30 power-players, rising stars and influencers with the most punch in Pennsylvania politics

  • 14 min to read
The Caucus

They live and work in the top tier of the pecking order in Pennsylvania politics. They raise lots of campaign money. They amass clout on their way to  leadership roles. They get things done.

They are the elite.

The Caucus set out to identify the most powerful and influential figures at the Capitol and across the state.

We looked at who makes things happen — who gets stuff on the Legislature’s agenda or before a state agency, plays a big role in helping lawmakers or governors win elections, or gets a matter considered that conventional wisdom dictates had little chance.

We looked at whose power is ascending. Who’s already got clout but is on a path to perhaps becoming among the top leaders in the General Assembly, Congress, U.S. Senate or statewide office? Who’s distinguished themselves from colleagues by being forceful, taking chances and succeeding sometimes by sheer will?

We looked at who has a knack for raising campaign money, who can get just about anyone in the state to take their phone call.

Here’s a list of who we came up with.


MOVERS & SHAKERS


 

These folks are skilled at getting issues considered too hot or too complicated to handle in front of the right people, whether by grassroots advocacy or professional lobbying.

Carol Kuniholm, chairwoman and co-founder of Fair Districts PA

The nonpartisan advocacy group helped bring the once-esoteric subject of legislative redistricting into the center of Pennsylvania’s political conversation. Her side won a major victory last year when the state Supreme Court threw out the old congressional map in a landmark ruling that declared partisan interests can run afoul of voters’ constitutional rights. The ruling is likely to affect the way lawmakers draft the next House, Senate and congressional maps after this year’s census.

Deb Beck, lobbyist on drug and alcohol issues

She is so influential that Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati once sent a letter to Gov. Tom Wolf complaining that Beck, who lobbies for the Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Association, wielded “unbridled influence” over the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs, according to Spotlight PA. The Reading Eagle reported in 2017 that Gary Tennis, then head of the department, had an applicant pre-interview for a state job with Beck. Tennis refuted that claim in an interview with Caucus news partner Spotlight PA in December, saying the applicant had been hired well before and the meeting with Beck was part of the way to prepare for the job. Spotlight also reported some in the industry questioned whether Beck was working to benefit the rehab industry rather than providing the best treatment for patients. Nonetheless, many lawmakers have relied on Beck as the authoritative go-to on drug and alcohol issues. She began working at the Capitol in 1971.

Robert Asher, Republican National Committee member and fundraiser extraordinaire.

Since 2000, his political-action committee, the Pa Future Fund, has donated $17.8 million to campaigns. In 2010, when Republican Tom Corbett first greeted supporters on election night at his Pittsburgh campaign celebration to claim victory in the governor’s race, his first two words at the podium were: “Where’s Bob?” He was referring to Asher. Last year, Asher began work as a lobbyist at Long, Nyquist & Associates for Pace-O-Matic, which has placed thousands of unregulated video machines in gas stations, restaurants and clubs that make payouts to winners. Casinos and the state Department of Revenue say the venture is hurting state Lottery programs.

Mike Long, owner of the Long, Nyquist & Associates lobbying firm.

His firm, through an affiliate, also runs many GOP senators’ campaigns. Despite his earlier background as a top Senate Republican staffer for a caucus that in large part historically advocated for liquor privatization, Long represented the union for state store workers and helped keep state stores open as a deal that expanded wine sales and beer into grocery stores. The 2016 effort stopped short of selling the state’s retail and wholesale liquor and wine business. He was part of a team with lobbyist John O’Connell and Wendell W. Young IV, president of UFCW 1776, which represents state store workers. Long served as chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tempore Bob Jubelirer and is close to Scarnati. Long Nyquist employs Mike Barley, former executive director of the Pennsylvania Republican Party and campaign manager for former Gov. Tom Corbett.

Matt Brouillette, CEO of the nonprofit Commonwealth Partners Chamber of Entrepreneurs.

