State House leadership elections bring change to Harrisburg

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Republicans in the state House elevated Rep. Bryan Cutler to be floor leader Tuesday and made Rep. Kerry Benninghoff whip, while Democrats re-elected Minority Leader Frank Dermody and voted for Rep. Jordan Harris as whip.

The biggest surprise among the top jobs was Harris, a 34-year-old Philadelphian whose selection reflects the increasing numbers and growing influence of Democrats from the southeast within their caucus.

"Let's be clear, the gains in our caucus were in the southeast," Harris said after the vote, referring to last week's election that gave his party a pickup of about 11 House seats. "Our caucus has to represent the membership."

Cutler, a six-term member from southern Lancaster County, had served as whip under current Majority Leader Dave Reed. Reed opted not to seek re-election this year and planned to run for Congress, but ended up redistricted into an incumbent Republican's territory. Reed announced recently he is taking an executive job at a bank in his Indiana County district.

MORE: Democrat Tom Wolf wins 2nd term as Pennsylvania governor | Democrat Bob Casey wins third U.S. Senate term | Democrats retake the House, setting up divided government

Cutler said Tuesday he was working on plans for the two-year session that begins in January, saying a natural place to begin will be legislation that made headway in the 2017-18 session but did not become law. He listed education bills and regulatory reform among the prime candidates for action early next year.

Republicans also elevated Benninghoff, of Centre County, to the vote-gathering position of whip, and returned Rep. Stan Saylor of York County to chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee.

The chamber's presiding officer, speaker of the House, will be elected in January, when Allegheny County Republican Rep. Mike Turzai is expected to retain that position.

Legislative Democrats entered last week's election badly outnumbered in both chambers, but along with about 11 seats in the House, they also picked up about five in the Senate, with a handful of races still too close to call.

The Republican majorities are expected to be about 110-93 in the House and 29-21 in the Senate next year, compared with 121-82 and 34-16 at the end of the 2017-18 session.

Harris, whose third term ends this month, will take over as whip from Rep. Mike Hanna, R-Clinton, who did not seek re-election. Hanna, first elected in 1990, said Tuesday he just purchased an RV and plans to travel the country. Hanna's son, who bears the same name, was defeated in his bid to assume his father's seat.

A large number of veteran lawmakers' retirements this year means there will be considerable changes in the coming months as committee chairs are selected.

Among the openings in the House are the chairs of Judiciary, Finance and Transportation, and in the Senate, the chairs of Education, Judiciary and Transportation.

There may be more changes coming to the state House, as Turzai is likely to schedule special elections early next year to fill several vacancies.

Rep. Sid Michaels Kavulich, D-Lackawanna, died unexpectedly last month and had been unopposed for re-election. Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, D-Philadelphia, will soon be sentenced after being found guilty of bribery. And ballots are still being counted in the race between challenger Rep. Tina Davis, a Democrat, and incumbent state Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, R-Bucks. Davis also ran for another House term, and won.

In the Senate, Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Allegheny, was elected to Congress.

State Senate leadership elections are planned for Wednesday.