100% ESSENTIAL: Donate now and support our urgent public-service journalism about the coronavirus
Map of latest Pa. coronavirus cases, county-by-county numbers

Capitol Notebook

Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai will not seek reelection

by |

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, walks down a corridor at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Friday, June 28, 2019.
Matt Rourke / AP

Capitol Notebook by Spotlight PA provides updates on important news and notes from the halls of power in Harrisburg. Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), one of Pennsylvania’s most powerful conservative leaders, said Thursday morning that he will not seek reelection and will instead pursue a job in the private sector.

The announcement, which Turzai made from his suburban Pittsburgh office surrounded by family, confidantes and supporters, immediately raised questions about whether he intends to stay in office until his term ends later this year — and, if he does, whether his search for a private sector position could pose a conflict with his role as Speaker, which gives him the power to decide which bills come to the floor for a vote.

During his press conference, Turzai said little about his plans, only noting that, contrary to speculation in the Capitol, he does not have a job offer or specific position.

Instead, Turzai mostly talked about how hard it was to decide not to seek reelection to a job that he has considered a privilege. He was unusually emotional, saying that he had had many discussions with his family over the last few months. One of his sons, he said, made a baseball analogy and told him that the last day he pitches “is going to be so hard — but there is going to be a last day.”

“I am only telling you at this time that I am not running again,” he said, later adding: “I’ve made this decision knowing I’ve left it all on the field.”

While hardly a household name, Turzai, 60, has for the better part of a decade helped set the policy agenda in the Capitol on everything from liquor privatization to gas drilling, while championing fiscal restraint and restrictions on abortion rights.

He has also been a prolific fund-raiser for Republican legislative candidates across the state, a role he was widely expected to step into again in this critical election year. Democrats need to capture nine GOP seats to to take the House majority, and many of this year’s legislative races are expected to be bare-knuckled and expensive.

A lawyer, Turzai arrived in the House in 2001 after winning a special election, and has been the speaker since 2015. Before that he had been the GOP majority leader for four years.

As a leader, he managed to control a sometimes unruly and fractured Republican caucus to push through a conservative agenda in the state House.

Staunchly anti-tax, pro-business and a supporter of limited government, Turzai was one of the loudest supporters for breaking the state’s near-monopoly on retail alcohol sales. He also worked to boost tax credits for private school scholarships and was key to blocking an oft-proposed tax on natural gas drillers.

And when Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf took office in 2015, Turzai seemed to relish playing the role of foil to the governor’s more progressive agenda. While some of his Republican counterparts, particularly in the Senate, were more open to striking deals with the administration, Turzai was less open to compromise.

Critics have called him mercurial and erratic. During Wolf’s first year in office, Turzai was widely blamed for blowing up budget talks two days before Christmas, prolonging an impasse that left counties, schools and social service non-profits in the lurch.

“Mike Turzai has been the enemy of progress in Pennsylvania,” the state Democratic party said in a statement Thursday.

Over the years, Turzai has flirted with the idea of running for higher office. In 2017, for instance, he declared for the GOP primary for governor in 2017 but in the end did not run.

At his press conference Thursday, the speaker did not say whether he had any political plans. In an interview with the Washington Examiner earlier this week, he said he will not compete in the open race for governor in 2022, despite having evinced interest, including in a December interview with Clout, the politics column of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Though Turzai’s announcement temporarily quelled rampant speculation about his future that had distracted policy makers in the Capitol all this week, it also left unanswered questions.

Turzai did not take questions from the audience after his press conference, and avoided saying whether he intends to complete his term, which ends Nov. 30th. A spokesman later declined to give any additional information.

The timing of Turzai’s departure could trigger not just a special election in his district, but an election within the House of Representatives for a new Speaker.

Newsletter

Get every Spotlight PA story and the best
investigative journalism from across Pa.

The race for the Speaker’s job could be competitive. Several names have already bubbled to the surface as possible replacements: Rep. Stan Saylor, a Republican from York County who runs the powerful House Appropriations Committee; Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) — although he only last year assumed the majority leader position, it arguably is almost as powerful as the Speaker’s job; and Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre), the House’s majority whip.

Another scenario that has been discussed: If Turzai retires before his term ends, Republicans could rally behind Rep. Marcy Toepel (R. Montgomery), who has already said she is not running for reelection, to serve as Speaker for the remainder of the year. Then, the fight for the Speaker’s job would be pushed to after the election, when lawmakers would select leaders for the next two-year session, which begins in 2021.

Pennsylvania has never had a female House Speaker.

Spotlight PA receives funding from nonprofit institutions and readers like you who are committed to investigative journalism that gets results. Become a Founding Donor today at spotlightpa.org.