Joe Scarnati, top state Senate Republican, announces retirement

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, (R-Jefferson), walks through the Pennsylvania Capitol. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, (R-Jefferson), walks through the Pennsylvania Capitol. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

The highest-ranking Republican in Pennsylvania’s Capitol said Wednesday night that he won’t seek another term.

In a statement sent to reporters, Pennsylvania’s Senate President Pro Tempore, Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson), said his decision to retire after his term ends in December was “personal, and not political.”

Scarnati, 58, is the second top Republican to announce his exit in recent weeks. House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) also said he’s not running for reelection. 

Scarnati represents a broad, rural district in the northern tier that encompasses seven counties, and part of an eighth.

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He first won election in 2000, running as an independent but pledging to return to the GOP. He defeated former state Sen. Bill Slocum, who pleaded guilty in federal court to environmental pollution charges before the election.

In 2006, he won election to the position of president pro tempore, the highest-ranking officer in the state Senate.  Among other things, the pro tempore has the power to appoint committee chairs, preside over the senate in the lieutenant governor’s absence and refer bills and resolutions to committees.

Scarnati supervised a large GOP majority. At one point in his tenure, Republicans held a 34-16 edge advantage in the chamber — their largest majority since the 1950s.

Republicans currently have a 28-21 advantage, with one Independent caucusing with the GOP.

Scarnati has been a conservative voice in the legislature. In his statement Wednesday, he highlighted his anti-abortion, pro-gun positions. And he said he “actively blocked the massive proposed tax hikes” from former Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell and others.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) praised Scarnati.

“We have been fortunate to have Joe’s steady hand at the helm of the Senate, providing critical leadership under circumstances that often were far from perfect,” Corman said in a statement. “Joe has set an example for all of us with his unmatched ability to build consensus, encourage civility and ensure common sense would prevail.”

Following the death of Democratic Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll in 2008, Scarnati became the lieutenant governor. But he kept his Senate seat, temporarily serving in a dual role until 2011.

In 2018, Scarnati was a prominent opponent of a proposal aimed at allowing older victims of clergy abuse to regain the right to sue their abusers and the institutions that enabled the abuse. Scarnati said such a change would violate the Pennsylvania constitution.

One year later, the Senate and House did pass legislation approving such a constitutional amendment, allowing a two-year window for the lawsuits. Changing the state constitution is a lengthy process. That measure must pass in another legislative session and receive approval from voters in a ballot referendum. Scarnati said the legislation “helps victims and upholds the Constitution.”

In his statement, Scarnati said he looked forward to traveling and spending more time with his wife, children and grandchild, while helping his parents who are both in their 80s.

“I thank my family for their unwavering support over the last two decades,” Scarnati said. “Serving in public office is not something that you do alone.”

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