In Pa. Legislature, speaking softly and carrying no sticks

Dave Reed, Pennsylvania House majority leader, speaks during inauguration ceremonies this month in Harrisburg. (AP photo/Matt Rourke)

Dave Reed, Pennsylvania House majority leader, speaks during inauguration ceremonies this month in Harrisburg. (AP photo/Matt Rourke)

As a Democrat settles into the governor’s office, Republicans in Pennsylvania’s Legislature are loaded for bear, with bigger majorities and newly elected leadership.


House Republicans felt pretty good after the November election. A press release referred to their growing caucus, “119 strong” – more than enough to dominate the 203-member chamber.

And who did they pick to be their majority leader, to work in tandem with the speaker to guide the caucus? Who would carry them to further victories, through policy thickets and budget battles?

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Meet Dave Reed: Republican. Policy wonk. Introvert.

Getting the job done

“I am just as happy, for example in Harrisburg, going off by myself, grabbing the sports page, eating some pizza somewhere outside the Capitol area, and going off and seeing a movie,” said Reed in an interview in his office in early December. “I don’t need a big crowd, I don’t need all the attention. It’s not something I desire. I just kind of want to get the job done — and with the least attention as possible most of the time.”

Reed was first elected to the House at 24 years old, straight out of grad school. He had jumped party lines a couple times, settling in as a Republican representing his stomping grounds of Indiana County, billed as the Christmas Tree Capital of the World, but more realistically anchored by the energy industry and Indiana University.

A dozen years later, people on both sides of the aisle in Harrisburg sing Reed’s praises.

He ran the Republican campaign committee for the past three elections, as the caucus picked up more and more seats. Redistricting is often credited for the GOP’s gains, but Reed’s diligence was crucial, according his wife.

“That’s a lot of work,” said Heather Reed. “He put a lot of late nights – I can vouch for that – into running numbers and running races across the state.”

Reed has cred with liberals as well. His county-hopping task force to study the issue of poverty sparked criticism from some who called it a waste of money, but most people praised him for trying to change the debate about how to help the poor. And while the House has typically been more conservative than the Senate, no one calls Reed an ideologue.

“I think ultimately, both parties ultimately share the same goals,” said Reed in between district meetings one December morning. “They just have different ways of achieving those goals.”

Meanwhile, in the Senate

Over in the Senate, the new majority leader is also known for his pragmatic approach. Republican Jake Corman of Centre County is a legacy, preceded in his seat by his dad, J. Doyle Corman, who served for 21 years. Corman says some people still think of him as a son-of.

“Which is fine,” Corman hastened to say during an interview in early January. He had recently moved into his new Capitol office. “I tell people it was a benefit, because my father was a really good senator.”

Corman is best known for being a champion of Penn State, whose flagship campus is in his district. In recent years, he pushed Gov. Tom Corbett to kick more money into higher education, and he was one of the early supporters of a big transportation funding package that ultimately passed in 2013.

Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Philadelphia Democrat, said Corman can be trusted to keep the minority party in the loop.

“He is a son of the institution,” said Hughes. “He understands the Senate, he understands the history and the traditions of the Senate, which have some level of value … most importantly, with respect to not necessarily abusing the majority.”

Reed and Corman both show deference to the members of their caucuses. Corman is the majority leader now because the former leader was ousted by a GOP membership trending more conservative.

“I serve at the pleasure of the members,” said Corman. “If I’m not doing my job and making sure the members’ needs and issues are being addressed, then I’m not going to be here very long.”

Changes apparent in Harrisburg

This servant-leadership model is a bit new to Harrisburg. It reflects changes in the culture of Harrisburg and the tools at leaders’ disposal.

Longtime Capitol observers say the big powerbrokers of yore are gone. The carrots used to keep back-bencher lawmakers in line have largely disappeared – lawmakers are no longer rewarded for obedience with state economic development grants earmarked for their districts. Leaders don’t have many sticks left, either.

“They used to take away offices. They used to take away staff,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican consultant in Harrisburg. “They used to do all sorts of nasty things to folks that frankly just wouldn’t work in this day and age.”

Many of the recent legislative successes in the careers of Reed and Corman are the result of bipartisan compromise. But some say the size of the GOP’s majorities in the House and Senate will make that hard to repeat.

“I think one of the challenges of having a big majority is that you have a lot of different opinions,” said Sharon Ward, head of the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. “I think it’s going to be difficult for both leaders to find the middle path in their respective caucuses.”

It’s a problem Corman’s already anticipating. In the 50-seat Senate, Republicans grew their majority from 26 to 30, with a total of six new Republican senators. In early January, Corman was planning to visit each of them — in their districts.

“We’ll be a member-driven caucus,” said Corman. “They have the same rights as I have. I don’t have any more because I’m a leader, and I’m only empowered by them, and so they need to feel empowered … they’re not here to wait their turn.”

Corman and Reed will be negotiating not only with their caucuses, but the Democratic Wolf administration, with widely different priorities than the House and Senate. The new majority leaders are skilled at compromising, but they signal that the new governor will have to hold his nose and sign bills he doesn’t like every once in a while. Everyone wants to be able to claim a win.

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