He runs two political action committees that could be instrumental in defending the Republican majorities in the House and Senate. His Commonwealth Leaders Fund and Commonwealth Childrens’ Choice Fund hold a combined $4.5 million, and Brouillette said he hopes to raise twice as much in 2020 all for Republican state races. Outside of the official party, his PACs were the main forces behind the statewide judicial candidates in 2019, and they distributed millions to Republican legislative candidates in 2018.

Dana Brown, executive director of the Pennsylvania Center for Women and Politics at Chatham University.

Brown’s Ready to Run Campaign School has trained a new generation of women politicians who have been part of a wave of engaged candidates and officeholders around the country. Graduates of the campaign school include freshman U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, state Sen. Pam Iovino and state Reps. Valerie Gaydos, Leanne Krueger and Sara Innamorato.

Ray Zaborney, a longtime GOP political consultant who runs Red Maverick Media and Maverick Strategies.

Red Maverick Media is a campaign firm that helps Republican candidates win elections. The strategies firm is the lobbying arm of the operation. They have largely separate staffs except for Zaborney, who straddles both. His wife, Jen Holman Zaborney, of Red Maverick Media and founder of Maverick Finance, is a top Republican fundraiser and daughter of Mark Holman, who served as chief of staff and campaign manager for Gov. Tom Ridge. Red Maverick Media does work at the national level and in other states. Zaborney led the successful 2014 effort to flip the West Virginia House and Senate to Republican for the first time in 80 years. Zaborney represented Scott Wagner and Lynn Swann, two failed GOP gubernatorial candidates. Red Maverick Media has helped dozens of sitting GOP house candidates win their seats.

Jennifer Storm, the state’s victim advocate.

She has weighed in on some of the most prominent sexual assault and harassment cases in Pennsylvania — from Bill Cosby to Jerry Sandusky and members of the Legislature. She’s been an aggressive advocate for women and testified at a recent House hearing on human trafficking. She’s a holdover from Republican Gov. Tom Corbett to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who re-nominated her in December to another six-year term. Her Senate confirmation vote is expected soon.

Larry Krasner, the Philadelphia district attorney.

He ran on a platform of reducing mass incarceration. He won a seven-candidate primary in 2017; billionaire George Soros gave $1.4 million to an independent PAC supporting him. Krasner took office in January 2018 and has established a policy of not prosecuting defendants for marijuana possession; his lawyers have recommended shorter sentences and stopped seeking cash bail for some nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors. He’s the darling of criminal justice reformers, and he’s viewed as a menace by many in the law enforcement community.

House Minority Whip Jordan Harris, a Democrat from Philadelphia and the second-highest-ranking member of the House Democratic Caucus.

He is in line to be the caucus leader when Rep. Frank Dermody retires. He lives, eats, sleeps and breathes politics and government. He chaired the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus in 2017-18. He’s a former Philadelphia school teacher. He’s been a leading progressive voice on criminal justice reform and education. Working with a Republican senator, he helped pass the clean slate bill, which allows certain criminal records to be automatically expunged, removing a potential barrier to employment. An estimated 30 million records are slated to be wiped out this year.

Honorable mentions: Christine Toretti, chairwoman and CEO of S.W. Jack Drilling Co., who was nominated by President Donald Trump in 2018 to be U.S. ambassador to Malta. Stan Rapp, who was called the “dean of Harrisburg lobbyists” by the Pennsylvania Report in 2009. He’s a partner at Greenlee Partners, one of the capital city’s premier lobbying firms. He made his bones as the chief of staff for former Senate President Pro Tempore Henry Hager. Dave Thomas, former top House and Senate GOP lawyer and founder of the DT lobbying firm. Shea Rhodes, co-founder and director of the Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. She has significantly raised the battle against human trafficking in the state Legislature.


