In Harrisburg, Western Pa. may be gaining power
HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania's new governor, the two highest ranking Republican House members and the Senate president hail from the western half of the state.
A contentious House Democratic caucus leadership election Tuesday could wrench even more power from the Philadelphia region.
State Rep. Frank Dermody of Oakmont, now minority whip, is expected to rise to Democratic leader, a job now held by Todd Eachus of Luzerne County, who got the boot in the general election.
At least four names are circulating as potential whips. Among them is Rep. Joe Preston of East Liberty.
Meanwhile, Rep. Dan Frankel of Squirrel Hill is challenging Philadelphian Mark Cohen for caucus chairman.
The most heated race, by far, is for ranking Democratic member of the Appropriations Committee, the No. 3 spot in the Democratic caucus.
State Rep. Joe Markosek, D-Monroeville, is taking on Philadelphian Dwight Evans, who has had the job for two decades.
If Mr. Markosek wins, it would be the first time in at least 40 years that someone outside Philadelphia has held the post.
Mr. Evans has become the prime target in what is turning into a revolt against the old guard in the Democratic caucus by its rank-and-file legislators.
Those lawmakers are angry at their crushing losses this month at the polls, where they lost their majority in the House. And they believe their leaders don't play fair and don't listen to them.
As the highest-ranking House Democrat returning for another term, Mr. Evans has become the lightning rod for dissatisfaction with leadership.
"Maybe we are at a point here in time where a new broom will sweep clean," said Rep. Mike O'Brien, D-Philadelphia, who is supporting Mr. Markosek. "So let's retool ourselves and get back in the game."
For his part, Mr. Evans is calling the challenge a personal vendetta by a select few legislators with an ax to grind.
"This is not about policy, it's not about what's good for the caucus, it's not about what is good for Pennsylvanians," Evans spokeswoman Johnna Pro said. "This is an internal caucus battle instigated by a couple of angry, petty members who are trying to foment dissent."
The winner of the contest will take a back seat to Rep. William Adolph of Delaware. As majority chairman, Mr. Adolph controls the committee's agenda.
Tuesday's election will play out behind closed doors -- and votes are made by secret ballot. Neither side is making any predictions.
Mr. Evans is on the outs with some members because they believe he was the puppet master behind an edict to cancel a House voting session next week in order to prevent a vote on a bill that contains a provision Evans doesn't like.
Ultimately, other House leaders buckled to pressure from members and called them back to vote on Monday.
But the controversy left Mr. Evans vulnerable. And it brought to the surface a host of other complaints that House Democrats have had against their old leadership team, including how special project grants called WAMs (walking around money) are doled out to members.
As Appropriations chairman for the last four years, Mr. Evans controlled the flow of those dollars.
"What has been a bone of contention with a lot of members is that we were told there's nothing available for us, and then we hear through the grapevine that other people got grants," said Mr. Markosek.
Ms. Pro said Mr. Evans has fought to secure money for all parts of the state, and ticked off example after example of funds he's secured for other counties.
"I know that people like to take shots at Philadelphia," she said. "It's easy to do because it's the largest region of the state. But I think you will find that there is hardly a person who will say that Dwight hasn't been as much a champion for their region."
State Rep. Jesse White, D-White Oak, won't say whom he supports for the appropriations chairmanship but noted that it's "an aggressive race that could shake out any number of ways."
Rep. Jake Wheatley of the Hill District, meanwhile, is a vocal supporter of Mr. Evans.
"The most important thing [in Tuesday's leadership election] is to make sure Dwight Evans maintains his chairmanship," Mr. Wheatley said. "You ask around in Harrisburg and you'll hear that Dwight Evans has been a steadfast leader. He is one of the best we have in Harrisburg."
Geography often plays a role in the election of leaders, who have the power to understand local needs and bring projects to their constituents, said Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College.
No matter how Tuesday's elections shake out, it will be painful for the northeast. For the last two years, the Wilkes-Barre region has been home to both speaker and majority leader. With the retirement of Mr. McCall and the ousting of Majority Leader Todd Eachus, power is dissipating.
"It will be good for the west," said Mr. White, who expects Mr. Dermody to become the new caucus leader. "Any time you have somebody leading the caucus that's from your region, that's definitely a bonus. They know the needs a little better. The voice of the west has been diluted over the past couple years and I think this is going to be an opportunity to really reassert our voice."
However, he insists regionalism won't much matter when he votes for appropriations chairman.
"In terms of bringing back projects, I don't know if the money's going to be there in the new budget, anyway," Mr. White said. "I'm more worried about bigger policy issues and the long-term future of our caucus."
Mr. Markosek said the lack of resources provides an even better reason to vote regionally.
"There's going to be less to go around for everybody. In many ways, rather than trying to get more goodies for our region, it's going to be more about defending some of the very important infrastructure and programs that are the fabric of our community and that are part and parcel of the economy of our region," he said. That includes continued funding for transportation and higher education, said Mr. Markosek, who now is chairman of the House Transportation Committee.
Mr. Preston, the state rep from East Liberty, said he will put experience ahead of regionalism when he chooses between Mr. Evans and Mr. Markosek, both friends.
"Being in the minority is like going to war. Who do you want to lead you when you go to war? For me, it's Dwight," he said.
First Published November 14, 2010 12:00 am