Saturday, March 6, 2021

Relationships key for new Majority Leader Benninghoff

State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, was recently elected majority leader of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, making him the No. 2 leader in the GOP-controlled chamber.

His new role means that majority leaders from both houses of the General Assembly now come from Centre County, with state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, holding the post in the Senate since 2015.

CCG: Congratulations on being elected as majority leader for the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Why do you think your party chose you to be in this leadership role? And how does it feel to know that they trust you in this position?

KB: I am humbled and, well, obviously it’s an honor. One of which I do not take for granted. I like to believe that one thing has been a part of my motto since I started working when I was 11, and that is that hard work pays off.

Recently, I went to give an Eagle Scout award ceremony, the first one in three months we’ve been able to do. I try to remind young people that to employers, hard work means something.

This young gentleman, when he first became a Scout, set himself a goal to get to this next level in four months. And after he got there, which was somewhat surprising for some, he stepped up to another goal. I said to him, as an employer sitting out here and not knowing you other than by reading this document, that type of thing itself would probably get a second interview with me.

So that’s kind of been my own model in life. I believe that hard work means something.

You know, sometimes we think of leaders as only those who come roaring in, in the marching band loud. I’ve always tried to lead by example, be more of a voice of reason, acknowledge the fact that I don’t know all things about all things and never try to profess that.

I think good honesty, and even at a time when you don’t have all the knowledge of something, I found that even in my dialogues with the legislators, a lot of elected officials want their constituents to believe that they know everything about everything. I think that’s unrealistic, and, frankly, it makes me suspect when somebody tries to proclaim that. I’m willing to acknowledge that I don’t necessarily know everything, but I have the willingness to learn things.

I’ve been very fortunate as a legislator; I’ve had some successes, legislatively. Some members measure their quality or their tenure by how many laws they pass. That’s not me. If you come in my office, you will not see a bunch of bills framed and hanging all over the wall to adorn me with things that I passed. I’m at the point now where I have been giving some of my own bills to junior members or freshmen, trying to give them some successes.

Now I see myself in more of a mentoring role and while I do things legislatively, I believe that I want to give back to members. It’s one of the reasons I think they’ve elected me in two other leadership roles, because I’ve tried to do that as policy chair and as majority whip. I believe that we can be successful and we can get things passed without brow-beating people.

Some of the members who support me from different geographies across the state basically like the fact that I was understanding that there were times they couldn’t be with us on votes. And that I wasn’t trying to force people into unanimous, partisan votes all the time. You know, I want to see success because it’s the right thing to do, not just Xs and Os of wins and losses legislatively.

And the last thing, I think that there is a majority of our members who feel like I can have a good relationship with the other side of our aisle. Not that we’re going to agree on everything, but my style of working with the Democrat caucus is more of trying to come to solutions or trying to find areas that we can agree on, which may not necessarily be all of them, versus being combative on every little issue, just because they have a differing opinion.

It is about relationships.

CCG: In your new role, what do you hope to accomplish?

KB: I’m in this role for five months and then I have to go through another election process. In that time, I would like our members to see a leadership team that works very well together, that can have differences of opinions and still function as a unit and be focused on what’s best, not only for our members, but for our, what I consider a great state. I’m a very, very proud Pennsylvanian. I love our state. I’ve visited many other states, but two, three days outside the borders, I want to get back to the brown dirt and grass and hills and valleys.

I often tell grade school and high school groups when they come here, or if I go in their classrooms to speak and share ideas about civil government, “If I leave you with no other thoughts, young students, learn very quickly that in life that it is OK to agree to disagree.”

In the General Assembly, I serve with 203 members and they come from varying places geographically across the state, with very different challenges in our communities. I may not agree with them, but I have an inherent responsibility to listen to the dialogue and the debate and discussion that my members present. It may not change my opinion and it may not change my ultimate vote, but you will learn something.

And if you’re going to be a legislator, I think you have an inherent responsibility to decide if you’re going to be very parochial and only concerned about your 65,000 constituents you represent, or are you truly an assemblyman for this great commonwealth and the general assembly. Because the majority of stuff we vote on is not a parochial vote. A bridge naming is a parochial vote, changing an intersection or getting funding …. that is parochial vote. But most of what we vote on affects people statewide and will affect people beyond your years of service. The message is, take time to listen to other people’s discussion, listen to other people’s opinions, not with the idea that you’re going to somehow miraculously convert your vote, but guess what? You will learn something.

