From school choice to liquor privatization, how the Pa. House will change with Mike Turzai’s exit

By: - January 23, 2020 2:43 pm

Speaker Mike Turzai announced his retirement Thursday (Capital-Star photo).

MCCANDLESS Twp., Pa. — Ending a week of speculation, House Speaker Mike Turzai announced Thursday that he is retiring from the Pennsylvania House at year’s end.

“Over the course of the last years, [my wife] Lidia and I decided it might be time for someone else to take the torch,” Turzai, R-Allegheny, said at a press conference at his district office in McCandless, Pa., outside Pittsburgh. 

An ambitious and powerful lawmaker, Turzai spent his five years as the Republican-controlled chamber’s top officer championing conservative priorities, such as liquor privatization and school choice, while blocking budget compromises from Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

He was first elected in a 2001 special election to the suburban district, north of Pittsburgh, before working his way to the top of the chamber over the course of his 19-year career in Harrisburg.

Turzai denied any reports that he is leaving the speakership to pursue other job offers, but added, “I’d like to be in the private sector.”

Instead, Turzai’s sudden retirement was motivated by his family, he said. The decision will kickstart a power struggle among senior Republicans, while also creating a pick up opportunity for Democrats hoping to flip the House in November.

The 28th House District, which Turzai represents, includes the affluent northern suburbs of Pittsburgh — such as Franklin Park, McCandless, and Marshall Township — which have rapidly trended blue since President Donald Trump’s 2016 victory.

Turzai himself ran his closest race last year, winning with a 9-point margin. Wolf and Turzai ran about equal in the district, after Wolf lost in the district by 27 percentage points in 2014.

Rep. Leanne Kruger, D-Delaware, the chair of House Democratic Campaign Committee, hinted at the shifting political winds in a statement that Turzai called it quits Thursday “for one main reason — he knows his tenure as Speaker is on borrowed time.”

His 2018 Democratic opponent, nonprofit executive Emily Skopov, has already announced a new run.

But Turzai brushed off the assertion that the decision was politically motivated.

“I won by 10 points, and it is not even a close consideration,” Turzai said of the latest challenge. “I would have won for reelection.”

He is the 16th lawmaker to announce his retirement this year. State Rep. Matt Gabler, R-Clearfield, also announced his retirement Thursday.

How to hold a majority

Turzai was known as a powerful speaker who used his post to push his policies, even over objections of his caucus, rather than simply oversee the chamber and serve as a figurehead.

Under his control, the House prioritized such policies as private liquor sales and abortion restrictions, even in the face of a Wolf veto.

And if a proposal he didn’t support, such as a severance tax on natural gas production or a minimum wage hike, came to the House, he wouldn’t even consider a vote.

Surrounded by a dozen allied western Pennsylvania lawmakers in his district office, Turzai was emotional as he described the fights he’s led.

“I’ve been gratified that I got to stand alongside some really great teammates in front of the harshest winds of opposition and criticism to do what we felt was right,” he said.

A fiscal hawk, Turzai was a key player in the budget brinkmanship of Wolf’s first four years in Harrisburg, in which just one budget passed on time.

The hard lines won him allies, but also lost him support among Republicans from all across the state when Turzai’s single-minded drive for a policy win ran counter to their local needs

“There’s no question about it, we’ve had our disagreements. And some of them we’re pretty good ones,” former Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, a Bucks County moderate Republican, told the Capital-Star. “But from my perspective, and I think from his, this was never personal.”

But Turzai struck at least one deal — a rewrite of the state’s byzantine liquor laws in 2016 that let state liquor stores open on Sunday and allowed wine sales in grocery stores, among other changes.

He also forced through the first gun control bill to pass the General Assembly in decades in 2018, which took guns away from convicted domestic abusers. That was despite widespread discontent from his own deeply conservative caucus.

