Pa. House Speaker Mike Turzai to run for governor

Pennsylvania Governor Turzai
Speaker of the House of Representatives, Rep. Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, during a May speech. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

HARRISBURG — House Speaker Mike Turzai, known for his conservative views and zest for battle with the Democratic administration, has joined the race for governor.

The Republican from Allegheny County announced his plans to seek the GOP nomination Tuesday evening in a video posted to his campaign’s social-media accounts.

Turzai championed his opposition to various taxes — a sticking point in the state’s four-month-long budget impasse, and on which his party’s House caucus was often a holdout on  proposed compromises that would have increased broad-based taxes.

He referred to the Republican-controlled House as “the last line of defense against every imaginable scheme to take away your hard-earned dollars and freedom.”

And the state Democratic party was quick to criticize, accusing Turzai of paralyzing state government and causing a credit downgrade “so he could advance his own political ambitions and protect his donors in the oil and gas industry.”

To many in the Capitol, a fiery showdown between the speaker and Democratic Gov. Wolf had seemed inevitable during the budget impasse.

But if Turzai wants to face Wolf in the run for governor, he must first make it out of a crowded field of candidates running for the GOP ticket.

Also running for the Republican nomination are state Sen. Scott Wagner, a York County Republican who has been compared to President Donald Trump; healthcare consultant Paul Mango and attorney Laura Ellsworth. Both Mango and Ellsworth are from Allegheny County, like Turzai.

Some analysts wonder whether the Allegheny County candidates would split the Western Pennsylvania vote, easing Wagner’s path to the nomination.

Turzai, a 58-year-old lawyer, joined the House in 2001, rose to majority leader in 2011 — aided by an influx of more conservative representatives — and became speaker in 2015.

As a leader, he has been praised for his work ethic, command of details and his ability to manage the caucus’ right wing.

Others have described him as mercurial and sometimes erratic behind the scenes. They point to one time when he was spotted banging on the door of the governor’s office amid the budget negotiations, or to a summer weekend summer when he floated an alternative revenue plan that quickly floundered, a move that some felt delayed progress on the budget.

Legislators passed a nearly $32 billion spending plan in late June and struggled for months to find a way to pay for it. During that time, the state’s credit rating was downgraded.

Turzai, in late July, floated a plan that included no new taxes, relied heavily on borrowing and pulled money from funds that subsidize a range of causes from mass transit to 911 call centers. The plan never left the caucus room.

Less than a week later, his colleagues in the Republican-controlled Senate passed a revenue plan that taxed natural gas drilling and raised or imposed new taxes on consumers’ telephone, electric and gas bills. House Democrats were willing to sign on to the plan, perhaps with some tweaks, and Wolf expressed support for it. Turzai, however, opposed the taxes, and the proposal died in the House.

Campaign records show Turzai has received nearly a quarter-million dollars since 2010 from drilling companies, their political action committees or their trade groups. A spokesman for him previously said it was “insulting” to assume the donations played any role in House Republican leaders’ opposition to the tax, saying their motivation was to protect jobs.

Legislators continued to negotiate on the the budget, and in the end decided to balance it largely through borrowing and a gambling expansion.

And on Tuesday, some of the lines that were used as talking points during negotiations, were echoed in Turzai’s video: “House Republicans fought back a wave of unseen taxes that would have hit hardworking families.”