New PA bosses look a lot like the old PA bosses

By Eric Boehm | PA Independent

Gov. Tom Corbett and state Sen. Dominic Pileggi were given the boot earlier this month, reshuffling political power heading into 2015.

Corbett was ousted by the voters, who chose governor-elect Tom Wolf as Pennsylvania’s newest executive. Pileggi, R-Chester, was tossed by his fellow Republican members of the state Senate, who chose newly minted Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, to lead their caucus.

That means the next six weeks will be filled with moving days in the state Capitol, as staffers shift from one office to another.

But despite the changes at the top, plenty of familiar faces will continue to run the show.

Take Mary Soderberg, for example. She’s a long-time number cruncher in Harrisburg who has worked for Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee and served as budget secretary for former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell from 2008 through 2010.

BACK IN TOWN: Mary Soderberg worked in several key positions under Gov. Ed Rendell. Now, she’ll lead governor-elect Tom Wolf’s transition team on budget issues.

Wolf announced this week Soderberg will lead his new Budget Deficit and Fiscal Stabilization Task Force. The team will be charged with finding ways to close a deficit that could expand to $1.8 billion by next spring, according to the state’s Independent Fiscal Office.

The task force “will get to work to determine the scope of the challenges facing Pennsylvania and begin to discuss how we can get Pennsylvania’s fiscal house in order,” Wolf said.

Wolf won’t announce cabinet positions for at least a few more weeks, but it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see Soderberg in another key position with the Wolf administration after the task force completes its work.

Soderberg’s co-chair on the task force is Josh Shapiro, a former state representative seen as a rising star for Democrats in Harrisburg before he resigned in 2012 after elected Montgomery County Commissioner.

Estelle Richman, another former top staffer for Rendell, has been named to Wolf’s transition team.

Richman served as secretary of the Department of Public Welfare — now renamedthe Department of Human Services — under Rendell and has worked for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She’ll oversee Wolf’s plans to expand Medicaid coverage for an estimated 600,000 Pennsylvanians, Wolf said.

There’s plenty of good reasons for an incoming governor – particularly a political newbie like Wolf – to surround himself with experienced and talented staffers, of course. They know the lay of the land in Harrisburg and have existing relationships that will help the new governor navigate the sometimes-complicated political waters. Corbett did the same thing four years ago, surrounding himself with veterans of the Tom Ridge administration.

Leaving that aside, there probably aren’t many among Pennsylvania’s 12 million residents with the ability to manage a $29 billion budget. There are even fewer, in all likelihood, who would want to try.

In the state Senate, a similar reshuffling of top staffers has given the new leadership a familiar look.

Corman’s new chief counsel – a position that basically serves as a top adviser on legal issues – is Dave Thomas, who makes a quick jump back to state government after leaving the Capitol in February.

Thomas worked for several years as chief counsel to Speaker of the House Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, who is retiring at the end of this month. In February, Thomas stepped down from that position to take a job as the top legislative lobbyist for the Pennsylvania Association for Justice, which represents trial lawyers.

NEW BOSS: Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman is surrounding himself with experienced staffers. But in politics, experience means there’s plenty of baggage coming with them.

Corman said Thomas’ knowledge of the House will be a key asset — perhaps he’ll be able to warm the relationship between Republicans in the two chambers, which has been frosty at times in recent years.

But Thomas’ new position with the Senate GOP is perhaps an odd pairing, since Corman’s coup over Pileggi to become the new Republican leader in the state Senate was led by senators who wanted to take the upper chamber in a more conservative direction. The trial lawyers association is typically seen as a political ally of Democrats, though in Pennsylvania they – much like unions – play on both sides of the aisle.

He’s not the only top staffer with an interesting backstory, though.

There’s also Drew Crompton and Diane Acri, top Senate GOP staffers with close ties to major lobbying firms in Harrisburg.

Crompton was already chief of staff for Senate President Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, but it was announced this week that he will now serve as Scarnati’s chief counsel, too.

Crompton’s wife is a top lobbyist for Long Nyquist and Associates, largely seen as one of the most powerful lobbying firms in the state. Run by former Senate staffer Mike Long, the firm has a long list of personal connections to key players in the General Assembly — which has been called nepotism and even political incest.

Long Nyquist caught flak from conservatives last year when it was revealed the firm was contracted to lobby against liquor privatization, a top policy priority for Corbett and the House GOP.

Acri will serve as deputy counsel to Corman, but she is now employed as a lobbyist for Greenlee Partners, another of the major lobbying firms in Harrisburg. Her clients run the full length and breadth of Pennsylvania politics — including universities, energy and technology companies and municipalities.

“Diane brings to the office a wealth of legal and accounting experience, both in government and the private sector,” Corman said in a statement this week announcing her new position.

But that’s not all she — or anyone else — brings to their positions in state government. And even when things seem to change in Harrisburg, they end up looking as if they’ve remained the same.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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