Lack of Ambition Won’t Keep Argall from Governor’s Mansion – Voters Might, However
State Senator Dave Argall wants to be sworn in as the 35th Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania on January 17, 2023.
That’s why paid ads from Argall attacking Governor Tom Wolf recently began appearing out of nowhere on the Facebook feeds of Republican voters, according to those familiar with the longtime Schuylkill County politician.
Sources close to Argall, who turns 62 in the Fall, say he’s dreamed of being Governor since he first entered politics as a college intern in the early 1980s.
“He would tell people quite earnestly that he is going to be the Governor someday,” says a confidante who’s known Argall since he was a Boy Scout. “If he doesn’t get there, it won’t be for lack of ambition.”
But a neutral observer tells us, “Argall is resigned to the fact that he doesn’t have the juice to win an election for Governor.”
So, how does one become Governor if one cannot get elected Governor? According to an astute observer of Harrisburg politics: “Argall hatched a plan to hitch himself to the Republican nominee for Governor.”
The Mother of All Machinations
In 2017, Argall quietly drafted an amendment to the Constitution that would take the selection of the Lieutenant Governor out of the voters’ hands and give it to party bosses.
Currently, in Pennsylvania, the Republican and Democrat candidates for Lieutenant Governor are popularly elected by the people during the Primary election, just like the major party candidates for Governor.
Under Argall’s plan, however, Republican and Democrat insiders would choose their parties’ nominees for Lieutenant Governor, respectively. It’s a scheme that certainly appends heavily to the favor of establishment-friendly politicians like Argall himself.
For constitutional amendments such as Argall’s to be ratified, they must pass the General Assembly in two consecutive legislative sessions and then be approved by a majority of the voters in a popular referendum.
Argall’s plan passed the General Assembly in January and is scheduled for a second vote in early 2021, with the expectation that after having passed the legislature twice, it will appear on the November 2021 ballot for referendum.
If a simple majority of voters then approves it, the change will be in effect just in time for the 2022 gubernatorial election – just as Argall planned.
So his machination in a nutshell:
- Change the rules such that party insiders pick the lieutenant governor candidate;
- Convince party bosses you’re the right guy to be the Lieutenant Governor; and
- Make the natural ascent from Lieutenant Governor to Governor in 2030, worst case scenario, or best case scenario, move into 2035 N. Front Street (the Governor’s Mansion) sooner if the Governor vacates for whatever reason.
Testing the Waters
Amending the Constitution is only half the battle for Argall.
He still must convince party bosses to tap him on the shoulder for Lieutenant Governor after his constitutional change goes into effect.
In 2018, Argall tried out the latter half of the plan by relentlessly ingratiating himself to the man he figured would wind up getting the GOP nomination for governor that year – York County businessman Scott Wagner. Argall publicly threw his hat in the ring for Lieutenant Governor while feverishly feting Wagner’s campaign with the hope that Wagner would endorse him as his running mate.
But Argall was dealt a major blow when Wagner instead paired up with fellow businessman Jeff Bartos, of Montgomery County.
A source in conservative circles tells us Wagner was told, in no uncertain terms, that his odds of beating incumbent Tom Wolf would go from slim to zero if he chose Argall as a ticket mate.
Because to the Republican Party’s base of voters, Argall is a Harrisburg insider who co-authored the infamous legislative pay raise of 2005; voted for the pension fleecing of 2001 that increased lawmakers’ pensions by 50%, while resulting in $60 billion in debt for the public pension fund; voted for the massive Rendell tax increase of 2003 which jacked the income tax on all Pennsylvanians by 10%; voted for the gas tax increase of 1999 which gave Pennsylvania the highest gas tax in the country; and voted for a bevy of other anti-taxpayer and liberal initiatives.
The Climb up the Ladder
Argall’s experience in Boy Scouts likely shaped his early approach to ascending the political ladder: Put your time in and steadily move up in rank from Tenderfoot to Eagle.
