State Republicans name Rep. Perzel 'speaker emeritus'

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HARRISBURG -- State Rep. John Perzel didn't get what he really wanted for the 2007-08 legislative term, another two years as speaker of the House. But he got what might be considered a consolation prize, the new title of "speaker emeritus."

"The House Republican caucus wanted to keep John Perzel as part of the team," Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Minority Leader Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, told Capitol reporters. Mr. Perzel "has knowledge and experience that will benefit the caucus."

What exactly does a speaker emeritus do, since one has never existed before?

"We are still working out his duties," Mr. Miskin said. "He will help [other legislators] with constituent outreach and will help the caucus focus on issues. He has some good insight into things."

Mr. Perzel's new salary of $73,000 is the same as rank-and-file House members, Mr. Miskin said. But it is considerably less than the $112,000 he received last year as speaker. Mr. Perzel will have a slightly larger staff of three or four people, compared with the normal rank-and-file lawmaker's staff of one or two, Mr. Miskin said.

But he insisted that's fair because, as speaker emeritus, Mr. Perzel will be on a par with chairmen of standing House committees, such as appropriations, finance and others, who have staffs of up to four aides.

Eric Epstein of Rock the Capital, a citizens group that opposed the 2005 pay raises, said he's sorry to see Mr. Perzel having any role at all in GOP leadership.

"He lost the House majority in November and was defeated in the speakership election two weeks ago," he said. "But he's a political bully and forced himself back into leadership. I was hoping the Republicans would demonstrate more calcium in their backbone."

Seven House Republican leaders, led by Mr. Smith and House GOP Whip David Argall of Schuylkill, wrestled for two days before finally, late Tuesday, coming up with the compromise job for Mr. Perzel. He had been speaker from April 2003 until Nov. 30, when the previous session ended.

Mr. Miskin said all 101 House Republicans were told of the decision by e-mail Tuesday night and that overall their reaction was favorable.

Some GOP legislators, however, who refused to be identified, yesterday expressed some doubts about the need for the job. They saw it as an effort to preserve Mr. Perzel's dignity and assuage his hurt feelings by giving him a new title. It's still too soon to say how much real power the strong-willed Mr. Perzel will have in the new GOP caucus.

Over the past 18 months, Mr. Perzel had generated opposition from some colleagues by championing the ill-fated July 2005 pay raises, and he is somewhat out of step politically with many of the more social and political conservatives in the GOP.

Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a conservative Republican from Cranberry, has criticized Mr. Perzel in the past over his occasional efforts to help get Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's bills passed. But now, Mr. Metcalfe said, Mr. Perzel can help the House GOP "fight what we expect to be Gov. Rendell's effort to increase taxes and spending in his second term."

Some House Republicans still are upset that in the Nov. 7 election they went from a 109-94 advantage over Democrats to being in the minority this session, trailing by the narrow margin of 101-102.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Perzel had hopes of being speaker once again, as one Democrat, Rep. Tom Caltagirone of Berks, said he wouldn't vote for Rep. Bill DeWeese, the Democratic candidate for speaker. That made it look like Mr. Perzel would win 102-101.

But then Mr. DeWeese pulled a trick of his own, nominating another Philadelphia Republican, Rep. Dennis O'Brien, for speaker, and most Democrats were joined by six dissident Republicans in making Mr. O'Brien the new speaker.

That left Mr. Perzel without a GOP leadership job, because the minority leader's role was already filled by Mr. Smith. House Republicans chose not to replace Mr. Smith with Mr. Perzel and so created the new title.

Until the past few days, Mr. Perzel had resisted packing up his things from the speaker's spacious first-floor office so Mr. O'Brien could begin moving in. But now Mr. Perzel is moving to the fourth-floor suite of offices where the minority party stays. His new office is much smaller than the speaker's digs but is still elegant with a big desk and wood paneling.

Mr. Perzel had a frosty relationship with the news media while he was speaker. He wasn't at the Capitol yesterday and couldn't be reached for comment.

Citizen groups that are trying to make the Legislature more open to the public clashed repeatedly with Mr. Perzel over pay raises, lobbyist reform and other issues, and said they see no reason to create the new job.

"Mr. Perzel fought legislative reform every step of the way when he was speaker," said Gene Stilp of Harrisburg-based Taxpayers and Ratepayers United. Even if the former speaker is paid what lower ranking members get, he will still get a larger staff, Mr. Stilp said, which could cost taxpayers anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 extra.

"I still think he will be treated differently than other rank-and-file legislators and it will cause discord in the caucus," he said.


Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


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