Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Liquor Chief Newman to step down...

10 a.m., Jan. 3

What do booze and the battle for the gavel have in common?

I can't think of anything immediately either. But I just learned of this news nugget, so I will share.

Jonathan H. Newman will step down from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board this morning after seven years at the agency, the last 4 1/2 as its chairman.

His decision comes after a very public flap with Gov. Rendell over the governor's push last month to appoint former state Sen. Joe Conti (R., Bucks) as CEO of the liquor board to run its day-to-day operations.

Newman had criticized Rendell for creating the new $150,000-a-year post, approved by the two other liquor board members, without a nationwide search.

The move, Newman said today, violated "transparency and good government."

He plans to make the announcement when the board meets this morning at 10. His last day on the job is Jan. 12.

There's no word on what Newman, the son of outgoing Supreme Court Justice Sandra Schultz Newman, plans for the future.

More on this in tomorrow's paper.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

It all came together at the last minute...

3:20 p.m.

From my colleague Angela Couloumbis:

Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) said O’Brien’s ascent to speaker only came together in the last three days.

He said Rep. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery) first approached O’Brien about the job on New Year’s Eve, and that initially, O’Brien was hesitant about being nominated by Democrats.

So on New Year’s Day, Evans said he and other top Democratic leaders met with O’Brien at the Marriott in West Conshohocken for three hours. Gov. Rendell later got on the phone. The meeting resumed today at the governor’s mansion in Harrisburg, and later at Evans’ office.

“I think in the beginning, Denny didn’t know how to view it – he’s been a registered Republican for the last 30 years,” Evans said. “He was concerned about the people who had been loyal to him, but at the same time, he knew things had to change.”

The negotiations were so last-minute, Evans said, that most rank-and-file Democrats had no idea that leadership intended to nominate O’Brien when the full House convened shortly after noon to vote on a speaker. So he and other Democrats worked the floor to shore up the votes.

Why O’Brien?

Because he is smart and fair, Evans said, adding that it was clear that neither DeWeese nor Perzel had the votes to become speaker. And, Evans added, Democrats were outraged that Perzel had managed to pick off at least one Democrat to vote for him for speaker.

“The outrage you sensed – for us to nominate a Republican – grew out of a sense of injustice. A sense that Perzel had gone too far,” Evans said.

How he did it...

2:30 p.m.

Rep. Dennis O'Brien became speaker by defeating former speaker Rep. John Perzel in a 105-97 vote.

He has six Republicans, who broke ranks with their leadership, to thank: Reps. Kerry Benninghoff (R., Center), Jim Cox (R., Berks), Brad Roae (R., Crawford), Sam Rohrer (R., Berks), Curt Schroder (R., Chester) and David Steil (R., Bucks).

They outnumbered the three Democrats -- Reps. Thomas Caltagirone (D., Berks), Angel Cruz (D., Phila.) and Rosita Youngblood (D., Phila.) -- who voted for Perzel.

Speaker O'Brien Speaks ...

1:40 p.m.

Moments after he took the oath, O'Brien was presented with the gavel by former Speaker Bob O'Donnell.

"I am truly overwhelmed. This is not something I thought about 24 hours ago. This is going to be one of the shortest speeches in Pennsylvania history. This is unexpected and I'm completely honored," O'Brien said with his son, Dennis, at his side.

He went on to pledge that he would move forward with a series of unspecified reforms.

Speaker O'Brien...

DeWeese said he took his hat off to Perzel, calling him a "worthy foe."
O'Brien, who sat quietly throughout the election with his son on his lap, shook Perzel's hand as he made his way to the rostrum.

And the winner is...

1:35 p.m.

O'Brien, 105 votes to Perzel's 97...

Another nominee...

1:35 p.m.

Rep. Ron Marsico (R., Dauphin) nominated Rep. Mike Sturla (D., Lancaster) for speaker.

Sturla, who said he supported O'Brien, declined the nomination.

It's getting ugly...

1:25 p.m.

Perzel tried to give a speech from the floor about why he would be the best candidate.

As speaker, Perzel was promising to split control of the committees evenly between the parties when DeWeese shouted him down, arguing he was out of order.

"You can't stop reform Mr. DeWeese," barked Perzel from across the chamber.

That drew howls from Democratic members.

And yet another ...

1:10 p.m.

Rep. Jess Stairs (R., Westmoreland) nominated Rep. Tom Tangretti (D., Westmoreland).

"I hope we can join behind a true reformer," Stairs said.

Tangretti immediately decline the nomination.

Caltagirone in the House, on the wrong side...

There is a spotting of Rep. Thomas Caltagirone. The Democrat was tough to spot because he is sitting on the Republican side of the House.

Nominees Part III

12:45 p.m.

Rep. Rick Geist (R., Blair) nominated Rep. John Perzel as speaker.

"He understands the business of politics we are all in," said Geist.

Nominees are...part II

12: 40 p.m.

DeWeese was the first to nominate a candidate for speaker and he picked Rep. Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.) apparently believing he could muster enough support from GOP members to take the gavel.

"We live in interesting times," said DeWeese, who until this weekend was in line to become speaker himself. "We certainly do not want 12 more years of the status quo," he added to loud support from the Democratic side of the aisle. "We want that aisle not to be a dividing line. We want it to be a place that we walk over and great each other."

Rendell clueless...

From my colleague Angela Couloumbis:

Moments before taking the floor, DeWeese sprinted out of a meeting with top Democrats, including Gov. Rendell. DeWeese was all smiles.

Rendell later emerged and said, "I don't have a clue. Your guess is as good as mine. They asked me to come in and strategize, but I don't have a strategy."

Unexpected move...

12:25 p.m.

Rep. Bill DeWeese, in a suprise move, made a motion to nominate Rep. Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.) as speaker of the House...

