Pa. House Speaker Mike Turzai: 'We're lacking a leader in the governor's office'

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Mike Turzai, speaker of the Pennsylvania House, talks about his campaign for Pennsylvania governor at the American Dream Diner in Harrisburg Wednesday.

HARRISBURG – Mike Turzai sits down on a stool in the American Dream Diner and politely orders a hot tea.

The Republican House Speaker – who just this week announced he’ll run for governor – seems at ease here.

It’s a small, old-school style restaurant where the specials on Wednesday are chili with rice and three different kinds of sandwiches that come with a choice of soup or fries. It feels, in many ways, as though it could plop down seamlessly in his home turf of Western Pennsylvania.

It was a location chosen by his campaign staff, in part because it’s a small business – something we’ll likely hear about again as Turzai makes his rounds on the campaign trail.

Turzai, dressed in his typical suit and tie, seems more at ease than he did weeks ago, when legislative leaders jostled over how to balance the state’s long overdue budget. He’s excited, in fact, to talk about his run for the Republican nomination for governor.

“While you can make a difference in the legislature, you can’t fully change things, fully reform things, if you aren’t in the governor’s pulpit,” he says.

That Turzai, trained as a lawyer, was mulling a run for governor was hardly a secret. Capitol insiders openly gossiped about whether he would throw his name into the GOP primary and whether his gubernatorial ambitions were playing out in his tussles with some across the political aisle.

Turzai, 58, who lives in Bradford Woods, said he finalized his decision in recent weeks, after the budget was balanced without major new taxes and after his wife, Lidia, signed off on his plans.

In the coming months, Turzai will focus his efforts on two simultaneous races – one to retain his House seat and another to vie for the chance to become governor.

In the House race, he faces Democratic political newcomer Emily Skopov, a television writer.

In the Republican gubernatorial race, Turzai faces a crowd. Challengers include state Sen. Scott Wagner from York County, and two fellow Allegheny County residents, attorney Laura Ellsworth and healthcare consultant Paul Mango.

If he wins the Republican primary for governor, Turzai promises to step out of the House race, allowing for someone else to run for the seat later in the year.

No matter what happens, he intends to retain his role as Speaker throughout the election.

“Nobody’s asking the governor to step down to run for governor,” Turzai says. “I was elected unanimously to be speaker for the entire term, and I’m going to fulfill my duties, and I will do a very fair and good job at it.”

His main priorities as governor would come as little surprise. They are issues he’s talked about before — when some came before the House. He remains on message.

“Nobody has to think I’m playing hidden cards, because I don’t work that way,” he says.

If elected, Turzai says, he’ll push for a review of government budgeting — to see, for example, if money can be taken from so-called special funds that cover a range of projects affecting transportation, environmental clean-up and other causes. He promises to push for the privatization of liquor and to promote charter schools in struggling school districts, as well as more career and technical training.

Turzai’s stances, ironed out over 16 years in the legislature, are different from those of Gov. Wolf, a frequent target of his criticism. They take different views, for example, on medical marijuana (Turzai is opposed) and even on the scope and size of government itself.

They’ll likely take different stances on the death penalty – Wolf placed a moratorium on executions shortly after he entered office; Turzai says it could be appropriate in rare circumstances but has been overused in some other states.

The two can be quick to criticize each other. Democrats — who are backing Wolf  — issued a statement moments after Turzai’s announcement describing him as the “ultimate political insider,” and blaming him for the stalemate in Harrisburg and a downgrade to the state’s credit rating.

Turzai insists he can work with Democrats, pointing, for example, to a pending bill he drafted with a Democrat to put Pittsburgh’s troubled water and sewer authority under control of the state Public Utility Commission.

But, he also grows animated when he talks about Wolf. He’s quick to blame the governor and other top Democrats for the budget mess and credit downgrade.

“It was amateur hour,” he says of their approaches to this year’s stubborn budget stalemate. “We’re lacking a leader in the governor’s office.”