He indeed reached the pinnacle of scouting by attaining the rank of Eagle in high school. But he would quickly learn that politics is a different animal. To get ahead in the jungle of Harrisburg, he would have to shed the virtues he was taught in scouting and operate by the laws of the jungle.
His allies and enemies agree when it comes to machinating, Argall is second to none – which is why he might just attain the ultimate prize in Pennsylvania politics.
In 1978, Argall was a freshman at Lycoming College majoring in political science when he introduced himself to his then-state representative in the General Assembly, the highly respected William Klingaman of Tamaqua. Argall later interned for Klingaman shortly before heart trouble forced the lawmaker into early retirement in 1984.
“[Argall] knew the first rung on the ladder is the most important,” says a longtime foe. “Whether you win or lose your first bid for office determines how high up the ladder you are likely to go. So he ingratiated himself to Bill Klingaman, which at that time was the absolute best play he could make.”
Klingaman backed Argall to be his successor and the ascent was afoot.
Taking a page from Ben Franklin, Argall set his sets on the state House speakership as the pathway to Governor.
By simply outlasting colleagues who retired, died or were imprisoned, Argall – through sheer attrition – was able to ascend to the third highest ranking position in the House (Appropriations Committee Chairman) in 2001.
Each successive rung, however, required more fidelity to party bosses and less concern for the taxpayers back home. It also required tough decision-making for a man who was comfortable following orders rather than giving them.
In 2005, Argall’s lack of leadership skills triggered his demotion to Majority Whip.
Eager to regain favor with powerful House Speaker John Perzel, the corrupt Philadelphia power broker who would later go to prison for his lead role in the General Assembly’s Bonusgate scandal, Argall made the fateful decision to carry Perzel’s water on legislation granting Senators and Representatives an unconstitutional pay raise ranging from 16% to 34%.
Argall and his colleagues sneaked into the Capitol at 2 a.m. on July 7th to do the now infamous deed.
The outcry over the pay raise scandal from news media and the public was so intense that, in 2006, more than 50 legislators either retired in shame or were defeated for re-election. Argall miraculously was one of a few incumbents that year who avoided having a primary opponent for re-election to his House seat in the 124th District, which encompasses southeastern Schuylkill County and northern Berks County.
But the die was already cast.
A Fork in the Road
An army of conservative reformers were swept into office in the aftermath of the Pay Raise Scandal.
In October of 2008, Argall received notice that he was being challenged for his Whip position within the Republican Caucus by conservative Mike Turzai of Allegheny County, who had opposed the pay raise and was a beacon of integrity to many of the newcomers.
With his chief ally, Perzel, having been deposed as Speaker and under investigation for Bonusgate, Argall didn’t have any backing to repel the intra-party battle with Turzai. But then in a plot twist that sent shockwaves through Schuylkill County, State Senator James Rhoades of Mahanoy City was tragically killed in a head-on crash by a drunk driver on October 18th, just days before he was to stand for re-election on the November ballot.
It was too late to remove Rhoades’ name from the ballot, as numerous absentee ballots had already been submitted. The Senate GOP Campaign Committee cobbled together a successful last-minute campaign to elect Rhoades posthumously, which triggered a special election to choose his successor.
Argall shrewdly seized upon this unforeseen turn of events to revamp his master plan. He announced to the press that he was vacating his leadership position in the House to seek Rhoades’ Senate seat. The truth was he’d already been defrocked by Turzai, otherwise he never would have left the House.
Argall’s longtime crony, the late Robert Ames of Coaldale, was chairman of the Schuylkill County Republican Committee and thus in charge of selecting 60% of the delegates for a Republican conference to select the GOP nominee for the special election to fill Rhoades’ seat, which at the time encompassed all of Schuylkill County and small chunks of four other counties.
