PUNXSUTAWNEY — State Sen. Joe Scarnati recalled Monday how when he was first elected president pro tem of the state Senate, his colleague, state Rep. Sam Smith was also elected House minority leader.
Scarnati recalled saying to Smith how great it would be one day if he were president pro tem, and Smith was elected Speaker of the House.
Scarnati recalled Smith saying, “I just hope there’s enough time.”
Fast-forward about five years, and Monday, Punxsutawney Borough Council hosted a mixer to salute their climb to two of the Commonwealth’s top leadership posts: Scarnati, for the third term as the president pro tem of the state Senate, and Smith as House speaker.
Both Smith and Scarnati were elected to these leadership posts by their peers in the House and Senate, respectively.
Smith, who is now serving his 13th term representing the 66th Legislative District, said he doesn’t recall that conversation, but said in both positions, it’s more than just representing one’s district and constituents.
“If you get to know and understand people, it makes it work better,” he said about learning about other lawmakers’ goals, concerns and those of their constituents. That can be a challenge, Smith said, because the political base of Jefferson County, for example, is much smaller than bases in Delaware or Montgomery counties.
It’s almost like he and Scarnati aren’t representing their local constituents, but the constituents across Pennsylvania.
“It’s the same dynamic,” Smith said. “You put yourself in other people’s shoes and understand their motivation and goals.”
Mayor James Wehrle gave the first plaque to Scarnati, who said he and Smith joke about whomever is named first at events such as this. The first person who speaks can often rib the other, he said, while the second person gets to defend himself against the ribbing.
“The truth is, neither one of us gives a damn” about who speaks first, Scarnati said.
When asked about what is different about this year’s Legislature, he cited this year’s tough budget decisions.
But as far as himself and Smith, Scarnati said, “Not only is it the same party, but we were friends before politics. That makes a huge difference. There’s not a day that does not end in friendship.”
He said that’s something that has become lost in Harrisburg.
“People take their jobs a little too seriously, and you have to realize you’re obligated to just do what’s right,” Scarnati said.
Council member Roger Steele pointed out that residents first elected Smith and Scarnati into office — Smith in 1986, Scarnati in 2000 — and now, their colleagues in the Legislature elected them to their current leadership posts.
“That’s quite a compliment to Punxsutawney and Jefferson County,” he said.
“It develops with a reputation with colleagues and doing what you said you’d do,” Smith said about being elected to leadership positions. “You’re building trust.”
“It reflects on the people who sent us here,” Scarnati said. “When you’re elected, without trust and the support of local constituents, we wouldn’t be anywhere.”
Smith is the 137th member to serve as House speaker, and the second speaker in the history of the House to serve Jefferson County. Speaker John S. Rhey was elected speaker in 1852 and was one of three representatives to serve Armstrong, Clarion and Jefferson counties. He was a native of Ebensburg who moved to Armstrong County to practice law.
Previously, Smith has served as majority leader, minority leader and whip.
In November 2008, with the passing of Catherine Baker Knoll, Scarnati became Pennsylvania’s 31st lieutenant governor, and served the remainder of her term, which ended Jan. 18.