court of sexual harassment. 

This year, he tried to take journalists to court after they reported that his campaign obscured spending on meals, travel and other expenses.

A Jefferson County judge tossed Scarnati’s suit, which sought to recoup $6,000 from the reporters to cover his campaign’s accounting, legal and court expenses. 

Scarnati also took heat in 2018 when he did not allow the Senate to vote on legislation giving child victims more time to sue and press charges against sexual abusers.

He relented last year and held votes on parts of the proposal, which was a response to the clergy sex abuse crisis uncovered in a 2018 grand jury report.

But in a compromise Scarnati reached with House lawmakers, one key provision sought by victims – a temporary, retroactive window to let them bring lawsuits in old cases – won’t take effect unless voters approve a constitutional amendment. Victims and their advocates say the two-year referendum process defers justice.

Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, says Scarnati listened to her when she argued for the urgency of the reforms. But she said he made the wrong call by insisting on a constitutional amendment.

“I had dozens of victims write call and meet with me over that bill,” Muth said Tuesday. “[Scarnati] had power to do right by them and didn’t.”

Muth said Scarnati could burnish his legacy by advancing a bill that codifies the reform in statute. The Senate has one more scheduled session day in October, and will reconvene in November to vote on a new state budget.

Scarnati’s departure will create a vacancy in the Senate’s Republican leadership ranks. Senators will vote on new leaders in January, after swearing in the lawmakers who win seats in the Nov. 3 general election.

‘Anytime Joe would speak, members listened.’ After two decades in Harrisburg, Scarnati leaves a complicated legacy

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Elizabeth Hardison
Elizabeth Hardison

Elizabeth Hardison covered education policy, election administration, criminal justice and legislative news for the Capital-Star from Jan. 2019-April 2021. You can find her on Twitter @ElizHardison.