“Did Mike Turzai do the right thing? No, I think he did the political thing,” Firearms Owners Against Crime president Kim Stolfer told the Capital-Star. He argued the speaker gave into talking points from advocates in a failed attempt to protect southeastern moderates before the midterm.

Turzai himself also pointed to the growing state economy, including the cracker plant sprouting up just 30 miles from his district, as proof of the success of his time as speaker.

“I can honestly say I have left, with my teammates, the state in a better position then when I took over,” he said.

While party discipline has at times seemed to wane this year, whether on votes for regulatory rollbacks or school vouchers, Turzai has rarely lost control of his side of the aisle.

Those close to the GOP caucus pointed to Turzai’s prodigious fundraising as why, despite occasionally erratic decisions and determination bordering on myopia, he has kept his party, mostly, in line.

For example, he raised at least $1 million dollars in the last three years alone to his personal political action committee, not including contributions raised through other political funds.

“[Turzai] was a relentless campaigner,” DiGirolamo said. “He traveled all over the state. I sometimes marvel at how he was able to get all over the place.”

That helped him both build an impressive 120-plus member majority, the largest since the 1950’s, and manage the at-times unruly majority with the promise of reelection.

‘Good Riddance’

But that majority is shrinking and Democrats are hungry to flip his rapidly blue-trending seat in November as they piece together the nine seats they need to win a majority.

“A dozen of his Republican colleagues have already announced retirement, and he knows his own seat is ripe for the taking,” HDCC Chair Krueger said. “This was a political calculation–he sees the strength, unity, and momentum we have across the commonwealth to flip the House in November.”

Republicans have a problem with suburban voters, Democrats have a problem with rural voters. Where does that leave Pa.’s balance of power?

Meanwhile, Turzai’s off-the-cuff remarks or emotional outbursts also have turned into news cycles of their own, and turned him into a Democratic boogeyman for their own stalled priorities. 

“Mike Turzai has been the enemy of progress in Pennsylvania,” the state Democratic Party said in a statement. “Good riddance.”

In 2012, Turzai told a private meeting of Republican committee members that passing Voter ID would “allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.”

In 2015, in his first year as speaker, Turzai was reported to have cried during a private caucus debate over legalizing medical marijuana. The proposal passed over Turzai’s objections, but he has continued to oppose any talk of legalizing recreational cannabis.

Last year, Turzai attracted controversy for calling a public school teacher protesting an event with U.S. Secretary of Education Besty DeVos “special interest people.”

And just last week, Democrats accused Turzai of not counting failed floor votes that matched his priorities.

As speaker, Turzai also spent $1.1 million defending a House policy mandating that the chamber’s opening prayer invoke a higher power, rather then be given by an atheist or non-believer. 

But the instance on standing by principles was also cited by many as a key to understand and, at least for Republicans, respecting Turzai.

“I think Mike hit the nail on the head when he said he was leaving it all on the field,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said in a statement. “As a leader and public servant, he gave everything he had and fought hard for his beliefs.”

During Wolf’s first budget in 2015, Turzai passed a more conservative budget than approved by the Senate before sending legislators home for Christmas.

Wolf ended up signing parts of the “garbage” budget, as the governor said at the time. It took another three months to resolve the impasse, which lasted until March.

What’s next

How the retirement impacts Turzai’s political future is unclear. Just a month ago, he floated a potential run for governor in 2022, when Wolf is term limited out of office.

“I’m so focused on being in the private sector and being with my family, it’s an opportunity to take what I’ve worked on in the public policy arena and roll up my sleeves and be on the other side,” Turzai said about his future. But he did not specifically rule out another future run.

Turzai previously ran for the position in 2018. He also ran, unsuccessfully, for Congress before he came to Harrisburg in the late 1990’s.

The sudden change will also open up a power vacuum at the top of the chamber. Lawmakers and lobbyists in the Capitol said they expected House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, and House Majority Whip Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, to be two top contenders to replace Turzai as Speaker once he retires at the end of the year.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.