State Rep. Reed looks back on bruising 1st year as House majority leader

Kari Andren
| Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016, 10:30 p.m.

There's little hesitation when House Majority Leader Dave Reed says leading the Republican caucus has been challenging and frustrating.

A year ago, his colleagues chose Reed, 37, of White in Indiana County to lead one of the chamber's largest, most diverse Republican majorities in history. Observers predicted he would be practical, methodical — a leader adept at brokering deals with the GOP-controlled Senate and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

But Pennsylvania has had one of the longest-running budget impasses in state history, for which many place responsibility on House Republicans.

For Reed, the bruising budget battle has been more than negotiating with a more moderate state Senate and a Democratic governor. He has also navigated a sometimes tenuous relationship with the more conservative House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall.

“Reed is what we could call a pragmatic conservative — emphasis on pragmatic,” said G. Terry Madonna, a political scientist at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

“Other folks in the caucus are ideological conservatives.”

Some say Reed, in his effort to find a compromise in budget negotiations with Wolf and the more tax-tolerant Senate, became disconnected from his caucus, which opposes virtually all tax increases.

Others believe more conservative caucus members undercut Reed when he tried to sell budget proposals negotiated in closed-door meetings.

“One characterization is that Turzai led ideological conservatives” in bucking Reed when he brought agreements to the caucus, Madonna said.

Some members have hinted privately that a rebellion against one of the GOP leaders could be brewing.

“It's been a challenging year. It's been frustrating for folks,” Reed acknowledged. “Everybody has their own thoughts on the perfect solution.”

Turzai said his office works with Reed's, just as former Speaker Sam Smith did with Turzai when he was majority leader from 2011 to 2014. He said all GOP House leaders supported the tax hike-free budgets the chamber sent to Wolf.

“You can deal with all the talk, but the votes on the floor in favor of those three budgets have been unified and have been consistent,” Turzai said.

Reed likened his relationship with Turzai — a groomsman in his wedding a decade ago — to that of a big brother and little brother who disagree but work through their differences. “At the end of the day, you're still brothers,” he said.

Said Turzai: “You're going to have some disagreement, but that doesn't mean you're not going to come out united in perspective as you move forward.”

Something for everyone

The state budget was due June 30. Side issues tied to the spending plan — pension reform, liquor privatization and property tax reform — stymied proposals.

The most recent “framework” for a $30.8 billion deal fell apart when the House rejected a pension bill the Senate insisted be passed with the budget. Lawmakers then sent Wolf a $30.3 billion budget just before Christmas; he approved large chunks of it but left about $8 billion in spending unresolved.

“A deal is supposed to make no one completely happy, but (also) not completely unhappy. It's supposed to have something for everybody,” said Madonna. “The House Republican plan doesn't make the Democrats at all happy.”

Reed said his job has become an exercise in solving a Rubik's cube: There are a variety of issues and several sides to each one.

“Every time you turn the cube to try to line up one issue, it impacts the other issues around it,” Reed said. “I started the year comparing (the job) to a puzzle — you have to figure out a way to put the pieces together. A year later, I think it's not a puzzle; it's a Rubik's cube.”

By all accounts, Reed worked diligently in budget negotiations, where some have said he was the lone force against Democrats and some Senate Republicans who weren't opposed to tax increases.

“I think Dave has been a real steady hand on the rudder,” said Rep. Jeff Pyle, a Ford City Republican.

The blame game

Gerald Shuster, a political communications professor at the University of Pittsburgh, says both sides are to blame — especially GOP leaders who control what happens.

“Both sides are extremely obstinate. They've just thrown the word compromise out the window.”

Brokering deals, even within one's party, isn't as easy as it once might have been, said Jeff Coleman, a former lawmaker and founder of Churchill Strategies, a Harrisburg political marketing and consulting firm.

Leaders have fewer tools — such as “walking-around money” that went to pet projects in members' districts — to make deals, so Reed “has fewer political levers to pull. He really has to appeal to the good sense and principles of the members to move any pieces of the agenda forward,” Coleman said.

That means Reed must offer “every member a level of respect and accommodation,” Coleman said. “They have philosophical complexity; they have economic reality in their districts. ... They have school funding issues, which affects them wildly differently.”

Constituents spread the blame for inaction beyond the Republicans.

“Nobody's playing nice in the sandbox,” said Sandy Trimble, gallery manager for The Artists Hand, a cafe and art gallery in Indiana.

“I know (Reed) has taken a lot of heat over this budget,” said Trimble, adding that there's plenty of blame to go around. “Politics is a bloodsport, but it's also a team sport.”

As he faced battles, Reed said he turned to a favorite excerpt of a speech by former President Teddy Roosevelt.

“It talks about, if you want to make changes, you have to be the one in the arena, but being the one in the arena isn't pretty,” Reed said. “I'd rather fail trying to do big things than never even try to begin with.”

Kari Andren is a Tribune-Review staff writer.

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