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Pennsylvania lawmakers ushered in a new era of House leadership Monday, unanimously elevating Lancaster County Republican Bryan Cutler to the chamber’s top spot and choosing a new slate of GOP leaders who will set the tone for policy priorities.
Cutler’s rise comes as the state is grappling with how to best respond to a continuing public health crisis, a debate that in recent months has split the Republican-controlled legislature along ideological lines, and one that could get more divisive if coronavirus cases surge again.
The General Assembly will also be tasked with responding to the economic fallout from the crisis, which — without additional, unrestricted aid from Washington, D.C. — could lead to austerity measures and conflict with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
With those enormous tasks before him, Cutler — one of the youngest lawmakers to ever be chosen as House speaker — urged members to respect and listen to each other.
“I see the faces from every corner of the commonwealth, representing the stories, the successes, and the struggles that brought each of us here,” he said during a four-minute speech from the House floor. “I can only imagine how proud William Penn would be.”
Cutler, 45, a lawyer who previously worked as an X-ray technologist, most recently served as majority leader and will stay on as speaker until the end of the year, when the legislature’s two-year session ends and another round of leadership elections will occur.
His ascension comes after the early retirement of former Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), who resigned June 15 to take a high-ranking position at a utility company run by a close friend and donor. The promotion also cleared the way for two of Cutler’s colleagues to rise in the caucus’ ranks.
House Republicans elected Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) to serve as majority leader, a position that offers power and clout, and Rep. Donna Oberlander (R., Clarion) to be majority whip. Oberlander is the first woman to serve as a House majority whip since Mary Varallo, a Democrat from Philadelphia, was selected by her caucus for the spot in 1959.
Rank-and-file Republicans praised Cutler, who in recent months has been a vocal proponent of reopening the state’s economy faster than the timeline set out by the Wolf administration. As majority leader, he spoke forcefully in favor of a resolution to end Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency disaster declaration, a dispute that’s currently playing out in court.
Cutler is “thoughtful, pragmatic, and keeps open his lines of communication to learn everything about an issue,” Rep. Todd Polinchock (R., Bucks) said. “I find him to be of high moral character and a model for holding such a prestigious and important position.”
In a symbolic gesture seen during past speaker elections, Democrats nominated their own leader, Rep. Frank Dermody of Allegheny County, for the position. The caucus later withdrew its support to give Cutler unanimous approval.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t concerns. Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Philadelphia) said Democrats have worked well with Cutler in the past, but expressed concerns about how he will lead as speaker.
“Before he became majority leader, Rep. Cutler was recognized as someone who went to great lengths to work across the partisan aisle,” Boyle said. “Since he ascended to Republican leader and more particularly since the COVID-19 shutdown, he’s adopted a much more aggressively partisan approach.”
“Personally, I hope he reverts back to his old style as speaker.”
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Which way will Pa. vote?