Pennsylvania Senate GOP ousts its own majority leader

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

HARRISBURG, Pa. — State Sen. Scott Wagner’s prognostication from last week has come true: The Pennsylvania state Senate has a new majority leader.

State Sen. Jake Corman, the Republican chairman of the Appropriations Committee, ousted state Sen. Dominic Pileggi on Wednesday, ending the Delaware County Republican’s eight-year run as majority leader.

While the upheaval had been predicted for weeks in conservative circles, it was still a huge development, considering that Philadelphia Magazine in an April story quoted former Gov. Ed Rendell describing Pileggi as the “most powerful person in Harrisburg.”

“It’s certainly momentous,” said Charlie Gerow, a GOP strategist and the CEO of consulting group Quantum Communications.

OUSTED: The Pennsylvania state Senate GOP unseated its own majority leader on Wednesday, choosing Sen. Jake Corman over current Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, shown in photo.

Wednesday’s developments indicate Rendell’s words might have been a bit of political overstatement, considering Pileggi’s hold on his caucus unraveled in just seven months. Perhaps some of the impetus for change can be attributed to Wagner, a political newcomer who has been in office just seven months himself.

The conservative Wagner provided the first evidence of a crack within the GOP caucus, penning a September letter to the more moderate Pileggi. It called for new leadership and accused Pileggi of blocking legislation popular with the caucus and protecting unions. Data from FollowTheMoney.org shows that, as of October, Pileggi took more campaign money from labor organizations than any other Republican in the General Assembly in 2013 and 2014.

The crack eventually grew into a chasm, culminating with the caucus ousting Pileggi and installing Corman in a victory that signals a more conservative shift in the state Senate, even if the new majority leader isn’t exactly known as a far-right lawmaker.

Following the leadership elections, the usually brash Wagner struck a diplomatic tone, but returned to his belief that state government should run more like the private sector. Sometimes, that means shaking up the status quo.

“What we’re going through right now is healthy, and sometimes in business, in the private sector, you become stagnant. You have to change your management team,” said Wagner, who owns a waste management company. “Today, you have to be on the cutting edge of everything that’s going on, otherwise you fall behind. And I just think that we have an opportunity to become very, very strong.”

Corman didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment, and an antiseptic news release simply announced who had won leadership posts in the Senate.

“It has been an honor to serve the Senate Republican Caucus as Leader for the past eight years, and I’m proud of our many accomplishments. I wish the new Republican leadership team the best,” Pileggi said in a statement issued through his spokesman.

Corman joined forces with Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati as part of a six-person slate for leadership positions. The entire contingent was elected, but it was far from a wholesale change. All but one of the six already held leadership positions before Wednesday.

James Broussard, a Lebanon Valley College political science professor, said he couldn’t immediately say whether the leadership upheaval represented a policy change or simply a geographic shift to an area that’s part of the Republican base.

“The future will tell us whether it would amount to a shift in policy or not,” Broussard said.

Even if it is a policy shift, it doesn’t necessarily mean legislation near-and-dear to the more conservative element of the Senate — such as paycheck protection or liquor privatization — would sail into law. Those items would likely face a roadblock in Democratic Gov.-elect Tom Wolf.

J. Wesley Leckrone, a political science professor at Widener University, said the leadership change sends a message Senate Republicans won’t just lie down after Republican Gov. Tom Corbett lost to Wolf. The GOP, Leckrone said, could still force Wolf to consider legislation favored by conservatives.

“It’s definitely a signal from the Republican caucus in the Senate that they want to play hardball with Gov.-elect Wolf. And particularly it’s a shot across the bow about the idea of new taxes,” Leckrone said, referencing Wolf’s plan to revamp the state’s income tax and his support of severance tax on the natural gas industry.

MOVING UP: State Sen. Jake Corman moves up from his appropriations chairmanship to take over as majority leader.

The Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank based in Harrisburg, declined to comment on specific leadership candidates before the election, but policy analyst John Bouder said, regardless of the outcome, the organization expected Senate Republicans to “stake out their own policy agenda going forward rather than waiting to react to Wolf’s proposals” after adding to their majority in last week’s election.

“This would include major items left undone like pension reform and liquor privatization,” Bouder said.

Gerow anticipates similar action.

“I will say this: We will live in exciting times,” he said.

Wagner, while saying he looked forward to working with Pileggi in the future, also said he sees an opportunity now that Corman is in charge of the legislation agenda in the chamber. The York County lawmaker wants to examine everything from the Capitol’s electric bill to the costs of managing the state’s pension funds to the possibility of downsizing the Legislature’s massive staff.

As reporters huddled around Wagner, he said he empathized that Pileggi had to manage more than two dozen personalities and agendas as majority leader, but noted he would have liked business to be handled differently.

Keeping to a conciliatory tone, Wagner didn’t jump on a question of whether he took some credit for Pileggi’s ouster — even though he did predict the outcome last week. When asked if he thought he’d be discussing a leadership change had he not spoken up, Wagner just said it was a “great question.”

“If I knew the answer to that, I’d be on a plane to Las Vegas,” he said. “In the private sector, if I want to express something most times I put it in writing, and Rule No. 1 is if it isn’t in writing, it didn’t happen. So I just expressed to Sen. Pileggi my concerns, and the events played out the way they played out.”

Reporter Eric Boehm contributed to this report.

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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