Pa. House speaker to retire, says 'fire' is waning

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Associated Press

Posted on February 11, 2014 at 7:06 PM

Updated Tuesday, Feb 11 at 7:06 PM

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania House Speaker Sam Smith, who grew up answering phone calls from his father's constituents in the small town of Punxsutawney, said Tuesday he will retire this year after helping steer the chamber through a wide-ranging corruption investigation, a devastating recession and a landmark transportation funding bill.

Smith simply said he has lost the fire to keep managing the 203-member House and will not run for a 15th term, choosing to retire when his current term ends Nov. 30.

"The desire to fight the fights as hard as you can has waned and I have decided it was time to step aside," the Jefferson County Republican told reporters in the Capitol.

Smith, 58, is the son of Eugene "Snuffy" Smith, a 13-term House member whose 66th District seat was handed off from father to son when the younger Smith won it in 1986. As a child, he recalled his father's constituents coming to the house or answering the phone when they called with their concerns. As he grew up, Smith decided to succeed his father in politics rather than take over his tire shop.

The cigar-smoking Penn State grad and football booster could be blunt with colleagues behind closed doors, but also became a gentlemanly force in a Capitol that became increasingly polarized during his time there. He often acted as a mediator between the governor and Legislature or among lawmakers, a "teething ring of sorts," he said.

"When you're the teething ring, it means somebody's always chewing on you, and it wears you out," Smith said.

Smith became speaker in 2011 after nearly eight years as the House Republican floor leader, serving through a time when a corruption investigation by the state attorney general's office resulted in jail terms for five former top House lawmakers and the recession forced lawmakers to face the most difficult budgeting decisions of their careers.

Smith's announcement came just a couple months after sealing arguably his biggest legislative accomplishment: securing enough votes amid the House's partisan, parochial and ideological divides to pass a massive transportation funding bill.

Top Republican lawmakers and the state Republican Party on Tuesday lauded Smith. The House's top Democrat, Minority Leader Frank Dermody, gave Smith a bipartisan compliment, calling him the "gentleman from Punxsutawney" who understood as speaker "that leading the chamber and acting in its best interests means working with all sides and, at a minimum, letting all voices be heard."

As speaker, Smith also sought and won passage of a proposed constitutional amendment to reduce the size of the House, arguing that it would make lawmaking easier in the often unruly chamber. The Senate has not taken up the bill.

Republicans hold a 111-92 advantage in the state House and are virtually assured to maintain control in the next election. House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, could be in line to succeed Smith as speaker.

Smith said he had no plans to run for another office, and doubted he would return as a lobbyist, as many other lawmakers often do. He also dismissed questions that he was shying away from the potential of facing a tough primary election challenge or defending an unpopular Gov. Tom Corbett or transportation bill on the campaign trail. Smith beat GOP challenger Chris Dush by 459 votes, or 7 percentage points, in the 2012 primary.

"The notion that I'm walking away from a fight is, to me, laughable," Smith said.

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