Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Perzel's Last Stand

John Perzel, who a few short years ago was the most powerful member of the Pennsylvania Legislature, takes one more shot at a leadership post today.

The former Speaker of the House has been losing his grip on Harrisburg power ever since he pushed for the ill-fated, middle-of-the-night pay raise in July 2005. The backlash from the pay raise (and Perzel's continued defense of the action) knocked the Republicans out of the majority in the House in November 2006.

Because the Democratic majority in the House was a slim 102-101, Perzel attempted to hold the Speaker post by enticing three Democrats to vote for him, but six Republicans turned against Perzel, ending his bid to hold the Speaker's office.

Reduced to the silly title of "Speaker Emeritus" over the past two years, Perzel has been plotting a comeback. He will challenge Rep. Sam Smith for the post of House Minority Leader when the GOP Caucus holds a close-door leadership vote today.

If Perzel loses, which he probably will, his days in the Legislature may be numbered. When you've called the shots as long as Perzel has, it won't be easy to sit in the back of the House chamber as just a rank-and-file member for another two years.

Two things are working against a Perzel comeback. One is the revelation that Perzel allegedly hired an investigator to dig up dirt on fellow Republicans. Everybody expects dirty tricks in politics, but not against your own party members.

The second revelation is a published report by The Philadelphia Inquirer that a grand jury is looking at whether House Republican leaders, including Perzel, improperly used a $9 million taxpayer-funded database to improve their chances of winning elections.

House Republicans want to run away from Perzel, much like House Democrats are trying to distance themselves from their tainted leader, Bill DeWeese.

Smith, while not the most effective floor leader, hasn't made as many enemies as Perzel has over the years. Expect Smith to retain his leadership post when the House Republican Caucus convenes today to pick its leadership slate for the next two years.

As for DeWeese, he's already announced he won't seek another term as House Majority Leader. In other words, he jumped overboard before House Republicans pushed him off the plank. DeWeese is willing to accept the No. 3 leadership post in the House Democratic Caucus, but that's not a sure thing, either.

The Bonusgate scandal is widely credited with preventing House Democrats from increasing their slim majority despite the Obama landslide in Pennsylvania. So far, 12 people associated with the House Caucus are facing criminal charges in a scheme to use taxpayer funds for political work. DeWeese has not been charged, but his chief of staff testified in court that DeWeese was aware of the diversion of tax dollars for political campaign work.

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