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Capitol Notebook

From the archives 2020

With dozens of Pa. lawmakers heading for the exits, do Democrats have the edge in 2020?

by Cynthia Fernandez |

Growing bipartisan gridlock, infighting, and unwillingness to compromise has also chilled morale in Harrisburg, longtime Capitol watchers say.
JOSE F. MORENO / Philadelphia Inquirer

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HARRISBURG — A wave of resignations and pending retirements in the state legislature — including two of the Republican Party’s most prolific fundraisers — has fueled hope among Democrats that they can regain control of the GOP-held state House and Senate.

Since the current two-year session began in January 2019, 19 lawmakers have announced plans to retire and seven have resigned. At least seven of the Republican-held seats were won by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2018, making them prime targets for Democrats.

Among those retiring this year are two of the most powerful GOP lawmakers, Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) and House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny). Both are leaders not only in the Capitol, but on the campaign trail, raising large sums of money for the party.

Democrats are hopeful the departures are a sign of good things to come in November, especially since it is a presidential election year.

“In the House, for the first time in a long time, [Republicans] are going to be fighting to stay in the majority,” said Larry Ceisler, a public affairs executive and Democratic consultant. “It is still leaning Republican, but they are running in an election year where there is a lot of competition. Turzai and Scarnati are big fundraisers, and someone is going to have to pick up the slack.”

To take control of the state House, Democrats need to pick up nine seats in November. In the state Senate, the party needs to flip four districts and hold onto a purple seat President Donald Trump won in 2016.

Scarnati can retire knowing his district, where nearly 60% of voters are registered with the GOP, will all-but-certainly be won by another Republican. But Democrats are closely watching Turzai’s suburban Allegheny County district.

“Upscale suburbs that have been in Republican hands for a long time have been swinging pretty heavily Democratic since 2016,” said Lara Putnam, a University of Pittsburgh professor who has studied anti-Trump organizing and is active in grassroots politics.

Putnam said that Trump’s election triggered the creation of local groups focused on winning state legislative and congressional seats.

“What has happened since 2016 is that this surge in citizen activism has really excited places where there are vocally active Democrats who feel strongly about contesting those seats even if it doesn’t look like an easy bet,” she said.

Turzai’s last Democratic challenger, former screenwriter Emily Skopov, was new to politics when she ran in 2018. She lost by nine points but plans to run for the seat again this year.

Fundraising might be an issue for Republicans in the short-term, said GOP strategist Charlie Gerow.

But even with the loss of Turzai and Scarnati, Gerow said it’s a stretch to think Democrats will pick up enough seats to take the majority in either chamber.

The fact that Sen. John Yudichak changed his affiliation from Democrat to independent “made the climb for Democrats in the caucus much more steep,” Gerow said. “I don’t think there was ever a realistic prospect of Democrats taking control of the House.”

What’s behind the retirements?

Some of the nearly 20 lawmakers who are not seeking reelection have cited health issues and a desire to spend more time with their families as reasons for retiring. Most have served for at least a decade, meaning they are eligible to receive hefty pensions.

But growing bipartisan gridlock, infighting, and unwillingness to compromise has also chilled morale in Harrisburg, longtime Capitol watchers say.

When he announced his surprise resignation last year, then-Sen. Richard Alloway (R., Franklin) told The Caucus he was “sick and tired” of Harrisburg politics.

Bill Patton, a longtime aide to House Democrats, echoed the sentiment and said some lawmakers are growing weary.

“It has always been difficult to pass legislation. The system is designed that way — there are many steps,” Patton said. “I think there is fatigue for a lot of members with the constant arguing and fighting.”

Former Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, a Republican who resigned after winning a seat on the Board of Bucks County Commissioners, said for most of his career lawmakers from both parties worked together to pass measures.

“I’ve always been a big proponent for compromise. It is not a bad word,” said DiGirolamo, who served in the House for 25 years. “[W]hen everyone was willing to come together, we were able to pass bills.”

But Pennsylvania lawmakers today are introducing and passing fewer bills than in past decades, a Spotlight PA analysis showed.

DiGirolamo said that in his last five years as representative, he became dismayed at how few bills the legislature was able to pass.

“Forget the $15 minimum wage,” DiGirolamo said of one priority for southeast lawmakers. “We could not … get a vote.”

Rep. Tony DeLuca (D., Allegheny), who at 82 is one of the longest serving lawmakers in the General Assembly, is skeptical that frustration over stalled bills is completely responsible for retirements.

“They get their 10 years in, they make connections. Since they are guaranteed pensions, they go out and get a job after. It’s like a pay raise,” he said. “Certainly, they are getting things done in the legislature, but I don’t see too many of them retiring before they put in their 10 years. After that, they run like chickens.”

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