Rob Mercuri is a relative newcomer to politics, but he can already claim a leg up on many more seasoned politicos: While insiders and journalists spent much of their week trying to figure out what state House Speaker Mike Turzai was planning to announce this Thursday, Mercuri already knew Turzai would not run for office again.
A day after Turzai said he was stepping down, in fact, Mercuri announced his campaign for Turzai’s House seat – with Turzai’s endorsement.
“Trust me – I was surprised as well” by Turzai’s decision, Mercuri said. “I just had a couple days lead time” to learn of the opportunity – but he said it didn’t take long to decide to seize it.
“With our current political environment and just he way that Pennsylvania politics have gone, I have increasingly had a desire to get involved,” said the 38-year-old Mercuri, of Pine.
He said Turzai had been a long-time friend: He dated their acquaintance to 2000, when Mercuri’s father ran unsuccessfully against state Rep. Frank Dermody. And he said when Turzai told him of his desire to leave the public sector, it meshed with his own desire to enter it. “He was looking for an opportunity to hand off the baton. I made a decision [to run] and he made a decision to endorse me.”
Indeed, when Turzai announced his plan not to seek re-election Thursday, he told reporters he would be endorsing a successor within a few days. It took less than 24 hours: In the statement announcing Mercuri’s bid, Turzai hailed him for “his combination of decorated military service and his principled outlook.”
Mercuri, a West Point graduate, headed a military intelligence unit in Iraq. He was awarded a Bronze Star: His campaign described the medal as being not a combat decoration, but a recognition for intelligence work that saved the lives of American soldiers. Now a resident of Pine Township, Mercuri is a PNC Bank vice president and financial risk manager; he and his wife Kelsey also own a package-delivery business.
Mercuri said that his military background gave him experience in pragmatism and problem-solving. “I bring a military background with a disciplined outlook, but also a get-it-done, problem-solving outlook in style.”
He bemoaned the fact that Turzai’s departure was met with evident glee in some Democratic circles. “His service deserves honor, not ridicule,” Mercuri said.
The 28th District sprawls across some of Allegheny County's most affluent North Hills suburbs, including McCandless, Pine Township, Franklin Park and other communities served by the North Allegheny and Pine-Richland school districts.
Mercuri’s campaign announcement pledged to maintain Turzai’s “tradition of fiscal restraint alive in Harrisburg,” and echoing Turzai, he characterized himself as “a strong conservative who will stand for life, freedom and economic growth.”
In the early hours of his campaign, he kept his statements on policy general. Asked about how he would reconcile a pro-growth agenda with local environmental concerns about air quality and fracking — concerns that have shaken up politics within the 28th District itself – Mercuri said, “I don’t want to assume that I know everything about the industry,” but added “responsible legislation and responsible regulation are the keys in a large-scale regulatory programs.”
He likened the challenge to ones he contended with in the financial sector, where laws passed after the 2008 financial crisis were “will-intentioned, but I do think it was overly burdensome. … My work was to help banks to succeed under the act … but also to understand where the inefficiencies were in the act.”
Mercuri is the first Republican to declare his interest in the seat. Emily Skopov, who ran against Turzai two years ago and lost by roughly 9 percentage points, is the only Democrat in the hunt. The 28th has long been a Republican bastion, but Democrats have flipped a number of municipal and school board races in recent years, with large swings toward statewide Democrats running in 2018. Elections analyst Ben Forstate says the 28th “is one of the few districts in Western Pennsylvania where Democrats definitely have the wind at their back.”