Baer: Speaker Turzai's reason to play nice

Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai would benefit from a quick budget solution so he can focus on his November re-election bid.

SO HERE'S A fun little state budget angle.

GOP House Speaker Mike Turzai, he of (shall we say) unsettled temperament, and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, a known creature of calm, could be poised for a new sort of cat and mouse game.

Normally, they don't play nice. Now there's an X-factor.

Understand: Turzai is Wolf's ideological opposite.

Turzai's for stricter abortion laws, expanded gun rights, liquor privatization and a fiscal policy that's opposed to Wolf's big school-funding push.

Plus, it was Turzai last December who blew up a budget compromise and caused more months of limbo before Wolf, grudgingly, let a maintenance budget take effect in March.

Well, it's budget time again. A new one's due June 30. Talks are underway.

The X-factor?

Turzai, a 15-year incumbent, has a November opponent for the first time in three cycles after winning his suburban North Hills Pittsburgh seat by huge margins in previously contested runs.

So what? Incumbents win re-election, especially incumbent leaders.

Yes, but the challenge to Turzai is interesting because, initially, there wasn't one.

He was unopposed in the GOP primary and no Democrat was on the ballot.

Then, just a week before the April primary, Penn State-New Kensington history prof John Craig Hammond, who goes by Craig, entered as a Democratic write-in. He needed 300 votes to qualify for November. He got 1,661.

Turzai took him seriously, mounting a counter-effort with yard signs and "Democrats for Turzai" T-shirts. He got 418 Democratic votes.

Might the Speaker be anxious?

Hammond, 42, is originally from Southampton, Bucks County, a grad of Archbishop Wood and Temple, with a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky, married to a schoolteacher (two kids). He's never run before.

He tells me he's in because: education funding is important; incumbents should be challenged; it's a presidential year with a GOP nominee who might hurt down-ballot Republicans; Turzai's part of Harrisburg's dysfunction and is more conservative than his district.

"I'm a moderate Democrat generally happy with the Republican Party," Hammond says, but there's "disillusionment with Pennsylvania government" and with Turzai's "narrow partisan agenda."

(Turzai's also being poked by a grassroots group opposing a planned Walmart in the district. Campaign-finance records show Walmart gave Turzai $19,500 in recent elections.)

The Speaker last week declined a request for a chat but his campaign sent me a statement Sunday saying Turzai is "proud to stand for re-election on his record," noting his constituents want common-sense government, reform, restraint and responsibility, "not massive tax increases."

But what if Wolf discreetly expresses interest in Hammond's candidacy as Wolf and Turzai tangle over budget stuff again?

Wouldn't Turzai prefer to avoid a well-funded opponent? Perhaps enough to be more agreeable to a budget deal than last time?

Just askin'.

Hammond says that's fine with him: "I'm all right with being a pawn if it leads to better government." He says he's no politician, already has a career and, if elected, would serve just two (two-year) terms.

And, yeah, the district's pretty Republican and if Hammond's challenge looks legit, GOP resources will pour into the race.

But Hammond put together a write-in win in a matter of days, no small feat.

His campaign manager, Matt Merriman-Preston, promises an aggressive door-to-door effort painting Turzai as a leader of a legislature that's failed to deliver property-tax relief, a leader who opposed passage of medical marijuana, and one too-long part of the Harrisburg establishment.

And Mitch Kates, Democratic state party political director, says, "It's going to be a real race and should put every legislator on alert."

Maybe so, maybe not. But it maybe makes Turzai very interested in a quick budget solution - so he can get back home to protect his, um, seat.