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

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

Back in 2018, the top Republican in the Pennsylvania state Legislature offered some simple advice for anyone nearing the end of their career in public office.

“Don’t wait to be pushed out the door,” Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, told State Legislatures Magazine at the time. “Don’t wait for the ballot box to push you out or a subpoena or a coffin. Go out on top.”

After almost two decades in the Republican-controlled Senate, Scarnati is apparently putting those words into practice.

Scarnati, whose Jefferson County-based district covers wide swaths of northern Pennsylvania, announced Wednesday night that he would retire at the end of the year to spend more time with his family.

The  announcement came just weeks after House Speaker Mike Turzai, the top-ranking Republican in the lower chamber, announced that he, too, was retiring at year’s end. Their twin departures opened a yawning — and rare — power gap in the 253-member General Assembly.

Rising through the ranks

Scarnati, who was elected to the Senate in 2000 as an independent, evidently learned from his predecessors why he should leave public office on his own terms.

The former borough councilor won the 25th District seat after the Republican incumbent, former Sen. Bill Slocum, was hit with felony charges for illegal dumping and pollution. 

Scarnati rose to the top ranks of leadership in 2006, after outraged voters ousted former Senate President Pro Tempore Robert Jubelirer, R-Blair, in the first election cycle following a legislative pay raise scandal the year before. 

Scarnati even ascended to the executive branch in 2008, when the constitution required him to replace Lt. Gov. Catherine Knoll after her untimely death from cancer.

He returned to the Senate full-time in 2011, where his colleagues say he was a steady leader during drawn-out budget battles, brawls over legislative redistricting, and an emotionally charged debate over legislation for clergy sex abuse victims.

“Anytime Joe would speak, members listened,” said Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, who holds a leadership post as the Republicans’ caucus secretary. “Members always want to know where Joe stands on an issue, but I always appreciated that he was quick to listen and slow to speak.”

As the Senate’s top-ranking leader, Scarnati oversees the bureaucracy that keeps the chamber running – including a human resources department that serves all Senate offices, and a legal bureau that defends the chamber against litigation. 

Scarnati’s role as the Senate’s top administrator led him into controversy in 2019, when he was criticized for paying the legal bills for a Senate security guard who was accused of sexual harassment.

But as the Senate’s top-ranking lawmaker, guiding long-term policy goals for the Senate’s Republican majority, Scarnati cut a relatively non-polarizing profile.

He was an architect of an historic pension reform bill that became law with wide bipartisan support in 2017. Last year, the Senate advanced a sweeping election reform bill that will take effect in this year’s primary elections.

Along the way, Scarnati was an effective fundraiser for his party. He also used his role in the statehouse to secure crucial wins for his constituents in the 25th district, which includes Cameron, Clinton, Elk, McKean, Potter and Tioga Counties and portions of Clearfield County.

Elk County Commissioner Matt Quesenberry said one of the senator’s “legacy projects” is the Wilcox Public Library, which Scarnati helped renovate with funding from different state agencies.

“I don’t think that would have come to fruition without his assistance,” Quesenberry, a Democrat, said.

In Harrisburg, colleagues say Scarnati led by consensus and rarely found himself alienating rank-and-file members in his chamber. He even gained a reputation for compromising with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, the Associated Press reports

Scarnati has rallied his caucus behind bills hiking the state’s minimum wage and creating a new tax on Marcellus shale natural gas drilling – two of Wolf’s long-standing priorities that never saw a vote in the Republican-controlled House. 

Nonetheless, some of Scarnati’s decisions have been anathema to the Senate’s Democratic minority. 

Scarnati waged a bitter legal battle against a ruling by the majority-Democrat state Supreme Court that redrew the state’s Congressional map. The court found the old boundaries were unconstitutionally biased toward Republicans.

The Senate voted twice under Scarnati’s leadership to repeal General Assistance, a cash benefit program that provided $200 a month to adults living with disabilities, fighting addiction, or fleeing from abusive partnerships. 

And in 2018, the chamber drew widespread scorn for failing to pass a measure making it easier for victims of sex crimes to take legal action against their abusers. Scarnati maintained that the bill was unconstitutional. 

Scarnati endorsed an amended version of the bill in Nov. 2019, which passed with wide bipartisan support in the House and Senate. But it wasn’t enough to appease some sex abuse survivors and lawmakers, who blamed Scarnati for blocking the measure one year earlier.

Who’s next?

Aument said the Republican Caucus has a deep bench of leaders capable of filling Scarnati’s role. Even though Aument called Scarnati a valuable mentor, he denied that he’s being groomed to replace him as president pro tempore.

Aument said he’d support Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, the chamber’s second-in-command, if he vied for Scarnati’s position.

Climbing the leadership ranks undoubtedly benefits a politician’s career and their chances or ascending to higher office. But leadership roles can also deliver results to constituents at home. 

No matter who inherits Scarnati’s title, constituents in the 25th District will likely feel his absence in the Capitol, Quesenberry, said.

“In a place like Elk County, we don’t feel we often have a voice in Harrisburg,” Quesenberry said. “We’re further away, we’re smaller, so to have had someone like Joe in there always gave us a certain level of confidence … we will lose a champion to this area, for sure.”

Capital-Star reporter Stephen Caruso contributed research to this report.