HARRISBURG -- A Democratic legislator from Reading stunned his colleagues yesterday by announcing he will support Republican John Perzel for House speaker rather than Democrat H. William DeWeese.
State Rep. Thomas R. Caltagirone wrote to the other 101 Democrats in the House, criticizing Mr. DeWeese's "petty'' and "vindictive'' way of running the Democratic caucus and calling Mr. Perzel "a man of his word'' who is "open, inclusive and fair.''
If Mr. Perzel holds on to all 101 Republican House members -- which is not a certainty -- he would eke out a 102-101 victory over Mr. DeWeese on Tuesday, the opening day of the 2007-08 session. The Waynesburg Democrat has been hoping to regain the powerful speaker's post, which held in 1993-94.
Republicans have held the speaker's job since January 1995. Mr. Perzel has been speaker since March 2003, but his reign appeared to be at an end when Democrats won control of the House by a 102-101 margin on Nov. 7.
Democrats, naturally, are furious about this latest development.
State Chairman T.J. Rooney called Mr. Caltagirone's action "reprehensible ... selfish ... a slap in the face to his constituents and all Democrats throughout Pennsylvania. Make no mistake, this is an act of political treason. Caltagirone sold out to an ineffective ... Republican Party that was handed enormous losses as a result of unprecedented arrogance and 12 years of unchecked power."
Mr. Perzel, a Republican from Philadelphia, has refused to vacate his suite of offices on the first floor of the Capitol, fueling speculation that he was working on a Democrat to "flip."
Mr. Caltagirone said in his letter that he wasn't changing parties; he just planned to vote for Mr. Perzel. That would leave the House in an odd position -- Democrats would be in the majority with 102 of the 203 seats, but a Republican would have the top job. A Democrat, Rep. Keith McCall of Carbon County, likely would become majority leader, the No. 2 job.
Mr. DeWeese couldn't be reached yesterday, but legislators and political observers were stunned by Mr. Caltagirone's action.
"In 300 years of this democratic body, there's never been anything like this," said Al Bowman, a Perzel spokesman.
Mr. Rooney claimed that Mr. Caltagirone's action "shows how desperate Republicans are and how low they can stoop" and it "leaves a putrid stench from Reading to Harrisburg."
The speaker's job is important because he decides what bills get voted on, which die in committee and who heads important panels on taxes, spending, crime and transportation. To win Mr. Caltagirone's support, Mr. Bowman said, Republican Perzel agreed to divide committee chairmanships equally between the two parties, and agreed the House will adjourn no later than 10 p.m. unless there is a specific vote to continue. In the past, legislators often debated past midnight on important issues.
In his letter, Mr. Caltagirone said he'd been a loyal Democrat for 30 years. But he criticized Democratic House leaders, especially Mr. DeWeese.
"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," he said.
Mr. DeWeese took committee posts away from Democrats who didn't vote for the July 2005 pay raise, angering some legislators.
Mr. Caltagirone said he outlined a "list of reforms" for the caucus "to embark on a new era of transparency and fairness," but all he got from Mr. DeWeese was "his usual outpouring of obfuscation."
Mr. Caltagirone said he didn't have confidence in Mr. DeWeese's "ability to lead the Democratic caucus [or] to lead the House of Representatives.''
Mr. Caltagirone said Mr. Perzel "has pledged. ... 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. [He is] serious about issues of public policy."
Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, said he was surprised and disappointed by Mr. Caltagirone's defection, but cautioned that the fight to be speaker may not be over.
"This is completely uncharted territory," he said. "I don't know how it will finally play out. There are still three days to go [before Tuesday]. A lot can happen in three days."
G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College, agreed. "The intrigue is not over," he said. "I think Democrats will try to find a Republican legislator to switch" and vote for Mr. DeWeese.
"If I were . ... either DeWeese or Perzel, I wouldn't be sleeping tonight -- I'd be on the phone" seeking additional votes, said Jerry Shuster, a political communication professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
He said there were several new reform-minded members from both parties who still could be wooed to cross the aisle. Also, some Democratic members remain upset with Mr. DeWeese after they lost committee assignments or were in other ways punished for not supporting the now-repealed legislative pay raise of July 2005.
"I don't think it's over by any means," Dr. Shuster said. "I think it will come down to the actual vote on Tuesday, and there will be a number of surprises until then. There will be so many promises made by power brokers on both sides of the aisles."
Dr. Shuster said Mr. Caltagirone's move puts Democrats in an awkward position.
"First of all, it's embarrassing that they can't keep the people of their own party [under] control. Second, it suggests there is a lack of unanimity about their expectation for what the leadership can achieve."
No matter how it turns out, he said, the back-room deals about control of the chamber could further alienate voters.
"The public is going to view it as more of the same," Dr. Shuster said. "Business as usual."
Staff Writer Bill Schackner and the Associated Press contributed. Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at email@example.com or 717-787-4254.