Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, the Senate's President Pro Tempore talks with reporters in Harrisburg in this 2006 file photo.
By Tom Barnes Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau
HARRISBURG -- Sen. Joseph B. Scarnati III, who was running his family's steak house in Jefferson County just a few years ago, is taking on a job he's never sought.
The low-profile, boyish-looking Brockway native is rising to the No. 2 post in state government -- lieutenant governor.
The move follows the death yesterday of Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll.
Since 2007, Mr. Scarnati, R-Jefferson, has held the highest-ranking Senate post, president pro tempore. As specified in the state constitution, he will now serve as acting lieutenant governor until someone is elected to the post in November 2010.
Mr. Scarnati's elevation is similar to what happened in October 2001, when Gov. Tom Ridge became the nation's first director of homeland security and Lt. Gov. Mark Schweiker took over as governor. That meant then-Senate President Pro Tem Robert Jubelirer, R-Blair, became acting lieutenant governor and held the job until the new administration of Gov. Ed Rendell and Mrs. Knoll took office in January 2003.
Like Mr. Jubelirer, Mr. Scarnati will have a foot in two different branches of government, the legislative and the executive, at the same time. The state Supreme Court has said that is permissible.
Unlike many politicians at the Capitol, Mr. Scarnati, 46, doesn't project a big ego in public.
"He's low-key," said his chief of staff, Todd Nyquist. "We've known each other a long time, but after he was elected, I once called him 'senator.' He didn't like that."
GOP senators have clout because they control the Senate by a 29-20 margin. Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, the third-highest member of the GOP leadership, said Mr. Scarnati is "down to earth. He'll say what is on his mind and not back down just to be politically correct. He hasn't forgotten his small-town roots, and he cares about the needs of working people."
Longtime friend and Brockway businessman Peter Varischetti said, "I've known Joe all my life. ... He's always had a yearning to be involved in politics. He was one of the youngest councilmen in Brockway. He was in his 20s."
Mr. Scarnati's rise to prominence in the Senate happened fairly quickly. He was first elected in 2001 and became president pro tem in January 2007.
Mr. Scarnati is the third generation in his family to own and run the Rocky Grill in Brockway. He sold it two years after being elected to the Senate.
Mr. Scarnati has three children and is a member of St. Tobias Church in Brockway. He likes to ride a motorcycle and to hunt. He's a member of the National Rifle Association, as are many residents of his large, rural district, which includes all or parts of Cameron, Elk, McKean, Potter, Tioga, Clearfield and Warren counties, as well as Jefferson.
Before being elected to the Senate, Mr. Scarnati was on Brockway council and the Jefferson County Development Council. He graduated from the Penn State University branch in Du Bois.
As a Republican and former businessman, he said he's tried to reduce state regulations on businesses and what he has called "job-crushing" state taxes on companies, which he claims hinder economic growth.