The motion is being contested now...

They take the oath...

12:20 p.m.

En masse, all 203 members took the oath of office, vowing to uphold the constitutions of the state and the nation.

Among the group were 50 first-time members, the largest incoming freshmen class in decades.

The New House...almost

12:15 p.m.

Moments after the opening prayer and pledge of allegiance, Rep. Bill DeWeese (D., Greene) asked the Chief Clerk when would it be appropriate to request a 30 minute break so Democrats can meet as a group.

The request brought boos from the Republican side.

Said one GOP member: "Next week."

And the nominees are ...

High Noon:

The nomination process for the next speaker of the House is about to begin.

Members are taking their seats in the ornate lower chamber. There has yet to be a sighting of Rep. Caltagirone.

And the nominees are ...

High Noon:

The nomination process for the next speaker of the House is about to begin.

Members are taking their seats in the ornate lower chamber. There has yet to be a sighting of Rep. Caltagirone.

Right Winger for Perzel

11:20 a.m.

From my colleague Amy Worden:

One of the most conservative members of the GOP caucus, Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, may have been an outspoken critic of House Speaker John Perzel’s deal-making with Gov. Rendell in the past, but he says he’s got his vote today.

The Butler County Republican is skipping the morning caucus meeting to host 25 family and friends. But he said he doesn’t need to hear the discussion; he knows what he’s going to do: “I will support the Republican nominee."

“John Perzel is heads and shoulders above DeWeese in his ability to do his job," said Metcalfe. "He has learned a lesson and will work in a new way with the majority of the Republican caucus, rather than just give things to Rendell.”

Perzel's Top Aide Counting His Days...

11 a.m.

If Rep. John M. Perzel keeps the gavel, he'll wield it without his top aide at his side.

Brian Preski, who has been with Perzel since 2000, is departing as his chief of staff come Friday to become a partner at the lawfirm of Wolf, Block, Schorr and Solis-Cohen LLP in Philadelphia.

The two were seemingly inseparable. Where Perzel went, there was Preski, whether it was at the Speaker's rostrum, the Super Bowl, trips to Vegas, Italy or China.

Preski, a former assistant district attorney in Philadelphia who many consider one of the hardest working aides in Harrisburg, will retain his job as the Chairman of the Philadelphia Port Authority.

No word yet on his replacement.

Minority work out

This from my colleague Amy Worden:

Bumped from their majestic home right off the Capitol Rotunda floor, House Republicans are holding their first caucus meeting in the minority caucus room - former home to the Democrats - three long flights up in the main Capitol building.

With only two sluggish elevators, some may end up taking the stairs. One member, Rep. Steve Nickol (R., Adams) said that’s one benefit to being in the minority: “It’s good for our health.”

If a Rally Falls in the Forest...?

10:30 a.m.

Democrats had planned a big rally in the Capitol Rotunda at 10 this morning to protest Rep. Thomas Caltagirone's decision to vote for Republican John M. Perzel as speaker.

It never materialized.

Rep. Bill DeWeese (D., Greene) who was in line for the speaker's job, wasn't there. Nor was T.J. Rooney, the chairman of the State Democratic Party.

Instead, Mike Morrill, a former Green Party gubernatorial candidate, took the mike, blasting Caltagirone for what he called political "bait and switch."

The only other speaker was Rep.-elect Barbara McIlvaine Smith (D., Chester) whose long-delayed victory tipped the balance of power to the Democrats.

"We worked very hard in Chester County to be that one deciding vote," she said. " ... Today, we should be celebrating, and I tell you that my heart is pounding in my chest because what should have been may not be."

Caltagirone Not in the House...Yet

As of 10 a.m.

From my colleague Angela Couloumbis:

Caltagirone was nowhere to be found. Aides in his office said they had caught him on his cell phone, but that he wasn’t on premises.

Asked whether he was being guarded by security, one aide answered wryly: “Not yet.”

T-Minus Three Hours

Battle for the Gavel: 9 a.m.

To get you all up to speed:

In the fall elections Nov. 7, Democrats pulled off the improbable, erasing a 109-94 deficit to take control of the state House for the first time in a dozen years.

The outcome, however, was delayed for weeks as Chester County officials recounted a razor-thin contest for the 156th District seat, which eventually was awarded to Democrat Barbara McIlvaine Smith. It all heightened the political drama.

With the thin 102-101 majority in hand, it appeared that the top Democrat in the House, Rep. Bill DeWeese of Greene County, was poised to take the speaker's gavel from Rep. John M. Perzel (R., Phila.) when the 2007-2008 legislative session began Jan. 2.

But Perzel, speaker since April 2003, refused to move out of his Capitol office suite as he desperately sought a way -- any way -- to remain speaker.

He apparently found it over the weekend in the form of a disgruntled Democrat from Reading. Thirty-year Rep. Thomas Caltagirone (D., Berks) in a letter to colleagues said he planned to cross the aisle, but not switch parties, for Perzel.

Mathematically at least, that gave the upper hand to the Northeast Philadelphia Republican. If successful, Perzel would become the first speaker in Pennsylvania history -- and it goes back to the 1600s, mind you -- to serve as speaker as a member of the minority party.

But there remains a handful of GOP representatives, including several freshmen members, who have publicly harangued the idea of Perzel continuing to run the chamber.

Now, there's growing speculation that a third speaker candidate might emerge.

The House takes the floor at noon when all 203 representatives will put their hands on the Bible and take the oath of office. Then, in their first act as the new House, the fun begins as they elect the next speaker.

From the Capitol, my colleagues Amy Worden and Angela Couloumbis and I will be here to post on every twist and turn of the political intrigue that will have a major impact in the months to come on taxes, health care, mass transit ... basically everything of import from Harrisburg.