HARRISBURG — There stands Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai, against the backdrop of a trash-strewn lot of rundown rowhouses, talking about hope.
Hope for a Harrisburg that solves real problems and demands accountability. Hope for a Harrisburg that, essentially, rejects the fiscal policies of Democratic Gov. Wolf.
“It’s time some of us put our careers and our reputations on the line by saying, no more,” Turzai says in a Facebook video as inspiring piano music tinkles. “No more taxes. No more unaccountable, uncontrolled spending. No more gimmicks.”
Though it’s not being broadcast on any airwaves, Turzai’s latest Facebook video post looks and feels a lot like a campaign ad — albeit a long one. The top House Republican, from Allegheny County, has made no secret of his interest in running for the Republican nomination to challenge Wolf next year. But he has stayed silent on his actual intentions even as other Republicans looking to unseat Wolf announced campaigns months ago and have spent the summer crisscrossing the state and raising money.
Turzai’s Facebook video is the closest he has come in weeks to taking a serious political whack at Wolf, and it lands as a very ugly and public fight between the men unfolds over the still-incomplete state budget.
Turzai, a lawyer and former prosecutor, could not be reached for comment Monday. But Republican campaign strategist Jeff Coleman, who helped Turzai film the video on Facebook, said the leader of the GOP-controlled House wanted to “cut through the fog of the silly ping-pong game in Harrisburg.”
“He is one of the most misunderstood and one of the most mischaracterized people in Harrisburg,” Coleman said. “I’m happy he decided to take it straight to the people.”
Coleman describes his firm, Churchill Strategies, as an adviser to Turzai but not his de facto campaign consultant. Coleman said he did not know whether Turzai had decided whether to run, but noted that the speaker still has time if he decides to take the plunge.
“He’s not chained to a political timeline,” said Coleman.
There are some tantalizing clues, however. Turzai is listed as one of four gubernatorial candidates to appear at a candidate forum hosted next week by the Montgomery County Republican Party at the Bluestone Country Club.
In an interview Monday, Jim Saring, the county GOP party’s executive director, said all four potential challengers to Wolf have confirmed their attendance — Turzai included.
“We weren’t going to set the event up until we had the confirmations,” Saring said, adding that the event was planned in June.
What Turzai, first elected in 2001, is waiting for is anyone’s guess. The Republican has said only that he was waiting until after the state budget was resolved. But the fight over the budget has lasted far longer than anyone anticipated, largely because Turzai and his increasingly conservative caucus in the House have pushed back hard against agreements Wolf has struck with more moderate Republicans in the Senate.
Turzai has often sided with the conservative faction in the House, particularly on fiscal issues. He has taken a staunch anti-tax position on budgetary issues, and this year has been a driving force behind resistance to a new severance tax on natural gas drilling companies supported by Democrats and moderate Republicans as a way to help ease the state’s financial problems. The ongoing stalemate was among the reasons credit-rating agency Standard & Poor’s last month downgraded Pennsylvania’s bond rating, which will make it more expensive for the state to borrow money.
Wolf has slapped Turzai and his band of like-minded conservative Republicans as obstructionists, blaming them for the credit downgrade.
“They pose as the protectors of the taxpayers — but they handed every Pennsylvanian, including me, a tax increase,” Wolf said last week during an appearance before the editorial boards of the Inquirer and Daily News. “Because every time a school wants to build a classroom, a borough wants to widen a sidewalk and put in a street lamp, or a county wants to do something with a bridge, and they have to borrow money, they’re going to pay a higher interest rate. So they’re reaching into the pockets of every one of us, and taking our money out.”
The budget stalemate has led to tense moments between the two, including an incident last week, reported by the Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, during which an angry Turzai was spotted pounding on Wolf’s office door in the Capitol, demanding to speak with either him or his chief of staff. That happened as the House was floundering on a plan to pass a revenue package that would have raised money via, among other things, a new hotel tax.
In his Facebook video, Turzai contends Wolf’s approach to the budget — which he characterizes as “growing government ” — is a “formula for failure” and “ultimately immoral.”
Should Turzai decide to run, he would first have to fend off two GOP hopefuls in what could be a bruising and expensive primary: Republican State Sen. Scott Wagner of York County and former health care systems consultant Paul Mango.
Political observers are split on the odds of a Turzai candidacy, noting his inconsistency on seeking higher office: he dropped out of a run for lieutenant governor in 2006, and decided to forgo a run for Congress in 2012.
But adviser Coleman believes Turzai will be a formidable foe.
“You have someone who is not going to be a vanilla Republican,” said Coleman, “someone who won’t look like a mimic of a Trump candidacy, or someone who has the hair and the jawline and just fills up the suit.”