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

By: - June 10, 2020 9:49 am

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, speaks at a 2019 press conference (Capital-Star photo).

In an abrupt end to a six-year-long reign as one of Pennsylvania’s leading power brokers, Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said he will resign from office on June 15.

Turzai made the announcement at the end of a 40-minute long address before a packed Pennsylvania House Wednesday. An early exit had been rumored ever since he announced plans to retire at the end of his current term in January. 

“The job, the position is not mine. I am a steward,” Turzai said. “I get to sit in that beautiful office and meet people of all walks of life. But now it will be someone else’s job. And that’s good.”

A spokesperson confirmed that Turzai would resign both the speakership and his office on June 15. Spotlight PA, a nonprofit news outlet, reported Tuesday that he is expected to resign before the end of his term in November.

When he announced his retirement in January, he did not rule out leaving office early.

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

Turzai’s powers will temporarily pass to House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, before the chamber holds a new election for the position.

Cutler, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, and House Majority Whip Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, are all seen as candidates, though Cutler is considered a favorite.

House Republican rank-and-filers have also floated a placeholder speaker to manage the next six months of legislating before 2021, when the chamber could look markedly different. Rep. Marcy Toepel, R-Montgomery, is frequently mentioned as a potential candidate to hold the gavel.

The last speaker to resign the office was Herbert Fineman, a Philadelphia Democrat who stepped down due to corruption charges in May 1977.

His announcement does not come under clouds of scandal, as many other Harrisburg leaders have. But his tenure at the top was eventful until the very end. 

“[Turzai’s] decision to step aside now to allow for a new leadership team to unify during these challenging times is a testament to his willingness to prioritize the needs of our Commonwealth,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, in a statement.

Turzai, first elected in a 2001 special election to a suburban Pittsburgh district, has been speaker since 2015.

Since winning office nearly two decades ago, Turzai worked his way through the ranks to rise to House GOP floor leader under former Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson. 

He oversaw a diverse and raucous caucus, trying to balance the needs of moderates and arch-conservatives alike. A prodigious fundraiser, Turzai used millions in campaign cash to defend and expand their far-flung majority to the biggest margin since the 1950’s.

A hard nosed legislative tactician, Turzai also used the speakership to champion liquor privatization, school choice, and the natural gas industry, among other conservative priorities.

In a statement, Dave Spigelmyer, president of the natural gas boosting-Marcellus Shale Coalition, said Turzai “recognized early the generational opportunity shale gas development presented and championed our abundant natural gas resources for the benefit of all Pennsylvanians.”

“For a man who’s dedicated much of his life to the service of the Commonwealth, we know this decision was not an easy one, and we wish Speaker Turzai well,” Spigelmyer added.

Turzai touched on his same priorities during the farewell address, laying out the priorities as part of an agenda based on “dignity” and “respect” for life.

As speaker, Turzai frequently sparred with Gov. Tom Wolf, who took office in 2015 just as he won the speakership. 

That year, Turzai served as chief nemesis to the newly elected Democratic governor — including blowing up a compromise budget days before Christmas. The impasse would last for nearly ten months.

A stubborn and unpredictable lawmaker, such budget brinkmanship occasionally paid off — such as the 2016 loosening of state liquor laws to allow for the sale of beer and wine in grocery stores. Wolf had earlier vetoed a full privatization mesure.

On social issues, Turzai has thrown his prestige behind anti-abortion rights bills, including a proposal vetoed by Wolf last year that would have banned the procedure based on an in-utero diagnosis of Down syndrome. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to block medical marijuana, and has stood solid against any push to legalize pot for recreational purposes.

But Turzai also pushed a rare gun control bill through the House in fall 2018 that made it easier to take guns away from people convicted of domestic violence.

For his opponents, no matter their side of the aisle, Turzai’s legacy is more easily summed up in the compromises he did not take up — from a minimum wage increase to a tax on the production of natural gas.

He was also known for frequent moments of conservative candor that earned him ire, such as saying that passing voter ID laws would hand Pennsylvania to Mitt Romney in 2012.

Such remarks made him the object of Democratic political frustrations, and put a target on his back. His suburban Pittsburgh district, once a reliable bastion of conservatism, also moved left since the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.

Suburban discontent helped fuel a strong challenge in 2018, the closest of his Harrisburg career. Turzai’s former opponent, Emily Skopov, is running again to succeed him.

“Na-na-na-na. Na-na-na-na. Hey, hey, hey. Goodbye,” her campaign said in a short statement Wednesday.

Even as a lame duck, Turzai’s last months in office have been eventful. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, he plotted a busy schedule for the Pennsylvania House. Even as Congress postponed votes, Turzai scheduled 27 days of legislative action, many to check Wolf’s executive authority amid the pandemic.

Such votes culminated two weeks ago, when Turzai faced calls to resign from Democrats for allegedly covering up a positive coronavirus case in the House. Speaking from the House floor, Turzai denied knowledge.

And just days before his resignation, Turzai jumped into the political thicket of Black Lives Matter. After Black Democratic lawmakers took over the House floor Monday, Turzai backed some actions on police reforms. 

He also called for a special session on the issue, and a vote on a potential deal is planned for next week — days before Turzai officially steps down.

“This generation of new leaders is ready to take the torch, and I’m ready to hand it off,” Turzai said, adding: “I’m not perfect, but I know I tried.”

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

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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.