As Turzai backs police reform before resignation, Black lawmakers judge his legacy

(Photo courtesy of Pa. House Democratic Caucus)

State House Speaker Mike Turzai’s retirement announcement Wednesday came just days after he added his voice to the chorus of millions calling for policing reforms in America.

Turzai called the death of George Floyd in police custody “horrific” Monday, and linked his outrage at Floyd’s death with his opposition to abortion during his farewell address.

“It includes protecting the unborn, but it also includes addressing racism and police brutality,” the Allegheny County Republican said.

The departing speaker called for additional action in the future, and was involved in closed-door negotiations with House Democratic leadership all week. As for the future, Turzai offered “everyone the best” in addressing systemic racism. His last day in Harrisburg is June 15.

Mike Turzai to step down as Pa. House Speaker, resign office on June 15

Black Democratic lawmakers interviewed by the Capital-Star acknowledged that Turzai deserved some credit for a set of votes, scheduled for Monday, that could reform police hiring in the commonwealth — changes that are just a first step.

But more than Turzai, they argued that the deal came from protesters in the street, who created a moment that could not be ignored by anyone. And that includes Turzai, who has been at the center of outrage over everything from redistricting reform to his comments on voter ID and abortion.

As a “proud man,” Turzai likely wanted to leave remembered for “something outstanding,” said Rep. Stephen Kinsey, D-Philadelphia, the chairman of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus. 

“Most folks would like to be on the right side of history. Turzai’s parting will, at least to some, be remembered on the right side,” Kinsey told the Capital-Star. “Despite what I might remember from the past eight years about not passing damn bills … from my vantage point, Turzai is riding out on a white horse.”

None of the 19 bills Democrats have called for votes on are new. Some have existed for more than a year. The earliest any proposal was introduced was November 2019, according to a Capital-Star review of the bills.

Some of the legislation is even older. Soon after Antwon Rose Jr. was shot and killed in East Pittsburgh by police in June 2018, Black lawmakers called for a reformed police certification board. They also asked Turzai for a special session to address policing. He did not answer the request.

Rep. Austin Davis, D-Allegheny, was one of the lawmakers who called for a special session in 2018. He told the Capital-Star that he saw a first step this week, but was not at all satisfied.

“It would have taken real courage to do this when you’re going to be in this building and you’re actually going to lead the legislative process and get it across the finish line,” Davis said. “[Turzai’s] words were nice. It was nice for him to say that. But his actions to this point have not led me to believe that he would have been a serious partner in reforming our policing system in the commonwealth.”

Davis pointed to passing fellow Allegheny County Democratic Rep. Summer Lee’s use-of-force bill as another top priority. 

That bill appears dead-on-arrival in the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Rep. Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin. Kauffman told the Capital-Star last year, before even seeing the bill text, that he would not run the bill.

As Speaker, Turzai had near total control over committee chairs who decide whether a bill passes or languishes — such as the Judiciary Chair.

Many Republican rank-and-filers reacted to Monday’s protest by pointing to the breach of process, and chiding Democrats for breaking the chamber’s rules. Others have backed Turzai’s call for reform.

The first step of change will come next Monday, on bills to build a confidential database of police personnel records and mandate PTSD testing for officers, among others.

Here’s everything we know about police reform in Harrisburg and what may happen next

That deal, said House Majority Whip Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, shows “pretty good progress in a short time period, and it shows a good faith effort on all parts,” he told the Capital-Star.  

He did not say if Turzai’s departure could impact the reform push, only adding that “everyone of our members takes this very serious, and members of the leadership team take this extremely serious.”

To arrange the two early votes, especially with a skeptical caucus, was a sign of leadership, Black lawmakers mostly agreed — such as Rep. Jake Wheatley, a Pittsburgh Democrat and senior member of the Black caucus elected in 2002.

I think Turzai stood up,” Wheatley said. “Clearly there are people in his party who didn’t want him to do anything.”

It’s a situation Turzai became used to during his six years as speaker, managing a diverse and at times rowdy caucus with many different views of the Republican Party.

And a sign of Turzai’s odd fellowships was on display in a farewell video played for the full House Wednesday. 

In it, current Philadelphia City Councilwoman and former state representative Cherrelle Parker called Turzai her “unlikely ally.”

“When we needed your assistance on issues that no one expected to get the support of the Pennsylvania House of Representative for, your door was open,” she said in the video.

Her experience was far from the rule. Some lawmakers such as Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, said Turzai deserves “negative zero” credit for the deal. Rep. Margo Davidson, D-Delaware, said on a scale of one to ten, Turzai deserved a two.

“These bills have been languishing for a year, some may have been longer,” Davidson said. “We took a bold stand that had never been taken before to bring this to his attention, at the time he was leaving, to make it clear it was not going to be businesses as usual. We would not allow him to go off into the sunset without addressing these issues of Black lives.”

Seeing these proposals passed will now fall to whoever replaces Turzai as speaker. Exactly who that will be is unclear. But Davidson said that Republican leadership should be on notice.

“We’re going to hold them accountable to their words,” she said.