WEXFORD, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai, a leader of anti-tax and social conservatives who has helped drive austerity in state budgeting, will run for governor.
Turzai, 58, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that he will seek the Republican nomination in May’s primary election to challenge Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who is running for a second four-year term.
In an interview in a Wexford diner, Turzai called himself a “reformer with results.” But, he said, “to really make a difference you have to be governor, and you need a strong leader in that position.”
Turzai, who lives in suburban Pittsburgh, is entering what is now a four-person Republican primary field. Turzai floated his potential candidacy last spring, but stayed quiet about his plans while embroiled in this year’s monthslong budget stalemate.
Turzai is the most prominent budget hawk in Republican leadership, and has been a constant adversary of Wolf’s, particularly in the two drawn-out budget fights since Wolf became governor in 2015. He even has been a bane to some Republicans, driving a harder bargain when moderates or other conservatives were ready to compromise on a bigger tax increase to prop up the state’s deficit-riddled finances.
Turzai will not run for his House seat if he wins the primary, and intends to remain speaker during the campaign.
Also running are York County state Sen. Scott Wagner and two first-time candidates from the Pittsburgh area: former health care systems consultant Paul Mango and lawyer Laura Ellsworth.
Turzai, a lawyer and former county prosecutor, has the most political experience of the candidates, having been in office since 2001. He is an experienced fundraiser, helping spearhead fundraising efforts for the House GOP, the chamber’s majority party since early 2011. That was the year he became majority leader, before taking the speaker’s office in 2015.
Turzai’s ascent to speaker coincided with Wolf’s gubernatorial election victory, and the pair have locked horns time and again.
In particular, Turzai has played a leading role in blocking nearly all of the tax increases Wolf has sought, including a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas production, and holds himself out as a pro-business champion. This year, he helped drive a budget agreement that included launching a gambling expansion and borrowing $1.5 billion to backfill a deficit.
In leadership, Turzai has propelled several pet issues: privatizing the state-controlled wine and liquor store system and directing more taxpayer dollars to private school scholarships and nonprofit education groups. Turzai also has sought to slash the state’s borrowing limit for development projects.
He said that he could further those goals as governor.
“We haven’t been able to fully accomplish our goals,” Turzai said. “And only a governor can fully institute reforms.”
Turzai has been a voice for his caucus’s most conservative members. Twice under Wolf he has pulled the House GOP out of bipartisan budget negotiations in a bid to block a tax increase. His tactics have arguably made the House GOP’s conservatives the Capitol’s most influential bloc since Wolf became governor.
As majority leader for all four years under then-Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, Turzai backed deep, budget-balancing cuts in education aid, requirements that abortion clinics meet stricter outpatient surgery center standards and a tougher voter identification law.
He made headlines in 2012 for saying the voter ID law would allow Republican Mitt Romney to win Pennsylvania in that year’s presidential election. Romney lost Pennsylvania and the election to Democrat Barack Obama and the law ultimately was blocked in the courts.
In 2013, he voted for a $2.3 billion transportation funding bill, labeled by conservative opponents as the state’s biggest tax increase in state history, although it was supported by business groups. He also voted last year to raise taxes on cigarettes.
Turzai’s power is not absolute.
He worked to block medical marijuana legislation, but supporters — including some conservatives — overcame his opposition to send it to Wolf’s desk last year. He has had limited success in privatizing the sale of wine and liquor, with the Senate brokering bipartisan legislation last year that allowed wine in grocery stores and other private licensees, but otherwise kept the state’s control intact.