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Turzai Announces Retirement, Will Not Seek Another Term

Chris Potter
90.5 WESA
House Speaker Mike Turzai announcing his plans to retire on Thursday, January 23, 2020

Speaker of the state House Mike Turzai, a key figure in western Pennsylvania Republican politics for the past two decades, announced Thursday that he will not run for re-election this year and hopes to find work in the private sector. 

“I will not be asking my neighbors to nominate me for another term or elect me for another term,” said Turzai during a press conference at his North Hills district office Thursday morning. "It may be time for others to take the torch."

“We run for office to make life better for families, and trade … precious time, sometimes in years and decades, for one more term," Turzai said near the outset of a sometimes emotional speech that lasted nearly 13 minutes. "A last term that never really seems to come, right? Well, for me, here it is.”

Turzai professed amazement and gratitude that “this grandson of Hungarians and Irish immigrants has been able to follow what William Penn started, and that Benjamin Franklin once held.” He revisited some of the signature issues of his career, like school choice (“one size does not fits all”) and his opposition to abortion rights: ”I ask myself this regularly: did I help the unborn in any way without castigating people but trying to bring people together to understand that each and every one of us has dignity from that moment [of conception] on?”

Turzai later told reporters that he would continue to serve as Speaker and as a representative for his North Hills District. But while his announcement was limited to his decision not to run, he said it was possible that he would step down prior to the end of his turn if a private-sector opportunity arose. 

There had been rumors that Turzai would announce a more imminent departure from the state House, most likely to take a job in the private sector. Aqua America, a privately owned operator of municipal water systems, was the company mentioned as his most likely destination: Turzai has long espoused privatizing public systems and has good relations with the firm

“I don't have any present — despite reports to the contrary — offer of a position [outside government],” said Turzai about future plans.

Speaking with reporters after his speech, Turzai said he had "great relations" with a number of business leaders "in large part because I've been way out front ... about how do you make a more competitive business environment for Pennsylvania." He said he would "certainly be open to any great employer" like Aqua America, but added his decision to retire was not the result of any commitment. "Unless I announce that I'm not running again, nobdy is going to approach me. "

There had also been speculation that Turzai might announce a desire to focus on a future run for governor in 2022. That too, appears to be off the table.

A native of Sewickley who was first elected to the state House in a 2001 special election, Turzai gained a reputation as a champion of private schools and a strong proponent of privatizing the state liquor system and other government services. He was stridently opposed to abortion rights, and was so opposed to legalizing the medical use of marijuana that he reportedly wept at the prospect at a gathering of his GOP colleagues. He rose to become leader of House Republicans and, from there, speaker of the House in 2015.

Turzai has often been a thorn in the side of Gov. Tom Wolf and other Democrats – and even of Senate Republicans. During a 2017 budget stalemate, for example, Turzai led a House insurrection against a budget compromise that would have involved a new tax on natural gas drilled in the Marcellus shale.

Such actions made Turzai a hero among many rank-and-file Republicans and industry leaders. But party insiders were occasionally exasperated by Turzai’s sometimes mercurial style, which included previous on-again, off-again campaigns for higher office. And Turzai was facing other political headwinds.

His district, which sprawls over prosperous suburbs north of Pittsburgh, has long been a bastion of Republicanism, though it has seen a resurgence of Democratic enthusiasm in recent election cycles. Turzai himself was facing what would likely have been a spirited challenge from Democrat Emily Skopov. Skopov challenged him in 2018 and lost by 9 percentage points – a finish many Democrats saw as a strong showing for a first-time candidate against one of the state’s most influential Republican incumbents.

In a statement, Skopov said, “Since I first announced that I was running, I have focused on listening to the people of the 28th district in order to best represent them and their priorities. Speaker Turzai’s announcement does not change that. … Regardless of my opponent, I am running to improve the lives of the people of the 28th district. I wish Mike Turzai the best in his future endeavors.”

Turzai told reporters on Thursday that Skopov's challenge "is not even a close consideration" in his decision to not run again. He said he won in 2018, and would have won reelection again in 2020, which he predicted would be better for Republicans with Donald Trump on the ballot. He added that he would soon be backing a Republican to run in his stead against her.

Other Republicans may also get a helping hand: Turzai's campaign committee had $767,266.59 as of last year, according to finance reports, and Turzai said he would be spending it to help Republicans across the state. “You assess where are your competitive races and where you need to invest," he said.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.