Sunday, December 31, 2006

Tony Phyrillas: Political bombshell in Pennsylvania

Just when you thought it was over ...

That John Perzel has more lives than a black cat.

State Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, a Reading Democrat, sent a letter to fellow Democrats in the state House of Representatives Saturday announcing he will support Republican John M. Perzel for another two-year term as Speaker of the House.

This is a political bombshell. Perzel was attempting to strongarm a Democrat from Philly to turn for him, but Caltagirone was never mentioned as a potential turncoat.

If Perzel somehow keeps his post as Speaker despite the fact that Democrats now have a 1-vote majority in the House, the only conclusion is that Perzel has sold his soul to the devil in return for keeping control of the House.

Nothing else could explain the defection of a lifelong Democrat like Caltagirone, who will face the wrath of fellow Dems in Berks, his pals in the House and Gov. Ed Rendell. You have to wonder what Perzel promised Caltagirone to get his vote.

The defection could have a domino effect on other Democrats who can't stand Bill DeWeese, who was in line to be the next Speaker of the House.

Of course, all this hinges on Perzel getting support from every single member of the 101-member Republican caucus and Perzel has made a lot of enemies in the past two years by supporting Rendell's agenda and helping orchestrate the disastrous legislative pay raise that cost Republicans control of the House.

The stakes are enormous. The party that controls the House determines who heads committees, where tens of millions of tax dollars are spent and how far Gov. Ed Rendell gets in his second term.

If the Republicans can hold the Speaker post, Rendell is a lame duck even before he is sworn in for a second term. The Republicans control the state Senate by a comfortable 29-21 margin. Rendell's only hope of pushing through his tax-and-spend liberal agenda was Democratic control of the House.

This is truly a case of the evil of two lessers. Republicans can't stand Perzel. Democrats can't stand DeWeese. Who is willing to hold their noses and vote for either man as Speaker?

Stay tuned.

The text of a letter (obtained by The Associated Press) sent from Caltagirone to fellow members of the Democratic caucus:

December 30, 2006

To the Members of the Democratic Caucus:

I am writing to inform you that, after extended and careful deliberation, I have determined that I cannot support Rep. William DeWeese for election as speaker of the House of Representatives.

I have served as a member of the House of Representatives for thirty years. During that time, I have been a steadfast member of the Democratic Caucus, supporting our positions and candidates. In the past legislative session, my campaign committee contributed $30,000 to the House Democratic Campaign Committee, and $23,500 to individual Democratic House candidates. I also helped raise additional thousands in support of our Democratic candidates. I have been a loyal Democrat since I entered politics, and will remain a member of the Democratic Party.

However, I have become increasingly distressed over the years with the manner in which our Democratic leaders have conducted the business of the Caucus. The leaders of our Caucus have shown little regard for many members of the Caucus, the constituents they represent, and the legislative initiatives we should be supporting. Instead, they have operated the Caucus as a personal fiefdom, promoting their own personal and political ambitions behind a wall of secrecy and petty personal vindictiveness.

As you are aware, at the request of Rep. DeWeese, I recently provided him with a list of reforms which, I believed, would enable our Caucus to embark on a new era of transparency and fairness. I had hoped that with the election of Rep. McCall and other new members to leadership positions in the Caucus, these proposed changes would be seriously considered, and adopted.

Instead, all that I have received from Rep. DeWeese in response is his usual outpouring of obfuscation. Unfortunately, I no longer have any confidence in his ability to lead the Democratic Caucus, and do not believe him and his associates to be capable of fulfilling the responsibilities necessary to lead the House of Representatives.

I am under no delusions as to the nature of partisan politics in the House of Representatives. However, Rep. Perzel has pledged to implement House rules which reflect the current split in the membership of the House, and to conduct the affairs of the House in an open, inclusive and fair manner. I have always found Rep. Perzel to be a man of his word, and serious about issues of public policy. I believe the people of Pennsylvania will be best served if he is elected as speaker on January 2, and he will have my support.

I look forward to working with each of you in the upcoming legislative session. I believe that all of us, Democrat and Republican, can work together for the people of Pennsylvania.

Sincerely,
Thomas R. Caltagirone

Tony Phyrillas is a columnist for The Mercury in Pottstown, Pa. E-mail him at tphyrillas@pottsmerc.com