I covered Pa. Senate Prez Joe Scarnati for 20 years. Here’s what I learned | Opinion

February 26, 2020 6:30 am

Senate president pro tempore Joe Scaranti, R-Jefferson, speaks with members of his party in the background. Source: Sen. Joe Scarnati Facebook.

By Denny Bonavita

Journalists can have up-and-down relationships with politicians. We need each other. At times, our jobs conflict, and we tend to dislike each other. At other times, our goals synchronize and we like each other — for a while.

I like to think that I have a friendly relationship with now-retiring state Sen. Joe Scarnati of Brockway. We kid each other regularly. We have had social dinners along with our wives on occasion, and business dinners in Harrisburg a few times.

So, are we buddies?

I’ll revisit that question in about two years, after Joe has become a retired ex-politician just as I am a retired ex-journalist.

But I will say this: The man earned my respect.

I liked his outrage 20 years ago when his predecessor, then-Sen. William Slocum, claimed he was entitled to re-election despite criminal pollution of a local stream during Slocum’s previous career as a borough manager. It seemed as though Slocum might pull that off, too, in the sprawling district that runs from the New York State line to Interstate 80, from Warren to Wellsboro and Mansfield.

Scarnati, then a Brockway Borough Council member, ran for Slocum’s seat as an independent, beat him, and then reclaimed his Republicanism. He rose to become the top leader of the Senate and, for a while, Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor on a fill-in basis.

During that rise, Scarnati dutifully followed the lead of his mentor, former state Sen. Robert C. Jubelirer of Altoona.

That precipitated a state Constitutional crisis.

Both men voted for a 2005 pay raise for lawmakers during their current terms — even though Pennsylvania’s Constitution says plainly, “No member of either House shall during the term for which he may have been elected, receive any increase of salary, or mileage, under any law passed during such term.”

The legislators blandly claimed that courts had not struck previous such raises down, so they were entitled.

That was hogwash.

I wrote the editorial commentary that called both men lawbreakers and said their actions were unconstitutional. I also accused lawmakers of basically bribing judges by including them in the pay increase.

That was strong stuff. Scarnati was livid.

He came into my office, barely civil, and told me how wrong I had been. He left in a huff. It took me a while to cool down, too.

Then Pennsylvania exploded.

Newspapers reviled the pay increase. So did most of Pennsylvania’s residents. The state Supreme Court said, in effect, “Enough! This is illegal.” Of course, the court also pointed to another clause in the Constitution that preserved its own pay increase while voiding the pay hike for state senators and representatives.

Shocked, the Legislature voted to reverse the pay increase.

Scarnati did not let it end there.

To my surprise, Scarnati came to my office a few weeks later. He said that I had been right and he had been wrong. He extended his hand, apologized and hoped I would accept his apology.

“Well, now!” I said to myself.

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

That was the only time in a half-century of dealing with politicians that someone had showed me so much integrity.

I was impressed.

Now, reacting to Scarnati’s announcement that he will not seek another term, I remain impressed.

As a senator, Scarnati was not perfect. His most memorable gaffe revolved around how he accepted Super Bowl tickets under cloudy circumstances.

Though he generally avoided outright anger, Scarnati never forgot a criticism, especially if it questioned his integrity. He would reluctantly accept being criticized for being on the wrong side of an issue. But in private, he would vehemently vilify anyone who crossed him personally.

Publicly, Scarnati strove for consensus and usually got it. He did use outright political power, usually to get something he felt was right, rarely to nail political opponents.

I joshed him, regularly, with pithy one-line email messages.

He joshed back. “LOL!” was usually his reaction, even to criticisms, if they were issues-oriented.

Throughout his sprawling Senate district, some people dislike Scarnati. Some see him as too smooth, an apple-polisher, a sycophant in his earlier days.

That hurts him. He stews about it. He says that he tries to see the good in everybody. “I see you people in church,” he will say, trying to find common ground rather than winning at any cost.

I like the man.

Turzai, Scarnati step down on top facing uncertain political waters

I do so with my eyes open.

Power, said Lord Acton, corrupts. It ensnares journalists as well as politicians. But through decades of observation and interaction, I saw Joe Scarnati doing a lot of principled, honest, conservative good government.

I like something else, too. He is not turning his public service into a lifelong gorging at the taxpayers’ expense. After 20 years, he is going out “on top,” planning to help his wife run their candy business.

That prompts another joshing reaction: I feel sympathy for Amy, having to put up with Joe 24/7. As for Joe, when he reads that jab? “Neener Neener!”

Oh, and “Thank you for your service.”

Denny Bonavita is a former editor at newspapers in DuBois and Warren, Pa. He lives near Brookville, Pa. Readers may email him at [email protected].

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