Power shifts East: House Speaker Keith McCall (D, Carbon) and Majority Leader Todd Eachus (D, Luzerne)

House Democratic caucus bows toward the east

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG — The House Democratic leadership, which will run the chamber for the next two years, took a decided tilt toward the east yesterday.

Democrats elected seven leaders to run the 104-member caucus in the 2009-10 session, which starts in January, and only one, Rep. Bill DeWeese of Waynesburg, is from Western Pennsylvania.

Mr. DeWeese, who won a tight re-election race Nov. 4, will occupy the third-ranking position, party whip, assigned to round up Democratic votes on bills.

The job is a step down for Mr. DeWeese, who has been Democratic leader in the House, in one form or another, for the past 15 years. He was speaker in 1993-94, then served more than a decade as minority leader when Republicans controlled the chamber, and was elevated to majority leader for 2007-08.

To win the post of whip, Mr. DeWeese outpolled three colleagues: Reps. Joe Preston of East Liberty, Peter Daley of California, Pa., and Bill Keller of Philadelphia.

The top two Democratic officials will be from northeastern Pennsylvania.

The new speaker will be Rep. Keith McCall of Carbon. Yesterday, he was elected as “speaker designee” without opposition and will officially get the job at the House’s first meeting in early January.

The second-ranking post went to Rep. Todd Eachus of Luzerne. He will replace Mr. DeWeese as majority leader. Mr. Eachus defeated Rep. Frank Dermody of Oakmont.

In an effort to win the majority leader’s job, Allegheny County Democrats had rallied around Mr. Dermody, but it wasn’t enough. Two other candidates, Reps. David Levdansky and Joe Markosek, dropped out of the race last week, but Mr. Eachus still proved too strong.

“Allegheny County ended up with nobody” in leadership, Mr. Markosek said. “I’m disappointed.”

“There is an imbalance geographically,” said Rep. Paul Costa of Wilkins.

Mr. Markosek said Allegheny County legislators will still head important committees, including himself chairing transportation, Mr. Levdansky chairing finance and Mr. Preston leading consumer affairs.

Rep. Dwight Evans of Philadelphia retained control of the powerful Appropriations Committee. Other caucus posts were won by Democrats from Lehigh and Dauphin counties. Rep. Jake Wheatley of the Hill District lost a bid for caucus administrator.

“Obviously I’m disappointed that Allegheny County didn’t get someone in top leadership,” said Mr. Costa. “I thought our caucus needed to go in a new direction and get as far away from Bonusgate as we could, but the majority of our colleagues didn’t agree.”

Democrats including Mr. Dermody and Mr. Levdansky had argued that the caucus should not return Mr. DeWeese to leadership. A former aide has said Mr. DeWeese knew about an alleged scheme of giving illegal taxpayer-paid bonuses for political work in 2006. Mr. DeWeese has denied wrongdoing.

Mr. McCall, in an interview last night, promised that all parts of the state will be treated fairly.

“We want to be all-inclusive,” he said. “There is no ‘good list’ or ‘bad list’ [of lawmakers]. We’ll bring everybody in.”

Power has shifted to Eastern Pennsylvania Democrats because of gains made Nov. 4. Democrats won six House seats from Republicans, including five in the southeast and one in north-central Pennsylvania.

Democrats also lost four seats, for a net pickup of two, and will control the House by a 104-99 margin. Three of the seats Democrats lost were in Western Pennsylvania, which weakens that area in its historic role as a Democratic stronghold.

Also yesterday, House Republicans elected leaders, returning Rep. Sam Smith of Punxsutawney to his post as minority leader. Former House Speaker John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, lost his bid to unseat Mr. Smith.

Elected to the No. 2 GOP post, party whip, was Rep. Mike Turzai of Bradford Woods. Rep. John Maher of Upper St. Clair lost a bid to unseat Rep. Mario Civera of Delaware County as Republican chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Bureau Chief Tom Barnes can be reached at tbarnes@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.

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