By Stephen Caruso
For the Pittsburgh Current
In an abrupt end to a six-year-long reign as one of Pennsylvania’s leading power brokers, Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, is expected to, at minimum, step down from the Speakers’ Rostrum Wednesday.
Multiple media reports cited anonymous sources, saying that Turzai is expected to either resign from the House entirely or just relinquish his post as head of the 203-strong Pennsylvania House.
Sources close to Turzai had declined to comment yesterday when contacted by the Capital-Star.
His announcement does not come under clouds of scandal, as many other Harrisburg leaders have. But his tenure at the top was eventful until the very end. He has already announced his plan to retire at the end of his current term in January.
At the time, Turzai did not rule out leaving office early. He also indicated he hoped to get a job in the private sector.
Candidates to replace Turzai atop the chamber include House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, and House Majority Whip Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre.
House Republican rank-and-filers have also floated a placeholder speaker to manage the next six months of legislating before 2021, when the chamber could look markedly different. Rep. Marcy Toepel, R-Montgomery, is frequently mentioned as a potential candidate to hold the gavel.
The last speaker to resign the office was Herbert Fineman, a Philadelphia Democrat who stepped down due to corruption charges in May 1977.
Turzai, first elected in a 2001 special election to a suburban Pittsburgh district, has been speaker since 2015.
Since winning office nearly two decades ago, Turzai worked his way through the ranks to rise to House GOP floor leader under former Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson.
He oversaw a diverse and raucous caucus, trying to balance the needs of moderates and arch-conservatives alike. A prodigious fundraiser, Turzai used millions in campaign cash to defend and expand their far-flung majority to the biggest margin since the 1950s.
He also frequently sparred with Gov. Tom Wolf, who took office in 2015 just as Turzai won the speakership.
A stubborn and unpredictable lawmaker, such budget brinkmanship occasionally paid off — such as the 2016 loosening of state liquor laws to allow for the sale of beer and wine in grocery stores. Wolf had earlier vetoed a full privatization measure.
On social issues, Turzai has thrown his prestige behind anti-abortion rights bills, including a proposal vetoed by Wolf last year that would have banned the procedure based on an in-utero diagnosis of Down syndrome. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to block medical marijuana, and has stood solid against any push to legalize pot for recreational purposes.
But Turzai also pushed a rare gun control bill through the House in fall 2018 that made it easier to take guns away from people convicted of domestic violence.
For his opponents, no matter their side of the aisle, Turzai’s legacy is more easily summed up in the compromises he did not take up — from a minimum wage increase to a tax on the production of natural gas.
He was also known for frequent moments of conservative candor that earned him ire, such as saying that passing voter ID laws would hand Pennsylvania to Mitt Romney in 2012.
Even as a lame duck, Turzai’s last months in office have been eventful.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, he plotted a busy schedule for the Pennsylvania House. Even as Congress postponed votes, Turzai scheduled 27 days of legislative action, many to check Wolf’s executive authority amid the pandemic.
Such votes culminated last week, when Turzai faced calls to resign from Democrats for allegedly covering up a positive coronavirus case in the House. Speaking from the House floor, Turzai denied knowledge.
And just days before his resignation, Turzai jumped into the political thicket of Black Lives Matter. After Black Democratic lawmakers took over the House floor Monday, Turzai backed some actions on police reforms.
He also called for a special session on the issue. A vote on a potential deal is planned for next week.
It is unclear if or when a special election to replace Turzai, whose district has rapidly trended blue in the Trump era, will be called. State law leaves such a call to the speaker.
Stephen Caruso is a staff writer for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star where this story first appeared.