Ames stacked the deck so thoroughly for Argall that not even an impassioned plea to the delegates by Rhoades’ beloved widow, Mary Edith, to choose her late husband’s son-in-law, Christopher Hobbs, fell on deaf ears.
Argall won the nomination and cruised to victory over the now-infamous Democrat Steve Lukach.
Because Pennsylvania doesn’t have a resign-to-run law, Argall’s position in the state Senate affords him risk-free opportunities to run for higher office without having to resign his legislative seat, a luxury he didn’t have while in the House, where members stand for election every 2 years and cannot feasibly appear on the ballot for state and federal office at the same time.
The term of office for state Senators, however, is 4 years.
Better yet, for Argall’s sake, the terms are staggered such that half of the state Senate goes up for re-election every two years. Fate would have it that the election for Argall’s state Senate seat in the 29th District never coincides with gubernatorial elections (and it only conflicts with congressional elections every other two-year cycle).
So, Argall jumped at the first opportunity to make a move. That came in 2010 when he sensed the political seas were shifting dramatically in favor of Republicans in Washington, D.C., who had lost the majority to Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats four years prior.
Argall decided to take on Congressmen Tim Holden, a Democrat from St. Clair, known simply throughout the Coal Region as “Timmy”.
Again, Argall could mount a congressional candidacy without having to give up his state Senate seat and, if successful, he – as a Congressman in a heavily Republican district – would have much better odds of being selected for lieutenant governor if not ultimately attaining the viability to run for governor outright.
“That was some classic Argall right there,” says an adversary. “He had just taken over Jim Rhoades’ senate seat on a promise to fulfill Jim’s legacy, and not even a year later he is plotting to move on to greener pastures.”
An Argall ally added: “From a purely strategic perspective, it was brilliant. Normally, he would have never expected to challenge the mighty Tim Holden, but everyone knew there was a historic, anti-Obama wave building with the potential to sweep even popular Blue Dog Democrats like Holden from office.”
But Argall’s old familiar baggage (ringleader in the Pay Raise Scandal, pension increase, tax increases etc.) came back to haunt him yet again.
Even though Republicans, in fact, had their best mid-term election since 1938, taking a stunning a 63 seats from the Democrats, and despite the fact that Holden’s congressional district was heavily Republican, Holden laid a drubbing on Argall that most politicians would never recover from, clobbering the challenger by 2:1 in heavily Republican Schuylkill County and even besting Argall in his home precinct.
It was after this shellacking from Holden that Argall realized, an ally says, the immense baggage from his state House days rendered him forever unelectable statewide. Thus was born the need for a creative way – or “evil genius” as an Argall foe put it – to get to the top.
The Last Dance
The jockeying for U.S. Senate and governor will begin shortly after the Presidential election in November.
An Argall confidante says he knows that 2022 is his now-or-never moment. Undeterred by getting snubbed by Wagner and GOP bosses in 2018, Argall is doubling down on his plan.
The new locomotive to which he hopes to hitch his caboose is State Sen. Doug Mastriano, from Franklin County, who sources tell the Canary is plotting a campaign for governor. To say Argall needs the stars to align perfectly in his favor for his plan to work is a vast understatement.
First, his constitutional amendment needs to be finalized by the General Assembly by the spring.
Then it must pass through a popular referendum before the close of 2021, which most analysts agree is unlikely because Pennsylvanians cherish their power to choose who is on their ballot.
Even if his plan clears those hurdles, Argall must still convince Mastriano to select him as his running mate, which is probably the trickiest part of all because Mastriano is a conservative firebrand and reformer for whom Argall’s legislative record and career are antithetical.
And even if Argall somehow persuades Mastriano to hamper his own gubernatorial viability with the baggage of an insider for a running mate, he must further hope that Mastriano can survive what will surely be one of the more contested Republican primaries for Governor in recent memory.
But a source close to Argall summed things up colorfully: “You could more easily pry a pit bull’s jaws from a pig’s ass than you could curb Dave Argall’s ambition.”