Young Rep Reaches Across Aisle and Influences Vote

It looked as if State Rep. John Perzel (R-District 172), one of the most powerful figures in Harrisburg, would have the last laugh. But a backbench lawmaker from Montgomery County with little statewide name recognition and no New Year's Eve plans made a late night phone call that was heard round the state — the one that ultimately foiled Perzel's plans to hang on to his job as house speaker.

State Rep. Josh Shapiro (D-District 153), a 33-year-old graduate of Akiba Hebrew Academy and a member of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, played a key role in last week's extraordinary political maneuvering in the capital that ushered in the rise of a new speaker — the first minority member to lead a chamber in the General Assembly in modern Pennsylvania history.

By a vote of 105 to 97, Philadelphia Republican Dennis O'Brien (R-District 169) defeated Perzel, a fellow Philadelphian, in the vote for house speaker, a post Perzel had held for more than three years.

Until the last days before New Year's, it looked as though former speaker and Democratic Majority Leader Bill DeWeese (D-District 50) would return to holding the gavel after more than a decade. But the surprise announcement by Berks County Democrat Thomas Caltagirone (D-District 127) that he planned to buck party loyalty and support Perzel apparently handed the Republican enough votes to hang on to the speakership.

The prospects of Perzel retaining his post bothered Shapiro to the point that he couldn't get it off his mind on New Year's Eve, which he spent at home with his wife and two young children.

"I was spending some quality time with my wife, [but] I could not get my mind off politics," admitted Shapiro, who said that he started to think that since it looked like a Democrat such a DeWeese could not muster the necessary votes, he thought O'Brien might be an amenable choice to both parties. Shapiro called O'Brien, who apparently was also sitting at home.

"I acted unilaterally. I know [O'Brien] to be an honorable man and believed he would make a good speaker," said Shapiro. Despite being only in his second term, the young lawmaker is considered by some observers to be a rising Democratic star in Harrisburg.

Shapiro said that he next contacted DeWeese and following a marathon series of discussions that included DeWeese, O'Brien, Shaipro, State Representative Dwight Evans (D-District 203) and Gov. Ed Rendell, DeWeese agreed to step aside and support O'Brien.

In a statement, O'Brien promised to foster a spirit of bipartisan cooperation and push for a series of rule changes that would reform how things get done in Harrisburg.

DeWeese said that while he had hoped to once again become speaker, the House Democratic Caucus "wanted to show that we are ready for a clean slate and to start over. We live in interesting times and we certainly don't want 12 more years of the status quo."

A comment from Perzel's office was not available at press time.

A number of questions still remain to be answered, not the least of which is can the new speaker really quell the partisan rancor that has embroiled the capital over the last few years?

Another is just how a second-term lawmaker — one still in high school when DeWeese was first elected to a Democratic leadership position — could have played political hardball with the state's heaviest hitters?

"It boils down to relationships. And it just so happens that Denny [O'Brien] is the kind of person who reached out to everybody — Democrat, Republican, new members, old members," said State Rep. Mike Gerber (D-District 148), a member of Congregation Or Ami in Layfayette Hill. "Guys like Josh, even though they are new to the legislature, are close to Denny."

Political consultant Larry Ceisler explained that Shapiro garnered attention in 2004 by managing to upset former U.S. Rep. Jon Fox in a race to replace Republican legislator Ellen Bard, and had been heavily involved in the post-election battle over a razor thin contest in Chester County, one that ultimately gave the Democrats the majority, but not the speakership.

"When you put forth that extra effort, you rise to the top of the class," said Ceisler.

Republicans Defect
But Robert Guzzardi, a conservative political activist, doubted that the idea to support O'Brien came from Shapiro, and instead insisted that the plan must have come from DeWeese himself. Guzzardi — who sits on the board of the Jewish Publishing Group — said that he met with DeWeese on New Year's Day after the lawmaker sought him out because of his ties to Republican legislators who had pledged to oppose Perzel.

Guzzardi said that DeWeese's worst fear was that Perzel would strip away most of his powers as majority leader and that Democrat was willing to reach out to anybody who might help thwart this.

"It's almost as unusual for Bill DeWeese to reach out for Josh Shapiro for help as it is for him to reach out to me," said Guzzardi. "Shapiro is the low man on the totem-poll, he doesn't have seniority. But guys like Josh Shapiro are energetic, principled, honest public servants who the leadership should be nurturing.

"Perzel has obstructed open records legislation, he has obstructed lobbyist disclosure laws," Guzzardi added. "That's why at the last minute, when 'Freddy Krueger' was about to come back as speaker of a Democratic House, this was a disaster."

Jack Treadway, professor of political science at Kutztown University and author of Elections in Pennsylvania: A Century of Partisan Conflict in the Keystone State, said that O'Brien's ascendancy seemed to defy all the accepted wisdom about how the game is played.

"How much money could you have made betting on O'Brien before it started?" posed Treadway. "Clearly there has been somewhat of a change. How much change? Well, let's see." 




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