Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Tony Phyrillas: A fresh start for Pennsylvania

"Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown"
— William Shakespeare
(Henry IV, Part II)

The reign of John M. Perzel ended Tuesday when the Pennsylvania House of Representatives elected Philadelphia Republican Dennis M. O'Brien as Speaker of the House, the post Perzel has held since April 2003.

The vote to give O'Brien the powerful job of Speaker was 105-97, ending a week of political intrigue that included a veteran Democratic legislator publicly announcing he would vote for Perzel, effectively denying the Speaker post to Democratic House Leader Bill DeWeese.

Six Republicans broke ranks with their leadership, breaking Perzel's iron grip on power. They are Reps. Kerry Benninghoff (R-Center), Jim Cox (R-Berks), Brad Roae (R-Crawford), Sam Rohrer (R-Berks), Curt Schroder (R-Chester) and David Steil (R-Bucks).

They outnumbered the three Democrats -- Reps. Thomas Caltagirone (D-Berks), Angel Cruz (D-Phila.) and Rosita Youngblood (D-Phila.) -- who voted for Perzel.

The fallout from Tuesday's explosive leadership vote will take days to settle. It could signal a fresh start for the beleaguered Legislature, which has been under siege since July 7, 2005, when lawmakers voted themselves pay raises of 16 percent to 54 percent in a middle-of-the-night vote that led to a political backlash that cost 55 legislators and a Supreme Court justice their jobs.

Perzel was blamed for orchestrating the pay raise and losing Republican control of the House. Before the Nov. 7 election, the GOP enjoyed a 109-seat majority in the chamber. Democrats now control the House by a 102-101 margin, but DeWeese was unable to hold the Democratic caucus together.

The House welcomed 50 new legislators Tuesday and many of them ran on a platform to clean up Harrisburg. The rejection of Perzel and DeWeese could signal the end of the "business-as-usual" mentality promoted by these career politicians.

Perzel and DeWeese brought baggage to the leadership vote. Perzel's arrogance and habit of saying stupid things cost him support in his own party. DeWeese demoted 15 Democratic committee chairmen in 2005 after they refused to back the pay raise.

O'Brien, who has served in Harrisburg for 30 years, has kept a low profile and apparently was a compromise candidate both parties could support. After realizing he did not have the votes to win the Speaker post, DeWeese himself nominated O'Brien for Speaker. DeWeese hailed O'Brien as "a fine-hearted idealistic Republican" who is well-suited to lead "a clean slate" in House leadership, which Republicans have controlled for 12 years, according to The Associated Press.

Unlike Perzel and DeWeese, who have blocked reform for much of the past decade, O'Brien immediately promised to preside over a more open House.

"You have my pledge. I will move reform issues forward and I will try to be as fair as I possibly can," O'Brien was quoted by The Associated Press.

What a difference a year makes. The smackdown of Perzel and DeWeese follows on the heels of last year's ouster by the voters of the Senate's top two GOP leaders. The only politician who helped orchestrate the payjacking who survived the voters' wrath was Gov. Ed 'Teflon' Rendell, who will be sworn in to a second term on Jan. 16.

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