HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) – House Speaker Mike Turzai broke the news in an emotional speech Thursday morning at an event in his Allegheny County District. To a friendly audience of political supporters and his family, Turzai said he plans to serve out his term, and suggested there might be opportunities outside politics awaiting him.
“I’d like to be in the private sector,” he said. “I’d like to be on the other side of that line where I’m actually in the middle of it, to create those jobs and see an organization thrive.
Alluding to the rumors about his future that began circulating in Harrisburg this week, Turzai said that “despite reports to the contrary,” he doesn’t have any job offers. However, speaking to reporters after his speech, he said he might consider leaving before the end of the term “if the opportunity arises.”
Republican lawmakers quickly expressed their support for Turzai. State Rep. Bryan Cutler, who works alongside the Speaker as House Majority Leader, said Turzai “leads the House with class and fairness.”
The leaders of the Senate Republican caucus, Leader Jake Corman and President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, praised Turzai for his “dedication, energy and commitment to his principle,” and called him an “outstanding public servant.”
Democrats, meanwhile, were counting seats.
The party has been badly outnumbered in Harrisburg for years. House Democrats would have to flip nine seats to retake the chamber in November, and many have taken Turzai’s departure to mean they have a real shot at succeeding.
“Mike Turzai called it quits today for one main reason — he knows his tenure as Speaker is on borrowed time,” said Delaware County Rep. Leanne Krueger, who chairs the House Democratic Campaign Committee.
Noting that House Democrats set an off-year fundraising record in 2019, Krueger noted that a dozen less senior Republicans have already announced their retirements.
In his 2018 re-election campaign, Turzai faced his first-ever formidable Democratic challenger. Emily Skopov, a screenwriter and producer, came within 10 percentage points of unseating him and has announced her intention to run for the seat again this year.
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody — who, like Turzai, is from Allegheny County — gave a measured statement, noting that he and the Speaker have been friends since before they were elected to the legislature.
“We’ve had and will always have many disagreements,” Dermody said. “House Democrats will continue working to achieve our Plan for Pennsylvania and expect the Speaker to preside over the House fairly.”
The state Democratic Party took a different tack, releasing a statement saying Turzai is “running away from a tough re-election campaign and toward a cushy private-sector job,” and criticizing him for his opposition to a minimum wage increase, among other things.
“Mike Turzai has been the enemy of progress in Pennsylvania,” they said. “Good riddance.”
Turzai started his career as a prosecutor in Allegheny County. He won his state House seat nearly two decades ago, after losing his first run for office, a 1998 congressional bid, in a landslide. He rose to Speaker five years ago, presiding over a strong Republican majority and forcefully promoting a fiscally and socially conservative agenda.
On Thursday, he summed up his political leanings simply, telling his assembled supporters that “we all know where I am on the public policy spectrum — right of center agenda, trying to move family sustaining jobs, but also the dignity of each life from the unborn to the last moment on the Earth into the center of the public policy debate.”
Turzai’s most recent anti-abortion effort was a contentious bill that would have criminalized abortions that are performed on the basis of a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis. Democratic Governor Tom Wolf vetoed it.
The Speaker also touched on his efforts to bolster charter schools, his commitment to “making sure that the natural gas industry has an opportunity to grow and that manufacturing can come with it,” and his work to cut business regulations he sees as unnecessary.
His affiliation with natural gas goes beyond policy. According to campaign contribution tracker Marcellus Money — a project of the environmental group Conservation Voters of Pa. — the natural gas industry has given Turzai more money in campaign contributions than any other state lawmaker.
In 2017, the Philadelphia Inquirer conducted a review of Turzai’s political contributions and reported he had received almost a quarter million dollars over seven years from drilling companies and related PACs and trade groups.[add photo of Turz with the nat gas talking points]
Turzai’s departure will leave one of the chamber’s most powerful positions vacant, with no clear successor.
In the days before his announcement, several names circulated among rank-and-file lawmakers as potential replacements for Turzai. Three of the most commonly mentioned are Cutler, who took over as majority leader just last year, Appropriations Committee Chair Stan Saylor, and Kerry Benninghoff, who serves as majority whip.
“I’m confident we have a lot of very well-qualified people to step up and fill in as Speaker,” Benninghoff said. “We’ll see what happens.”
Speaking to reporters after his Pittsburgh speech, Turzai declined to speculate on his successor as Speaker. He said only that the House has a great leadership team, and that he would take no part in the decision.
He also declined to comment on a possible successor for his House seat, though he hinted he has “at least one person in mind who I think would be outstanding.”
He said broadly, he’s looking forward to passing the conservative torch to his younger colleagues.
“I’ve left it all on the field,” he said.