I’ve put a lot of bipartisan dinners together for that very reason. I want our members who are very parochial to understand that, especially if they’re living in a rural area, what goes in some of our urban areas and vice versa.

CCG: With you serving as majority leader of the House and Jake Corman serving as majority leader of the Senate, we now have majority leaders in both branches of the legislature. What does it mean for the people of Centre County?

KB: Jake and I are obviously different in our opinions and things, but I think there’s a nostalgic thing there. And I am a great history buff, as you may know. I spent a lot of time walking through Bellefonte’s cemetery and looking at some of our founding fathers. And I think it’s pretty interesting if you look at “The Apotheosis of Pennsylvania” painting in the front end of the House of Representatives. Forty figures of the past they chose to put on there and one of them was Andrew Gregg Curtin, one of our former governors of Pennsylvania, one of five that were from the town of Bellefonte. And if you go up to the second floor, there are four major pillars that hold our dome up, and within those pillars are alcoves with life-sized statues. And one of those statues is of Andrew Gregg Curtin.

Why do I mention that? Well, I liked the nostalgic aspect of your question that Bellefonte and Centre County had a lot of great voices that came out during different times and are part of Pennsylvania’s documented history. So if Jake and I are a grain of salt, as part of that, it’s kind of unique. Seldom do you have a majority leader of both chambers coming out of the same county, much less out of the same little village of Bellefonte.

I view Centre County as an area that is growing and I want it to have a prominent place in the state. … But more importantly, you know, we can advocate things. And I think Jake and I both philosophically don’t think that we only advocate for Centre, Mifflin and Juniata and the counties that he represents, but we look at the commonwealth solely for what that name is. It’s about what is best for the people of our state. You know, whether it’s building safer roads.

You know, Jake may look at that a little bit more from a commerce perspective and I look at that as a former county coroner, but I also realized that smart infrastructure is what grew the United States. … It’s not just about, we just want to get our road done, but we see the 322 issue that we’ve been advocating since the first day I got elected coming to fruition here and finally coming to the final phases. That project is that connector between southern Pennsylvania, through Juniata and Mifflin … to a corridor that goes through Centre County and down into Altoona, Blair County. We’re talking about a region of the state now, not just Centre, not just Mifflin, but the importance of how those economic and infrastructure decisions help grow the economies of all those areas, not just one.

CCG: Obviously this has been a trying time for the state and country. As we move forward, what do you think are the biggest challenges for the state?

KB: Well, obviously trying to have people’s personal economics improved through what’s happened with the shutdown and the COVID. I’ve worked around a lot of things and I worked in the hospital and I worked around things as coroner, and COVID was one of these things that I think put such a fear in people, because you just couldn’t see because it wasn’t tangible. … COVID had as much of an impact economically as it did on somebody’s healthcare. So now we’re dealing with that aftermath, not that COVID is gone, but I do believe it is important that we try to grow our economy, try to get our young people back into schools. I think there’s a lot of concern with parents that they want to get children back to school, to their best ability, and do it safely.

We want to get those different institutions that we kind of mark our days and hours by back. People want to get back to church. They want to feel comfortable, get back to church, and groups want to meet in groups.

That is a very tough balance that I think as we try to get our economy back together, get dollars flowing. The COVID situation was scary and that came with people not having money and some of my friends, who have not gotten any compensation throughout this, had to close their businesses, with fears of losing their businesses. One of the things I try to do is be a voice of hope and try to encourage some sense of unity and help people see that there is a lot of good going on, even during tough times.

I think we need to spend as much energy being appreciated for the good things in life. As challenging as COVID may have been, for the most part, the food train kept going. People still had goods available to them. The truckers that move a lot of these goods, the guys that run the rail lines somehow made sure the products were there. Amazing innovation happened where people learned to just get curbside service. I had to go to get a dictionary and learn all these new words, you know. What was Zoom? What was curbside service?

But that innovation is what a history buff like me likes — challenging times, tough times create the ability for innovation. And I think you’re going to see us come out of this stronger. I hope that people will have even better attitudes about each other, even our differences, and learn to appreciate people’s differences and realize that those are the things that temper us as individuals, as a commonwealth and even as a government. And that we learn to not always be so adversarial, because some elected officials you don’t agree with.