From inviting white nationalists to testify before his committee to snap meetings that sent lawmakers running breathlessly to far-flung hearing rooms, state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, has become notorious inside and outside the Pennsylvania state Capitol.
Metcalfe’s eight-year reign over the House State Government Committee coincided with an increasingly polarized Harrisburg, inching slowly to the extremes — before each side lurched apart after the 2018 election.
Even new House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, pointed out at a recent Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon that “the blues are more blue and the reds and more red” after a wave year knocked off a bevy of moderate southeast Republicans.
But even if Harrisburg is changing, state Rep. Garth Everett, the new chair of Metcalfe’s old domain, doesn’t think he’s all that different from when he first arrived more than a decade ago.
“When I got here, I was probably judged to be in the conservative wing of our caucus,” Everett, R-Lycoming, told the Capital-Star. “Our caucus has possibly, as we’ve gone through time, gotten more conservative than it used to be. So maybe I’m [now] more in the middle. But I don’t think I’ve changed.”
Everett’s new position, on the other hand, signals what one Republican member called a “polar shift” for one of the Capitol’s most powerful committees.
Metcalfe would not consider input — let alone votes — on any of the above. Everett took a fresh tone though, saying “we definitely need to do something with the congressional redistricting.”
He added that while LGBTQ non-discrimination “was an issue that was dead on arrival for” Metcalfe, “it’s not an issue that’s dead on arrival for me.”
The authority of the majority
Under current state law, it is legal for a private employer to fire someone for being gay.
Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s jagged and winding district lines have become a national benchmark for the worst of partisan gerrymandering. Last year, the state Supreme Court threw out the old 2011 map and replaced it with a new one over the howls of legislative Republicans. Appeals to federal court went nowhere.
Bills to end legal discrimination and create an independent redistricting commission managed to gather more than 100 bipartisan co-sponsors each. Most voters want these changes, too, according to polling.
Still, for the last two years, Metcalfe refused to hold a hearing on either topic.
Before a bill can reach the governor’s desk or even be discussed on the floor, it must win a majority of votes in a standing committee, composed of 25 members — 15 Republicans and 10 Democrats.
The chair of each committee has a large amount of discretion to hold hearings and votes on whichever bills he wants.
Metcalfe became infamous for his hardball legislative tactics. That included gutting bills he didn’t like and bragging about how little input he allowed from the committee’s Democratic minority
“When [Democrats] oppose us on my committee, they lose every vote and we win every vote!” Metcalfe wrote on Facebook in April 2018, after gutting a redistricting bill in committee. “I block all substantive Democrat [sic] legislation sent to my committee and advance good Republican legislation!”
After the 2018 election, supporters of these reforms caught an unexpected break: Metcalfe wanted off State Government.
He was assigned to the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, and leadership tapped Everett as Metcalfe’s replacement. It’s Everett’s first committee chairmanship after 12 years in the Capitol.
The world according to Garth
Everett isn’t one of the centrist Republicans who once filled the caucus from the Philadelphia suburbs, nor is his district competitive. He crushed a general election opponent last year 79-21.
But members from both parties describe him as a quiet, conscientious and easygoing lawmaker who is open to listening to and weighing other’s opinions. They also think that far from being Daryl Metcalfe 2.0, Everett will avoid unnecessary controversy while bringing decorum to the committee.
Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Armstrong, has served on committees with Everett for ten years. He said that his friend’s personality makes him a natural leader and a great committee chair.
“He’s one of the guys who doesn’t have to yell,” Pyle said.
Everett never named Metcalfe during an interview on his new position, only calling him “my predecessor.” The new chair said he considers Metcalfe a good friend and thinks the contrast between the two is exaggerated. Everett recently co-signed a press release with Metcalfe touting a misleading statistic on noncitizen voting.
“I’m going to run the committee differently than my predecessor did, but I don’t know that our views on things are as different as people think they are,” Everett said.
His halting support for anti-LGBTQ discrimination legislation and redistricting reform both come with some qualifications.
Everett is skeptical of cutting lawmakers out of the redistricting process entirely. And he doesn’t see a pressing need to reform how state legislative maps are drawn.
“I think our thing is to draw maps that are fair and don’t look like snakes and all the different comparisons,” Everett said.
As for a non-discrimination law, he wants to see the particulars of a bill to balance religious faith with LGBTQ rights.
Just bringing it up for a vote would be uncharted waters, and Everett believes the bill could end up being less controversial than expected.
The new chair’s shift in tone is enough to make advocates inside and outside the Capitol ecstatic.
“As you can imagine, I am grinning from ear to ear,” said Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, whose bad blood with Metcalfe goes back years.
In 2013, Metcalfe shut down a floor speech by the openly gay Sims when he attempted to speak on the Supreme Court’s Defense of Marriage Act ruling, citing “God’s law.” Last year, Sims called Metcalfe Harrisburg’s “biggest bigot” and raised funds to support his general election opponent, the openly gay Dan Smith. Metcalfe won reelection with a 17-point margin.
Even if Everett and Metcalfe share some beliefs, Sims still appreciates the change in temperment.
“In all of our interactions, [Everett’s] never given me anything but hope he would be anything but a ‘yes’ vote” on an LGBTQ discrimination ban, Sims said. “Now that he’s chair of the committee, I have even higher hopes.”
Good government advocates like Micah Sims, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Pennsylvania, see a chance to sort out the state’s district drawing and pass other election reforms, like tweaks to absentee ballot rules.
That might mean meeting Everett and the building’s GOP majority on some points, like focusing on congressional maps while accepting incremental changes, like tighter guidelines, for legislative ones. But Common Cause’s Sims is optimistic that some voting reforms could be ready by the 2019 municipal general elections.
“I think we’ll be slightly shocked by some of the things we’ll be able to do,” he said.
A lot still rides on how the chamber’s Republican majority falls on the issues.
Cutler, the House GOP floor leader, has been open to changing absentee ballot rules. And he’s willing to follow the Senate’s lead on redistricting, where both Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, and their own state government Chairman Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, are ready to begin a push for redistricting anew.
But Cutler recently took a skeptical tone on LGBTQ non-discrimination legislation.
“One of my concerns is anytime we start talking about how different we are … you’re putting into law all these lines that delineate who we are and why we’re different. I’d rather focus on where we agree,” Cutler said at the Pennsylvania Press Club.
Everett knows he has a duty to the caucus. But he doesn’t believe that a bill needs 100 percent support from his colleagues to be considered.
“I’m not saying we are only going to move issues that are our issues, but they have to be issues that we agree with.”