Voter displeasure sends Harrisburg biggest 'freshman' class in years
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HARRISBURG -- A week ago, Jim Marshall couldn't name the speaker of the state House or recognize more than a couple of state legislators.
But soon, the Big Beaver Republican will start making law in a statehouse he'd never even entered until three days ago -- when he joined a bunch of tourists for a look-see.
Mr. Marshall, a 46-year-old silver recycler, is part of an influx of 55 brand new lawmakers headed to Harrisburg, the biggest wave of newcomers to the statehouse in 26 years.
They come to the Capitol by the will of an electorate looking for change in a Legislature viewed as inaccessible, unresponsive and more interested in increasing members' pay than in reducing constituents' property taxes.
"There are fairly lofty and specific expectations that this group of legislators is taking with them to Harrisburg," said Christopher Borick, professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
Those expectations won't be easy to meet in a statehouse built on tradition, seniority, party loyalty and respect for leaders. Interestingly, three of the current leaders -- two Republicans and one Democrat -- have been voted out of office.
The freshmen will have to strike a difficult balance. They'll need to stay in the leaders' good graces to garner the power and resources they'll need for significant reform, but doing so could alienate them from an electorate dissatisfied with the status quo.
"To succeed in Harrisburg and be able to get the power to help your constituents, you have to go along with the leaders a lot of the time, but if going along comes into conflict with the desire to change the dynamics of Harrisburg politics, that's a dilemma for a first-term legislator," Mr. Borick said.
Mr. Marshall isn't worried.
"This freshman class is here to make changes and the leadership needs to be ready for that," he said. "I hope they're not going to try to put us in the same old mold that's been there."
Veteran legislators such as Rep. Peter Daley, D-California, who want to run for party whip, the No. 2 job in the Democratic caucus, want the newcomers to have more of a voice than in the past.
"They're going to be the driving factor that pushes the Legislature forward this next session," Mr. Daley said. "Most of them were elected on the premise that it's time for a change, and now they'd better effectuate that change or -- guess what? -- there's going to be another slaughter" of incumbents on Election Day 2008.
The first thing new members will have to learn is balance.
"What's most difficult for first-year members is managing their time, attending to their families, commuting back and forth to Harrisburg, identifying new staff and building their team," said Allyson Lowe, of the Pennsylvania Center for Women Politics and Public Policy at Chatham College. "That requires a lot of time and attention and then really quickly, in only two years, your term of office is over."
The incoming freshmen aren't the only legislators who will find themselves in new roles. There will also be a battle for some leadership posts, among both House Republicans and Democrats. New leaders are to be elected on Tuesday.
The question of which party will control the chamber still is up in the air -- a Chester County race where votes from overseas military have not yet been counted is undecided.
But so far the top Republican in the House, Speaker John Perzel, of Philadelphia, and the top Democrat, Minority Leader H. William DeWeese, of Waynesburg, seem to be safe in their jobs. There have been private rumblings that they may be challenged, but any rank-and-file legislator thinking of taking such a radical step is being very cautious and keeping such plans close to the vest.
There's still a question as to which party will rule the House and thus choose the speaker for the 2007-08 term, which begins in January. Republicans currently have a 102-101 margin -- much tighter than the 109-94 margin they've had for the past two years -- but the outcome of several House races is close and could turn out as a 102-101 Democratic margin, depending on final vote tallies.
Even if Mr. DeWeese remains minority leader, however, there will be a battle for the No. 2 Democratic job. That's because the current whip, Rep. Mike Veon, of Beaver Falls, lost Tuesday and will be gone Nov. 30.
Besides Mr. Daley, Democratic whip possibilities include Rep. Todd Eachus, of Luzerne, Rep. Mark Cohen, of Philadelphia, and Rep. Keith McCall, of Carbon, ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee.
Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill, is also aiming at a Democratic leadership job but won't say which one. Rep. Dwight Evans, D-Philadelphia, is now the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, but may want to move up in the House power structure, unless he decides to run for mayor of Philadelphia in 2007.
House Republicans have their own battles. Majority Leader Sam Smith, of Punxsutawney, now the No. 2 Republican, will face a challenge from Rep. Curt Schroder, of Chester County, and possibly also from Rep. Stan Saylor, of York.
Last week Mr. Schroder said the House GOP caucus and the General Assembly as a whole need "a change in direction. The way things have gone in the last four years or so has not been to the satisfaction or liking of many of us in the caucus.''
Running with Mr. Schroder are Reps. David Steil, of Bucks, who wants the No. 3 GOP job, that of party whip, and Rep. Sam Rohrer, of Berks, who wants to be Appropriations Committee chairman.
In the Senate, new leaders will be chosen on Nov. 20. The Republicans, who retained a 29-21 hold on the chamber in Tuesday's election.
Since the top two GOP leaders from this session, President Pro Tem Bob Jubelirer, of Altoona, and Majority Leader David Brightbill, of Lebanon, lost in the May primary, those two jobs are up for grabs. Those said to be interested in the pro tem job include Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, of Dauphin, Sen. Joseph Scarnati, of Jefferson, and Sen. Dominic Pileggi, of Chester County. Sen. Jane Earll, of Erie, may seek the majority leader's job.
But for a while, things will probably be toughest for the class of rookies just coming in.
Because voters will be keeping a close eye on them, Mr. Daley said, "They have a harder task than any freshman class has ever had probably since the Great Depression."
First, though, they've got to learn such things as where to park, how to research the details of bills and where to sit in the House and Senate chambers. For House members, that begins with three days of orientation starting today.
Later will come the office assignments. Like committee assignments and desk assignments in the chamber, those will be based on seniority.
"I'm expecting a basement office with no windows," said Mr. Marshall, the freshman from Big Beaver. "My first job was at a mill, so I know all about seniority. I know where my spot on the ladder is."