Top Pennsylvania State Senator Joe Scarnati Won't Run Again

“After 20 years, I always like to say, it's good to go out and go out on top,” he said

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, speaks after Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf delivered his budget address for the 2019-20 fiscal year to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on Feb. 5, 2019.
Matt Rourke/AP

Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati will not seek re-election, he told The Associated Press on Wednesday night.

Scarnati, 58, a fifth-term Republican from Jefferson County in northwestern Pennsylvania, said he wrestled with the decision to step down after 14 years in a job steering a Republican majority through turbulent elections and fights in the Capitol.

But it's the right time, he said, adding that the decision was personal and not political.

“After 20 years, I always like to say, it's good to go out and go out on top,” he said.

Scarnati said he will remain in his role until the legislative term ends Nov. 30. Scarnati's district, covering a large swath of rural areas, is heavily Republican.

Scarnati rose quickly, becoming Senate president in 2007 with the endorsement of his predecessor after just six years in the chamber. He since has had to straddle the demands of Democratic governors and, in the Legislature's Republican majorities, hard-line conservatives and moderates.

In recent years, Scarnati was transactional, as much as anything. He allowed hard-line conservative bills through the chamber, even if they were destined for a veto on the desk of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

But he also worked to secure the votes in his caucus to strike deals on matters important to Wolf, whether to impose a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production or to raise the minimum wage, even when House Republicans blocked them.

At the same time, he continually secured state dollars for his sprawling district, including to expand a major hospital there, to start an open-enrollment college and to pay property taxes to school districts for state-owned lands.

In 2008, he rose to become lieutenant governor, stepping in as constitutionally required after Democrat Catherine Baker Knoll died, serving in both that post and his Senate job until 2011. It put Scarnati in the position of holding executive branch duties in Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's administration while presiding over Republican-controlled Senate.

Scarnati also endured controversy.

He became a target after securing enough Senate GOP votes to block legislation that would have allowed now-adult victims of child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church to sue the institution, even after a landmark grand jury report accused dioceses of covering up the abuse for decades.

In October, the Spotlight PA and Caucus news organizations reported that Scarnati used lax campaign finance rules to shield his spending of campaign funds on food, booze and travel in Europe.

In the past 15 months, Republicans lost six seats in the chamber, but the Republican majority that Scarnati helped build will likely remain after he leaves, particularly since one Democrat joined the Republican caucus in recent months.

Four years ago, Scarnati mulled retiring.

This decision to retire had been in the works for at least a couple weeks and, on Tuesday night, Elk County Republican Party members were introduced to the candidate — former DuBois Mayor John Suplizio — that Scarnati is endorsing to succeed him, said Grace Jesberger, an Elk County GOP committee member.

The deadline for candidates to file for the April 28 primary ballot is Tuesday.


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