APNewsBreak: House Speaker Turzai to run for Pa. governor
WEXFORD, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania’s Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai, a leader of anti-tax and social conservatives who has helped drive austerity in state budgeting, will run for governor.
Turzai, 58, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he will seek the Republican nomination in May’s primary election to challenge Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who is running for a second four-year term.
In an interview in a Wexford diner, Turzai called himself a “reformer with results.” But, he said, “to really make a difference you have to be governor, and you need a strong leader in that position.”
Turzai, who lives in suburban Pittsburgh, is entering what is now a four-person Republican primary field. Turzai floated his potential candidacy last spring, but stayed quiet about his plans while embroiled in this year’s months-long budget stalemate.
Turzai is the most prominent budget hawk in Republican leadership, and has been a constant adversary of Wolf’s, particularly in the two drawn-out budget fights since Wolf became governor in 2015. He even has been a bane to some Republicans, driving a harder bargain when moderates or other conservatives were ready to compromise on a bigger tax increase to prop up the state’s deficit-riddled finances.
Turzai will not run for his House seat if he wins the primary, and intends to remain speaker during the campaign, he said.
Also running are York County state Sen. Scott Wagner and two first-time candidates from the Pittsburgh area: former health care systems consultant Paul Mango and lawyer Laura Ellsworth.
Rod Wilt, a Republican former state lawmaker who is a Turzai campaign volunteer, said Turzai is “the only one that’s gotten anything done.”
“I walk into a grocery store and I see beer and wine there and I think, ‘Mike did that,’” Wilt said.
Turzai, a lawyer and former county prosecutor, has the most political experience of the candidates, having been in office since 2001. He is an experienced fundraiser, spearheading the effort for the House GOP, the chamber’s majority party since early 2011. That was the year Turzai became majority leader, before taking the speaker’s office in 2015.
Turzai’s ascent to speaker coincided with Wolf’s gubernatorial election victory, and the pair have locked horns time and again.
In particular, Turzai plans to run on his record of helping block nearly all of the tax increases Wolf has sought, including on Marcellus Shale natural gas production and on income, and holds himself out as a pro-business champion.
This year, he helped drive a budget agreement that included launching a massive gambling expansion and borrowing $1.5 billion to backfill a deficit, a move that will cost taxpayers more than $2 billion over 20 years. Meanwhile, budgets he has helped broker have drawn six credit downgrades going back to 2012, leaving Pennsylvania’s credit rating in the basement.
The Democratic Party swiftly attacked Turzai, saying he has spent nearly two decades defending the status quo and special interests and that Turzai as governor “is like hiring an arsonist as fire marshal.”
In leadership, Turzai has propelled several pet issues: privatizing the state-controlled wine and liquor store system and directing more taxpayer dollars to private school scholarships and non-profit education groups. Turzai also has sought to slash the state’s borrowing limit for development projects.
He said that he could further those goals as governor.
“We haven’t been able to fully accomplish our goals,” Turzai said. “And only a governor can fully institute reforms.”
Turzai has been a voice for his caucus’ most conservative members. Twice under Wolf he has pulled the House GOP out of bipartisan budget negotiations in a bid to block a tax increase. His tough tactics have arguably made the House GOP’s conservatives the Capitol’s most influential bloc since Wolf became governor.
He has often insisted on muscling through major legislation with or without support from Democrats. Despite that, he said, “while we may disagree, I can still work with people to get important pieces of legislation done.”
As majority leader for all four years under then-Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, Turzai backed deep, budget-balancing cuts in education aid, requirements that abortion clinics meet stricter outpatient surgery center standards and a tougher voter identification law.
He made headlines in 2012 for saying the voter ID law would allow Republican Mitt Romney to win Pennsylvania in that year’s presidential election. Romney lost Pennsylvania and the election to Democrat Barack Obama and the law ultimately was blocked in the courts.
In 2013, he voted for a $2.3 billion transportation funding bill, labeled by conservative opponents as the state’s biggest tax increase in state history, although it was supported by business groups. He also voted last year to raise taxes on cigarettes.
Turzai’s power in the Capitol is not absolute.
He worked to block medical marijuana legislation, but supporters — including some conservatives — overcame his opposition to send it to Wolf’s desk last year.
Turzai said he would monitor the law to see if it was increasing recreational use, and if it does, would push for additional regulations.
He has had limited success in privatizing the sale of wine and liquor, with the Senate brokering bipartisan legislation last year that allowed wine in grocery stores and other private licensees, but otherwise kept the state’s control intact.
Levy reported from Harrisburg.