By Eric Boehm | PA Independent
After 28 years in Harrisburg and two terms as the top dog in the state House, Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, will retire from politics at the end of the year.
Smith’s decision to walk away from the game, which he announced on Tuesday, was surely a complicated one, couched in political calculations and personal feelings. He narrowly won re-election in 2012 against an upstart conservative opponent and was facing the same opponent in what was sure to be one of the most watched Republican primary battles of the year in Pennsylvania.
But Smith said Tuesday that friends and supporters were still encouraging him to run – he was already running radio ads in the 66th District – even as he made the decision to step aside.
“The truth is, my heart is not in it, and my effort would be sub-par, and that would not be fair or good for any of us,” he said. “Upon some deep reflection, I no longer feel I can give the residents of the 66th the 100-percent commitment the job requires.”
During his two terms as the head of the state House, Smith always gave reporters and staffers the impression of a man who truly enjoyed the complicated, often frustrating, work of the legislative process – at least as much as anyone can enjoy it. His position as speaker of the House made him something of a “teething ring” for members of not only his own caucus, but the Senate leaders and administration officials with whom he often worked, he told reporters.
That took its toll, he said.
But he also had a target on his back, something that probably wasunfamiliar to a politician who enjoyed little opposition in his district since being first elected in 1986.
Chris Dush, a retired state prison officer and member of the National Guard, came within 500 votes of toppling Smith in the 2012 legislative primary. Dush actually won Jefferson County, which comprises the majority of the 66th House District, but Smith was able to pull out the victory by winning the portion of Indiana County that also isin the district.
As it turns out, he might not need it.
“I haven’t spent a dime and he’s out of the race,” Dush said Tuesday. “I want the message to get out there that all these guys need to be primaried and they can be beat.”
Dush has promised to do things differently – he will limit himself to three terms in office and will oppose the “establishment” in Harrisburg.
But he might not have a clear path to victory just yet. Other candidates have until March 11 to declare for the May 20 primary election.
Still, conservative campaigners were claiming victory for knocking Smith out.
“He does not want to deal with this kind of a competitive election,” said Leo Knepper, executive director of Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania, which supports upstart conservative candidates against other Republicans in primaries.
After building a reputation for taking down a few long-time members of the state House in 2012, CAP was planning to help Dush’s campaign.
Smith had been one of the main deal-makers, as he usually was on big pieces of legislation during the past four years, on the transportation funding bill passed by the General Assembly in November.
“That law would not have happened without Sam Smith deciding to work constructively with Democrats to solve a big problem,” said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, who praised Smith’s ability to work with both sides of the aisle throughout his career.
That bill angered conservatives because it increased the state’s tax on gasoline while increasing spending by $2 billion over the next decade.
Knepper said that was a “win for transportation, but a loss for taxpayers” and helped Dush’s prospects of unseating Smith.
Steve Miskin, Smith’s spokesperson, said thinking Smith was trying to dodge an election fight was ignorant.
“He’s delivered for the district and he’s delivered a more conservative agenda for the people of Pennsylvania,” Miskin said Tuesday.
Regardless, Smith’s retirement means the end of one of the longest dynasties in Pennsylvania political history.
His father, Eugene Smith, represented the 66th District from 1969 until his retirement from the Legislature in 1986. That year, Sam Smith won the district and has represented it ever since.
The father-son duo has represented the district for 45 consecutive years. Between them, they have won 23 consecutive elections, like clockwork every two years.
Smith was elected leader of the Republican caucus in 2003, a post he held as both House Majority Leader and Minority Leader until 2011 when he was elected speaker of the House. His father presented him with the speaker’s gavel after the election.
It also ends an historical oddity. For the last four years, the highest-ranking member of both legislative chambers – Smith and Senate President Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson – hailed from Jefferson County, a rural county in the state’s northwest with a population of only 45,000.
“Often I think legislative leaders in Pennsylvania forget about us rural folks,” said Jesse Daniel, chairman of the Republican committee in neighboring Indiana County. “It’s obviously been a good thing to have both leaders from our part of the state.”
Boehm is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com