READING - The story of why a Democrat from Reading decided to back Republican Rep. John Perzel's desperate bid to remain House speaker goes no deeper than revenge, according to some Democrats.

"It's personal, pure and simple," said State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.), explaining why a 30-year incumbent says he will turn his back on fellow Democrats, throw his lot in with the opposition, and help reelect Perzel today as speaker.

Democratic State Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, 64, thought he deserved a leadership job after the November election gave the Democrats a 102-101 majority, according to Evans and Rep. Greg Vitali, a Delaware County Democrat. The Democratic leader, Rep. Bill DeWeese of Greene County, disagreed.

The result, according to Evans and Vitali, was Caltagirone's e-mail to fellow Democrats, notifying them that he'd be voting for Perzel as speaker when the Legislature convenes today.

"DeWeese did not back him for leadership. That's how this started," Vitali said.

Caltagirone's flip subjects the lawmaker to considerable scorn. About 40 Democratic demonstrators outside his office in yesterday's rain vowed to run him out of office, and fellow Democratic legislators denounced him as a traitor.

"It's not too late, Tom. All of us here believe in redemption," said the demonstration's organizer, Mike Morrill, a West Reading city councilman.

Protester Kevin Hefty of West Reading said Democrats fairly won the House in the November election. Caltagirone, he said, was "stabbing us in the back."

Others said they were angry that a single man would overturn the will of voters, who put the House in Democratic hands.

It is unclear whether the negative attention affected Caltagirone. Calls to his office, home and to a relative were not returned yesterday.

No word from Rendell

Democratic leaders said they continued to hope that the state's top Democrat, Gov. Rendell, would weigh in on the matter. Rendell, however, was silent over the holiday, say other Democrats. He couldn't be reached for comment.

Evans, who is running for Philadelphia mayor, said he wondered whether the governor "was in a safe house."

Democrats also speculated that dissident Republican lawmakers may surface today to foil Perzel's plans, further roiling the House.

Perzel, of the Mayfair section of Northeast Philadelphia, has been House speaker since 2003 and has refused to yield the position to Democrats despite the election. Unless other lawmakers switch sides, Caltagirone's vote could be enough to allow Perzel to hold the powerful post, which controls much of the House operations and committee chairmanships.

Democrats have been out of power for 12 years. DeWeese, who was speaker in 1993-94, was in line to take over the job.

Caltagirone offered himself to DeWeese for a lesser leadership post in the House, according to Democrats. After DeWeese spurned him, Caltagirone steamed for weeks. About a month ago, Vitali said he met with Caltagirone, but his Reading colleague remained sore.

Evans said DeWeese sat down with Caltagirone about six or seven weeks ago, hoping to bestill his grievances. That didn't work.

A 1994 power struggle

Evans recalled the bitter 1994 power struggle in which Perzel and then-Gov. Tom Ridge persuaded former Democratic State Rep. Thomas Stish to switch parties, giving the GOP control of the House. Democrats ran a candidate against Stish in his next election, defeating him.

Caltagirone last made statewide headlines in the mid-1990s, when an aide accused him of sexual harassment. The aide said she walked into a room, found him lying naked on a bed, and when she fled, he followed her in a car and threatened her at gunpoint. A state grand jury investigated, but no charges were ever filed. About two years ago, Caltagirone rehired the aide.

Perzel said earlier that if he holds onto his speaker job, he will divide legislative committees and their plum chairmanships equally among Democrats and Republicans and adjourn sessions at 10 p.m.

Additionally, Perzel said he would let Caltagirone keep his staff members, in case Democratic leaders fire them in a fit of vengeance.