PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai will not run for reelection, the Republican announced Thursday, ending the career of a conservative force in state government in a critical year when Democrats are aiming to take control of the chamber.
Turzai, 60, made the announcement at a news conference at in his suburban Pittsburgh district office with his wife and youngest son and a couple dozen supporters, occasionally tearing up when describing his decision to leave a job he said he still loves.
However, he also described the long hours away from home and on the road, saying that the job has been the privilege of a lifetime, but that it is time to pass the torch.
Suggesting that his family felt it was time for him to hang it up, Turzai described a conversation he had with his baseball-playing son who told him how, one day, he will inevitably have to pitch his last game, no matter how sad it will be.
“I've made this decision knowing that I've left it all on the field," Turzai said.
A lawyer, Turzai was first elected in 2001, becoming speaker in 2015 after four years as House majority leader.
Over the past decade, he emerged as a force for fiscal and social conservatism in state government, a critical ally for the booming natural gas industry, the Legislature's strongest adversary to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and a powerhouse fundraiser for the House Republican majority.
Without someone ready to fill Turzai's big fundraising shoes, his departure could boost Democrats' efforts to win control of the chamber for the first time since 2010. Democrats also could put more effort into winning his district, once a solidly Republican bastion that is changing.
Democrats suggested that Turzai is fleeing a tough reelection campaign and the prospect of losing the speaker's job next year when Democrats take control. In the 2018 election, Democrats picked up 11 seats and are nine short of a majority in the 203-seat chamber.
The Pennsylvania House Democratic Campaign Committee said it raised over $1.2 million last year, setting an off-year fundraising record.
“Mike Turzai called it quits today for one main reason — he knows his tenure as speaker is on borrowed time,” Delaware County Rep. Leanne Krueger, the HDCC's chairwoman, said in a statement.
Turzai's district itself backed Republican Donald Trump in 2016's presidential election by 9 percentage points. But top-of-the-ticket Democrats — Gov. Tom Wolf and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey — each won the district in 2018, Wolf by 10 percentage points and Casey by 6 percentage points, according to figures provided by Democrats.
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The deadline for Turzai's decision was approaching. Tuesday is the first day that candidates for public office in Pennsylvania can circulate petitions to get on the primary ballot, which traditionally is the cutoff for state lawmakers to decide whether to run again. His current term expires Nov. 30.
Turzai also seemed to put aside any talk of running for higher office, after pursuing — and then abandoning — bids for lieutenant governor, Congress and governor in the past 15 years, saying that he would like to go into the private sector. Turzai said he had no job offer.
He was embraced heartily by conservative groups and business associations, but disliked by many Democrats, labor unions and liberal groups.
As speaker for all five years during Wolf's time in office, Turzai was an unyielding counterweight to the Democrat, driving austerity in budget-making even when it put him at odds with Senate Republican leaders and moderates in his caucus.
He championed abortion restrictions, taxpayer support for private and religious schools and privatization of the state-controlled wine and liquor system, pushing through pet bills destined for a veto by Wolf.
In a statement, Lawrence Tabas, the state Republican Party chairman, thanked Turzai and acknowledged his political importance, saying the party owes Turzai “a great debt” for helping build and maintain a House GOP majority.
A longtime friend of Turzai's, former Allegheny County GOP chairman Jim Roddey, said Turzai's annual fundraising breakfast raised hundreds of thousands of dollars that proved the difference in close House races.
“He created the Republican majority,” Roddey said. “He single-handedly funded most of the critical campaigns that they needed to win across the state.”
Follow Marc Levy on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timelywriter
Levy reported from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.