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After Disappearing From Top Ranks In State House, Will Allegheny County Lose Clout In Harrisburg?

Matt Rourke
Former Pennsylvania House minority leader Frank Dermody, an Oakmont Democrat, served in the chamber for three decades before losing reelection in November.

As the Pennsylvania legislature begins a new session next month, Allegheny County will find itself unrepresented among top leadership in the state House.

Oakmont Democrat Frank Dermody had been the chamber’s minority party leader for 10 years until losing reelection this fall. And Mike Turzai, a Marshall Township Republican, had served as Speaker of the House for six years before resigning in June.

Those departures could cost the region influence in Harrisburg, said Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia-based political observer who grew up in Washington County.

“Our General Assembly is so large, one of the largest in the United States, [and] there tends to be more power invested in the leadership of the caucuses because there's just … too many members for everybody to have an equal say,” Ceisler said.

He noted that the leadership changes reflect a shifting political landscape: Democrats have lost ground in western Pennsylvania while gaining strength in the southeast.

So when top posts open up, Ceisler said, “the members from southeastern Pennsylvania are going to choose one of their own for the most part.” But that outcome, he added, does not mean “that the leadership that comes from southeastern Pennsylvania is going to turn their backs on western Pennsylvania.”

In November, House Democrats chose Philadelphia state Rep. Joanna McClinton to replace Dermody as minority leader. They retained state Rep. Jordan Harris, also from Philadelphia, as whip. And two of the five remaining caucus officers come from elsewhere in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Just one of those officers, Rep. Dan Miller, hails from Allegheny County. A resident of Mt. Lebanon, Miller serves as the House Democratic caucus chair. In that role, he coordinates with legislative committees to educate his party’s non-committee members on bills that could receive a vote on the House floor.

Despite Dermody’s loss in November, Miller does not expect Allegheny County to lose influence in Harrisburg.

“What Frank has left is a very united caucus. And thus far as we reorganize … I have never felt or seen any effort to push me out or push Allegheny County out. It’s been quite the opposite,” Miller said. “So my belief is that that is something that is going to continue.”

But he continued, “Obviously … we can't all fit into one room, so you're going to have leaders who are going to be brought to certain tables of discussion … There's no doubt that when you bring somebody in there, they bring not only their district and their personal connections and issues, but their region as well.”

Even so, Miller said lawmakers and Gov. Tom Wolf pay attention to the interests of constituents across the state. And as chair of his caucus, Miller added, he will represent his “district, Pittsburgh, Allegheny County, the West in general, very, very strongly.”

“People don't need me to say that Allegheny County is still the second-largest county [in Pennsylvania], that Allegheny County is the second-biggest engine as far as how our economy works,” Miller said.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto said, too, that he works with other local officials such as Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald to advance the region’s interests at the state level.

“Regardless of who’s in the leadership positions in Harrisburg, as long as we approach Harrisburg with one plan [that says,] ‘These are our priorities,’ we make it much easier for [state legislators] to be able to get behind that,” Peduto said.

“When you go and you’re divided,” he added, “the resources usually go somewhere else because nobody wants to be in that position of having to choose this side or that side.”

Ceisler noted, however, that a party’s chamber leader acts as a point person for the state’s governor. And a leader who belongs to the same party as the governor can gain practical benefits, Ceisler said.

“The fact is the governor is going to take a call quicker from the leader of his own party than he is [from] somebody who's just in the rank and file or [in the case of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf] a Republican member,” Ceisler said.

For constituents, he continued, that dynamic can affect “something as simple as a municipality needs to have a state road paved and they're running into resistance at PennDOT.” If the municipality’s state legislator complains to the caucus leader, Ceisler said, “The leader can call the governor and get it done.”

Miller dismissed that characterization as “maybe reflecting times past … before I [joined the House in 2013].” He noted that five of the House Democrats’ seven officers have had relatively short tenures, having been elected within the past eight years.

Ceisler agreed that, in recent years, seniority has become less of a factor in choosing caucus leadership. But he noted that Forest Hills Democrat Jay Costa will continue as minority party leader in the state Senate, where he has served for 24 years and led his caucus since 2011.

“But you look at the people around him in leadership,” Ceisler said, “and you're starting to see more members from southeastern Pennsylvania.”