Yes, Virginia, there is a state legislature in Pennsylvania. And it is as ugly as the viral video shoutfest heard and seen around the world in Twitter Technicolor.
There was an extraordinary fight on the Senate floor last week. People have been buzzing about it across the country, which is a good thing if only because of how clueless Pennsylvanians are about their elected General Assembly. Even people with master’s degrees stammer whenever I ask them to name their state representative or senator. So let’s begin this column by first and foremost thanking Republican Sen. Jake Corman for his Mount Vesuvius impression.
Mr. Corman, your tirade about parliamentary rules while Democrats were objecting to your party’s doing away with aid for some of the poorest people in Pennsylvania was a gift, a teaching moment. It may have done what countless civics classes and news stories have failed to do over decades in the 67 counties that include blue Philadelphia, blue Pittsburgh, and a whole bunch of red country in between: It let us know that there is an elected legislature.
Hopefully, the jaw-dropping episode also helps out-of-touch voters discover that their legislature, which controls huge state money and priorities, is not to be ignored, even if can be morally despicable.
What went down last week was a shouty slugfest involving Corman, Montgomery County freshman Democratic Sen. Katie Muth, and fellow Democratic newcomer Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who presides over Senate proceedings.
Fetterman had stepped away from the rostrum and headed to the Senate floor as amendments to the bill were being considered. “In his absence,” as my Inquirer colleagues reported, Corman’s power partner, GOP President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, “picked up the gavel and, with a procedural vote, shut down any possibility of altering the bill.”
What then erupted was a Twitter-age version of Must-See TV.
Fetterman returned to the rostrum. He granted Muth, a fearless freshman who ousted Collegeville Republican incumbent John Rafferty in November, permission to read a letter from a formerly homeless Philadelphia man who’d been helped by the very program being eliminated by Republicans.
Corman tried to muzzle Muth with entreaties to Fetterman. But the lieutenant governor, an anti-establishment guy from southwestern Pennsylvania, repeatedly refused to recognize Corman. The majority leader responded by shouting incessantly and continuously as Muth continued to read the letter.
Corman called Fetterman a “hack” for flouting parliamentary rules and creating “chaos” in the chamber. But Muth, a portrait of steely determination, remained steady. Corman’s tantrum was only made worse by the all-male contingent of GOP soldiers standing behind as he shouted.
By the time it was over, Republicans looked awful — an assessment that I know Republican insiders share. What became clear is that there is a new sheriff in town. Or, to use another metaphor, the Democrats who seized enough GOP seats in November to leave Republicans with only a three-vote Senate majority are not going to roll over and play dead to the GOP’s policymaking steamroller.
This new normal — after Republicans lost their veto-proof Senate majority in November — is something GOP leaders may have failed to fully grasp before this punch-counter-punch moment. Dems are behind by just three seats. And enough GOP seats are considered vulnerable that this video could turn into campaign ammunition as Dems seek to take the majority next year.
“It was kind of a touchstone moment, and it shows in microcosm of what we’re dealing with here in Harrisburg,” said David Marshall, executive director of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. “These guys are not used to being challenged, not used to having strong voices check them in what they want to do.”
Muth drew tweets of support from presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, celebrities and many others.
Democrats expect the viral attention will draw national dollars into next year’s state legislative races — a huge deal given the influence that state lawmakers have in the drawing of congressional districts.
There is also the real chance, however, that this may have less impact than liberals would like to imagine. After all, voters seem entrenched in ideological camps.
“For those who will see this as a big issue, it will largely simply reinforce preexisting notions and sentiments,” said Charlie Gerow, a longtime Republican strategist based in Harrisburg.