HARRISBURG — When it comes to choosing new leaders in Pennsylvania's legislature, the more things change, apparently, the more they stay the same.
Lawmakers will return to the Capitol this week to vote for leaders who control everything from which bills are brought to a floor vote to how many staffers rank-and-file members are assigned. While discussions remain fluid, few expect a seismic shake-up in either House or Senate leadership ranks — this despite last week's midterm election, which shifted the makeup of both chambers.
Democrats are getting a crop of younger and more progressive members — many of them women – elected largely by voters from Philadelphia and its surrounding counties or Pittsburgh. And though Republicans will still hold majorities in both chambers, they suffered some crushing losses Tuesday, leaving them with a more conservative membership.
Chris Borick, a professor and political scientist at Muhlenberg College, said upheavals are rare. They often come after major election losses, which did not happen this year, or when a leader leaves the chamber.
If you challenge a sitting leader, "you do so at your own peril," Borick said.
Though leadership teams usually consist of seven or eight members, the people at the top exert the most influence. They get paid more. They control budgets. They negotiate on legislation and can block someone's bill or smooth its way to passage. They control committee assignments and can often direct the flow of campaign money.
In the 203-member House, all eyes are going to be on the Democratic caucus, even though it will still be outnumbered by Republicans, 110-93, according to projections.
In all, Democrats picked up 11 seats in the chamber, all of them from Philadelphia, Bucks, Chester, Montgomery, and Delaware Counties. They also gained nine women, the majority from the southeast, who are expected to be a louder voice this time around during leadership elections.
Minority Leader Frank Dermody of Allegheny County is poised to reclaim the top job, despite fielding criticism late last year for overseeing a secret, nearly quarter-million-dollar sexual-harassment settlement involving State Rep. Thomas Caltagirone (D., Berks), who was easily reelected. The decision, which Dermody at the time said he was prohibited from discussing because of a nondisclosure clause, was openly castigated by some members of the caucus.
But come Tuesday, when the caucus will meet for leadership elections, Dermody is expected to be unopposed, according to multiple sources who are familiar with the caucus' workings.
As of late last week, there seemed to be a contest brewing for the position of whip. The latter is arguably one of the more powerful leadership jobs. It involves persuading members to vote for legislation deemed crucial to the party's platform, and can be a stepping-stone to snagging the top leader position. The whip job is up for grabs, as the current one, Rep. Mike Hanna (D., Clinton), is retiring.
Among the new contenders: Reps. Leanne Krueger-Braneky of Delaware County, Ed Neilson of Philadelphia, and Mike Carroll of Luzerne County.
Krueger-Braneky was endorsed by the House's Southeast delegation, which despite its large representation in the Capitol, has had very little political muscle in Harrisburg in recent years. The power instead has been concentrated in large part in Allegheny County, which includes Pittsburgh. It is widely expected that Krueger-Braneky, a leader for policy changes in the wake of the #metoo movement, will mount a rigorous battle to break into leadership.
In an interview Friday, Krueger-Braneky said she is no stranger to tough fights.
"I'm going to run for this just as hard as I have for every other election," she said.
There is far less drama expected on the House Republican side, even though the party saw its ranks drop from 121 to a projected 110 members.
House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) is expected to once again be chosen for the chamber's top spot. His caucus, too, has been roiled by #metoo allegations. Two women, including a sitting lawmaker, accused State Rep. Nick Miccarelli (R. Delaware) of sexual or physical abuse. House Republican leaders called on Miccarelli to resign, but some felt they should have gone further. Miccarelli did not run for reelection.
Just below the speaker in ranking, the majority leader position — vacated by State Rep. Dave Reed (R., Indiana), who chose not to run for reelection — is likely to be snagged by Rep. Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster). Cutler currently serves as the caucus' whip, a position that requires him to round up GOP support for critical legislation.
In the 50-member Senate, where Republicans are projected to have a 29-21 edge, little change is expected in either party, even though Republicans lost five critical seats. Four belonged to moderate GOP members from the Philadelphia area, and the fifth was an Allegheny County seat that became a closely watched battleground in this election. The election for a sixth seat — now held by Sen. Tommy Tomlinson (R., Bucks) — remained too close to call.
The losses came weeks after Senate Republicans — and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) in particular — fielded one political dart after another for blocking a vote on a controversial measure to help victims of clergy sexual abuse sue their attackers. That prompted Democrats to run television ads against moderate GOP senators — some of whom ended up losing.
Republicans have downplayed the impact of the issue, instead pointing to anti-Trump fervor in the southeast as the culprit. But the losses stung: The GOP lost almost 15 percent of its Senate seats Tuesday.
Still, Scarnati and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre) are expected to retain their positions when leadership elections are held Wednesday.
On the Democratic side, House Minority Leader Jay Costa (D., Allegheny) is expected to easily hold on to that position. His caucus, too, came under scrutiny after one member, Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery), was accused of unwanted touching and making inappropriate comments and jokes. As calls mounted for Leach, who did not face reelection this year, to resign, leaders in the caucus remained largely quiet.