The Final Word | Pennsylvania Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati

5/1/2018

STATE LEGISLATURES MAGAZINE | May 2018

A native and champion of rural Pennsylvania, Joe Scarnati (R) is serving his fifth term in the state Senate. After graduating from Penn State DuBois, Scarnati became a third-generation business owner and served on the Brockway Borough Council and the Jefferson County Development Council. He has been president pro tempore since 2006, including the three years he served out the term of Lt. Governor Catherine Baker Knoll, who died in 2008.

What are the characteristics of a good leader?

You need courage, you need wisdom and you need the ability to know when you don’t know what to do. You have to surround yourself with people that are smarter than you. I feel like that’s the success I’ve had in this position. My coworkers—and I always refrain from saying staff because they’re not staff, they’re my coworkers—care deeply about getting things done right. They challenge me, and I appreciate that.

What are your legislative priorities?

Clearly, our top legislative priorities sometimes get moved by current events, and nothing has struck every legislator more than the issue of school safety. We are taking a much closer look not only at the funding levels, but also at what types of school safety projects we can use that money for. In addition, my fight for rural areas getting their share of whatever the program is, whether it’s highway dollars or education dollars, has probably been my highest mission since I’ve
been here.

How has being a small-business owner shaped your perspective as a legislator?

I grew up in a family that had been in the restaurant business for 70 years. I was a third-generation owner for 20 years. Just in the last three years my wife and I bought a candy company that was founded back in the ’50s. I’ve spent a lifetime signing the front of a paycheck, not just the back. And when you sign the front, you’re responsible for the workers’ compensation policy for your employees. You’re responsible for the unemployment compensation, payroll and benefit package. You’re dealing with bureaucracy. From that perspective, when somebody is introducing a bill or has an idea, I put my hand up as that businessman. I like to tell everybody that I’ve got skin in the game.

How do you feel about efforts in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to reduce the size of the legislature or make it part time?

My biggest fear with not having a full-time legislature is that you cede a lot of operations to the executive branch. I’m a real defender of the separation of powers and our individual, unique responsibilities. Over the years, we’ve been able to balance that with our presence here in Harrisburg. So can we reduce the size? Absolutely. Would it impact anything? I don’t believe it will.

The U.S. Supreme Court recently let stand a congressional map that was redrawn by the state Supreme Court. Your thoughts?

We were being sued because we had gerrymandered seats for Congress. The maps were drawn under the rules and parameters that were set when we drew them, but I never disputed whether the maps could have been more compact or drawn differently. But what I dispute—and I still vigorously dispute—is that neither the Pennsylvania Supreme Court nor any court across the country has the constitutional power to draw these maps. This was a separation-of-powers issue. I believe the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has trampled over the Constitution, and I believe that the federal Supreme Court has failed to uphold the Constitution.

What led you to seek public office?

I ask that question all the time of myself. I was a county chairman and, at the time, the sitting state senator was convicted of a federal offense. He resigned from office, was put in prison, released with an ankle bracelet, then got on the ballot to run for re-election. I said to myself: I cannot support this guy. This guy has no business running. And, quite frankly, I want to do something about it. So I reregistered as an independent and ended up running in a three-way race. I won by 197 votes.

How do you stay at the top of your game?

At 56 years old, I’ve never felt better. My wife and I do a lot of bicycling and we try to live a healthy lifestyle. I’m not afraid to make decisions either. My constituents and the people I work with, they just want a decision. They want somebody to call the balls and strikes here, and I do that.

What are you reading?

The book on my nightstand is because of NCSL. I went to the leadership conference in Normandy, France, and I’m reading [Cornelius Ryan’s] “A Bridge Too Far,” about the post-Normandy battle for the bridges into Germany. It’s a great lesson in maybe reaching too far.

What final words would you like to share?

It’s real simple. Go out on top. Don’t wait to be pushed out the door. Don’t wait for the ballot box to push you out or a subpoena or a coffin. Go out on top.

Jane Carroll Andrade, a contributing editor to the magazine, conducted this interview, which has been edited for length.

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