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HARRISBURG — House Speaker Mike Turzai, one of the most powerful Republicans in the Pennsylvania legislature, announced Wednesday he will resign his seat just months before he was set to retire.
With his wife and children present in the House chamber, Turzai told lawmakers during an emotional and lengthy speech his last day in the Capitol will be June 15.
“I’ve been blessed to have served almost 20 years representing the citizens of the 28th Legislative District in the north suburbs of Allegheny County, north of Pittsburgh,” he said. “What an honor.”
Turzai announced in January he would not seek reelection this fall and would instead pursue a job in the private sector. Spotlight PA and PennLive first reported Tuesday that Turzai planned to resign early.
Several media reports and sources have speculated that Turzai will take an executive position inside Essential Utilities, Inc., a Bryn Mawr-based company that this year acquired Peoples Gas of Pittsburgh. The company was formerly known as Aqua America Inc., a major Turzai donor whose CEO, Chris Franklin, is a close friend of the lawmaker.
Turzai’s two-decade political career spanned five governors — three Republicans, two Democrats — and was marked by budget battles and strong GOP majorities.
He was a “high-profile speaker” who made his stances known and garnered firm support from the Republican caucus, said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.
“There wasn’t any doubt who was speaker of the House,” Madonna said. “Certainly, Turzai was out front on issues he cared about. There was no refrain. He was very strong in his convictions and had no qualms about articulating them.”
For the moment, House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) will become interim speaker until the full chamber votes on a replacement. Cutler is one of a handful of top Republicans whose names have been thrown out as possible permanent replacements.
“Mr. Speaker, let me be clear, there is no one in your district who can deny the lasting impact that you have made on your community and our commonwealth,” Cutler said on the House floor Wednesday.
Cutler said Turzai’s history as a lawyer and former assistant district attorney in Allegheny County defined his style as speaker.
“You look at the facts, you study the details, and I mean every detail — nothing is too small or too minor for your attention,” Cutler said. “You build your case, you deliver the message, state the arguments, answer the critics, and ultimately time and time again, win.”
A strong backer of limited government, Turzai championed legislation to reform the state’s liquor laws and pushed to expand tax credits for religious and private schools.
“I just have always believed that one size does not fit all. That is not anti-public school. My dad was a public school teacher and my brother’s a public school teacher,” Turzai said Wednesday. “The key is this: People vote with their feet. They make decisions as to where they can best get an education for their child. And I think we should foster that.”
He became speaker during Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s first term, and regularly played foil to the governor’s progressive ideas including a shale tax and an increase to the minimum wage.
His tenure has also coincided with the increased polarization of the legislature — observers note that Republicans have gotten more conservative, as Democrats have moved further to the left.
Turzai drew Democrats’ ire on several issues. He is a fierce opponent of abortion access, championing several bills including a 20-week ban that were vetoed by Wolf. Turzai also advanced measures that promoted fracking and the natural gas industry.
Under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, the House passed a voter ID law that Turzai at the time said would “allow Governor [Mitt] Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” The law was later found to be unconstitutional.
John Craig Hammond, a professor at Penn State New Kensington and a Democrat who unsuccessfully ran against Turzai in 2016, said the speaker’s departure is “an opportunity to make for some meaningful change in the state House.” Democrats have eyed Turzai’s seat in the Pittsburgh suburbs as a strong contender to flip as they attempt to take back the chamber.
“I hope this allows Pennsylvanians to build a 21st century democracy that’s inclusive, is vibrant, and that respects the dignity of all of our residents,” Hammond said.
Turzai leaves in the midst of a growing battle between the legislative and executive branches. The General Assembly this week gave final approval to a resolution that directs Wolf to end his coronavirus emergency declaration, setting up a legal battle.
Like most top Republicans, Turzai was critical of the Wolf administration’s COVID-19 business closures as well as officials’ handling of the crisis inside long-term-care facilities, where more than 4,000 people have died. He recently wrote a measure, signed by Wolf, that puts academic health centers in charge of the response efforts inside these homes.
“They should have been consulting with these experts right from the beginning,” Turzai previously told Spotlight PA. “The legislature has to take the lead, and we are.”
Several Democrats last month also called on Turzai to resign after they learned a Republican House lawmaker had one week earlier tested positive for COVID-19. Turzai said he was not aware of the diagnosis.
And just this week, Black lawmakers took over the speaker’s rostrum to demand Turzai take up a number of police reform bills.
While Turzai did not heed a similar request after a police officer killed Antwon Rose, an unarmed black teenager outside of Pittsburgh, he called on Wolf this week to set the date for a special session.
“The heinous killing of George Floyd shocked the conscience of this nation and this commonwealth,” he said of a black man killed by police in Minneapolis. “His life had dignity. Every life has dignity.”
Though Turzai will leave Harrisburg during the most politically divisive time in recent history, Madonna noted he was still able to pass much-needed legislation, like a temporary budget.
“The thing that strikes me is that I didn’t see it as overtly personal,” he said about the friction between Democrats and Turzai. “They had strong differences.”
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