RISING STARS


 

Sen. Lisa Baker, a Republican from Luzerne County and chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The committee considers high-profile issues from gun control to criminal justice reform and sanctuary cities. Baker became the face of Senate Republicans after mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, prompted more cries for gun control. She has been a leader on juvenile justice reform efforts for more than a decade, since the Kids For Cash judicial scandal rocked her district. Two judges were convicted of sending juveniles, many of whom did not have lawyers, to a prison run privately by a contractor paying the judges kickbacks. She is now part of a new interbranch Juvenile Justice Task Force pushing the latest reform efforts.

House Majority Whip Kerry Benninghoff, a Republican from Centre County.

He’s in the conversations about becoming the next speaker and would be in line to move up to majority leader if Rep. Bryan Cutler becomes speaker. The affable Benninghoff is an all-around handyman who enjoys building houses in his spare time and coaching “the art of baseball.”

Sen. Ryan Aument, a Republican from Lancaster County.

The Senate GOP Caucus secretary, a low-rung leadership position, has a bronze star from military service in Iraq and a squeaky clean reputation. He stood tall for workers in his district by sponsoring a bailout of Three Mile Island. He did so despite its unpopularity in most quarters. A former chairman of the Education and Communications & Technology committees, Aument also has taken up the mantle on education issues, from teacher evaluations to lowering the costs of higher education.

Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.

His listening tour on marijuana legalization took him into every county the year before a presidential election. In 2016, former Gov. Ed Rendell told Hillary Clinton’s campaign it should put Fetterman in a truck and send him to all the areas where she couldn’t campaign. Her campaign didn’t listen. It’s possible the next Democratic nominee will, though. And U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey is up for reelection in 2022, the same year Fetterman’s term as the lieutenant governor expires. Fetterman, the former Braddock mayor, finished third in a 2016 Democratic primary for Senate. He recently made national headlines by advocating for an ovarian cancer patient sentenced to a minimum of 10 months in prison for retail theft.

Sen. Katie Muth, a Montgomery County Democrat.

Muth has frequently used Twitter to criticize what she calls the “dome of corruption,” railing against the restrictive legislative rules, the lack of transparency and lack of change in the Capitol. In one year, she unseated an entrenched Republican and gained national attention after a fracas on the Senate floor. She’s stirring things up in caucus meetings and has been focused like a laser on Sen. Daylin Leach, accused in 2017 of making inappropriate comments and touching female staffers.

Joanna McClinton, of Philadelphia and Delaware counties, House Democratic Caucus chair.

McClinton, a lawyer and fierce advocate for criminal justice issues, last year became the first African-American woman to serve as chair of the caucus. She has led the way on laws that allow for DNA evidence to more easily be submitted in court and is the co-author of bills now moving through the Legislature, including the Justice Reinvestment Initiative 2 package and a bill that would automatically expunge someone’s record if they’ve been unconditionally pardoned or fully acquitted.

Rep. Martina White, a second-term Republican.

She established herself as a champion of Philadelphia police officers and firefighters, a key demographic in her northeast Philadelphia district. One of her bills signed into law last year gives the attorney general concurrent jurisdiction with the Philadelphia district attorney on gun-related prosecutions. It was targeted at Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner. If Krasner declines to prosecute, the attorney general could do so.

Rep. Seth Grove, a York County Republican.

He works to keep partisan disputes as far away as possible from the House Government Oversight Committee, which he chairs with Democrat Matt Bradford. The new committee has examined weaknesses in the state’s lobbying disclosure law and Medicaid provider fraud. Fiscal issues and taxation are topics in his wheelhouse. He is co-sponsoring a false-claims act to go after fraud. Grove is far from impartial, though. He took off the gloves the first two years of Gov. Tom Wolf’s first term and was a leading critic of Wolf’s proposed broad-based tax hikes.

Rep. Leanne Krueger, a third-term Democrat from Delaware County.

She has proved ambitious and has been the loudest voice addressing sexual harassment since the MeToo Movement began two years ago. She’s written and pushed legislation to address the issue following several high-profile cases involving members of the Legislature. Before the start of her third term last year, she sought a spot in the House Democrats’ leadership team. Adding to her rising clout, she is the chair of the House Democratic Campaign Committee — the first woman to hold the title — in a year when her party has a chance to regain the majority.

