Veteran Dem Pa. Sen. John Yudichak says he’s becoming an independent

The Capitol building in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

For what may be the first time in state history, a registered independent will soon be serving in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. 

Sen. John Yudichak, who has been elected to state office nine times as a Democrat for state House and Senate, announced Tuesday that he is leaving the Democratic Party to register as an Independent. 

Yudichak’s party label will be largely symbolic, however, since the senator is choosing to caucus with Republican colleagues, meaning he’ll confer with them on votes and legislative priorities.

The Senate Republican caucus will also pay the employees in Yudichak’s Capitol and district offices, his chief of staff Mark Grochocki confirmed Tuesday. He also said that staffers who wish to remain on the Senate Democrat payroll will not lose their jobs.

Yudichak said Tuesday that “partisan vitriol has come to Harrisburg” and riven the Democratic party that he’s belonged to for his whole life. He lamented what he sees as growing polarization in America’s politics, but said that the problem is worse in the Democratic party.

He said that Senate Democrats had not supported his initiatives to preserve jobs or support the anthracite coal industry in his rural district, which swung hard to President Donald Trump in 2016.

Gov. Tom Wolf won the district by 6 percentage points in 2018, but former GOP Congressman Lou Barletta — from Hazelton — won the district in his losing run against Democrat U.S. Sen Bob Casey, D-Pa., according to election analyst Ben Forstate.

Yudichak won election to the state Senate in 2010 according to Ballotpedia, easily beating a Republican and Libertarian opponent. He has run unopposed since, including last year.

“If the people of Northeastern Pennsylvania are being shut out by a Democratic Party that’s more interested in a national conversation or a hyper-partisan conversation, I have to break that and introduce a new concept,” Yudichak said.

Yudichak said Tuesday that he has considered switching his affiliation for some time now and had stopped attending the Senate Democratic caucus meetings some months ago.

His departure from the Democratic Party will force Yudichak to relinquish his senior role on the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee, he confirmed on Tuesday. 

But the veteran senator insisted that the move would help him better serve his constituents in Northeastern Pennsylvania. 

Yudichak has butted heads with the Wolf administration on a number of issues in recent months, including proposals to shutter a state prison and an institution for disabled adults in Luzerne County. 

He’s partnered with Republican and Democratic lawmakers to preserve both facilities, which sustain thousands of union jobs in the rural Northeast.

His departure comes one year Democrats picked up six seats in the state Senate and inaugurated a cadre of progressive lawmakers who have tried to move the party leftward.

The party’s victory in a tightly contested special election in the Pittsburgh suburbs this spring gave them their most sizable ranks in years, leading many observers to question whether the party could flip the chamber in 2020.

Prior to Yudichak’s announcement, Republicans held a 27-22 majority, with one vacancy, in the 50-member chamber.

Veteran Franklin & Marshall College political analyst G. Terry Madonna told the Capital-Star that he could not remember the last time there was an independent member of the 253-member General Assembly.

The last lawmaker to change parties is current Senate Majority Whip John Gordner, R-Columbia.

As a state representative in 2001, he flipped from the Democratic to Republican Party.