U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, a Democrat from Mount Lebanon.

Lamb, 35, is a former federal prosecutor who served as a Marine Corps officer in the Judge Advocate Division, prosecuting Marines accused of crimes under the military code. Lamb, who in 2018 had an upset special election victory in a district President Donald Trump won by 20 points, hails from a well-connected Pittsburgh political family. He has been mentioned as a potential candidate for statewide office as a moderate Democrat aligned with his party but unwilling to go quite as far on issues such as gun control legislation. He does support universal background checks and red flag laws, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette recently reported. He is in a part of the state trending red, for sure. But his district became more Democrat-heavy in the 2018 redistricting, and his votes reflect it – voting in line with Trump’s position only 6% of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Honorable mention: House Appropriations Chairman Stan Saylor; Rep. Mike Reese; Rep. Jesse Topper, the Republican caucus secretary; Eric Epstein, founder of Rock the Capital; Democratic U.S. Reps. Madeleine Dean, Mary Gay Scanlon, Chrissy Houlahan and Susan Wild.


MOST POWERFUL


 

Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

All eyes will be on Pennsylvania’s top prosecutor in the next two years. As he runs for reelection this year with a $3 million war chest at the start, Shapiro will be building up a campaign that is widely expected to keep up its momentum not just this year but for two more years after it. He’s a natural candidate to succeed Gov. Tom Wolf on the gubernatorial ticket in 2022, and Wolf has called Shapiro “my guy.” Meanwhile, the impact he has in his current role is wide-reaching. Charging public officials with corruption. Dealing with the aftermath of the grand jury report on child abuse in Catholic dioceses. Suing the Trump administration on everything from cuts to SNAP benefits to rolled-back environmental regulations. The grand jury report on priest abuse received international media attention and was the impetus for statute of limitation reform getting over the finish line.

Gov. Tom Wolf, the incumbent Democrat nearing the twilight of his second and final term.

Six years after he came out of the gate with ambitious proposals for property tax restructuring and sales and income tax hikes, Wolf has struck a more compromising tone in recent years but is still shooting high. He wants a $12 or $15 minimum wage, but was open to a deal going even lower than that. He wants a natural gas severance tax but has been flexible on the rates. He’s secured $1 billion more in funds for schools. And his turn on legalizing recreational marijuana has at least moved the conversation ahead, if not the likelihood of legislation passing anytime soon. Meanwhile, he’s been the backstop to the routine Republican-passed bills like several aimed at restricting access to abortions.

Supreme Court Justice David Wecht and the Democratic majority court, which can overturn any law by the Republican-controlled General Assembly challenged in court.

The 2015 flip of the court majority from Republican to Democrat eventually led to the high court tossing gerrymandered congressional maps approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature and creating new ones fairer to Democratic voters, who outnumber Republicans by about 787,000. Next up: a new funding system for education? The high court reversed Commonwealth Court’s dismissal of a suit challenging the fairness of property-tax driven funding of school districts resulting in inequities of rich and poor districts. A trial is set this summer in Commonwealth Court, and there is little doubt the issue is headed for the Supremes eventually. It is a court of last resort and short of a litigant establishing a federal constitutional issue, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court can have the final word.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, the junior senator and unquestionably the most influential Republican official in Pennsylvania.

On the Banking, Budget and Finance committees, he’s become a leading voice on economic issues in Washington, D.C., and helped write the president’s controversial tax cut plan in 2017. A free-trade advocate, he was the only Republican to oppose Trump’s North American trade agreement recently. He turned out to be a crucial vote to prevent new witnesses in the president’s impeachment trial. And his bipartisan work with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has given gun control advocates hope, even if that’s been unrealized to date. Toomey’s impact is both national and statewide, especially if he opts to jump into the 2022 gubernatorial race as the clear favorite for the GOP nomination.

Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, the top official in the Senate.

He plays a key role in the fate of every bill that comes out — or doesn’t come out — of the chamber. He’s the backup president of the Senate in the case of an absent lieutenant governor, a role he has had to fill before. In 2008, he actually served as lieutenant governor, the presiding officer in the Senate, following the death of Democrat Catherine Baker Knoll. He threatened to take over the rostrum permanently in the last year when Lt. Gov. John Fetterman broke the rules during a debate over General Assistance. He is a key player in behind-the-scenes deal-making, a fact that became even more clear in recent months when his longtime chief of staff and general counsel, Drew Crompton, was nominated and confirmed by the Democratic governor for a statewide judgeship. With a multimillion-dollar campaign war chest closely aligned with the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, he’s also likely the most influential senator in helping elect more Republicans to the chamber.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, a Centre County Republican in his sixth year as leader of the GOP-controlled Senate.

Whether he’s had a supermajority or the smaller 29-member majority he has now, Corman has been a steady voice for Republican priorities while being willing to compromise on issues that can’t seem to get past the House, such as the shale tax. Rumors of Scarnati’s departure appear to have been a false alarm, as the president pro tempore is now expected to run for re-election. But Corman would likely be his successor if that day ever comes.

House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, a seven-term representative from southern Lancaster County.

Conservative, mild-mannered and well-liked by his colleagues, Cutler has prioritized passing theme-based packages of bills like a workforce development package and, recently, cracking down on human trafficking. He’s controlling the agenda of the most conservative body in Harrisburg, and he may be the natural successor to House Speaker Mike Turzai at the end of the year.

Minority Leader Jay Costa and Democratic Appropriations Chairman Sen. Vincent Hughes.

Their path to becoming Senate president pro tempore and majority leader is a long shot. But, in 2018, they cut down what had been a Republican supermajority. And this year the split could get even narrower, giving Costa and Hughes more clout in the chamber. Whether they get there might be largely up to Hughes, the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee chairman.

The Pennsylvania State Education Association committee.

The agency has enormous resources to block bills or get them moving. When Republican Gov. Tom Corbett proposed slashing education funding by 50%, PSEA pounced with yard signs and op-eds throughout the state. By the time Corbett tried to explain it was not a cut months later — merely declining to restore stimulus funding — Corbett’s cuts were widely accepted as just that. PSEA has spent $6.9 million on campaigns the past five years.

U.S. Sen. Robert Casey.

Casey, it seemed, was one of the few Democratic U.S. senators not running for president this year. You don’t see his face plastered all over cable television. Still, the senior senator from Pennsylvania had the historic duty of casting a vote for impeachment — which was enough for Trump’s super-PAC to launch a new ad campaign against him. After his 13-point win in 2018, Casey could be on the long list for potential vice presidential candidates. He’d give the nominee a leg-up in a crucial swing state and perhaps even offset some moderate voters’ concerns if progressive-types Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren secure the nomination.


Wild Cards


 

Sen. John Yudichak, the Luzerne County senator who caused a firestorm when he suddenly switched his party registration from Democrat to Independent and said he would start caucusing with the Republicans.

Sen. Mike Regan, a Republican from York and former U.S. marshal, and Sen. Camera Bartolotta, a Republican from Washington County, are both being mentioned as potential gubernatorial candidates.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, a congressional hopeful who is taking on Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Perry in one of the top races to watch in the country.

Treasurer Joe Torsella, who is expected to have a particularly easy road to reelection this year and has been in discussions about running for either governor or U.S. Senate in 2022.

John “Johnny Doc” Dougherty, head of IBEW Local 98, one of the most influential and wealthiest political organizations in the state. He’s awaiting trial on charges of embezzlement, bribery and theft.

Honorable mention: Gene Barr, the face and voice of business at the Capitol. The president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry represents the state’s largest broad-based business advocacy group.

This story was updated to reflect the correct employer for Deb Beck.