The announcement Tuesday by longtime Democratic state Rep. Keith McCall that he would retire when his 14th term expires at the end of December took the Carbon County Democratic Committee by surprise and had left it scrambling for a candidate to replace him.
McCall, of Summit Hill, who was elected House Speaker a year ago, shared with committee members at an executive meeting last Thursday his decision to leave public office to spend more time with his family, said committee chairman Frank Jacobs.
"It was a surprise to us, a shock," he said. "We had an executive board meeting last Thursday, and he was there. He told me 'Frank I never realized... my children are really complaining that I'm not around. It really upset me'."
Jacobs said he thought that perhaps McCall had "someone waiting in the wings" to run for the state representative seat, but that was not the case.
Jacobs said he plans to visit the county courthouse today to "talk with people." The committee plans a meeting soon to decide on a candidate to field for the May 18 primary election. Committee members will have to work fast. "It'll be shortly that the petitions will be out. It's usually the early part of February," Jacobs said.
"I guess the person is out there who will want to run, but who it is, I'm not sure," he said.
The county Republican Committee also plans to meet next Wednesday to begin to choose a candidate, said secretary Lee Becker. He declined further comment.
McCall did not respond to requests for an interview on Tuesday and early Wednesday.
The 14-term state representative, elected at age 22 to represent the 122nd District after his father, the late state Rep. Thomas J. McCall, died suddenly on Christmas Eve 1981, was much admired.
"Keith's announcement certainly came as a shock to all of us, but I think most importantly this is a time to reflect on the great accomplishments of a prolific career," county Commissioner's chairman William O'Gurek. "Initially, myself and others wanted to talk him out of making that decision, but, after listening to him, it became increasingly obvious to me that any of us who wanted something different from what Keith wants would only be selfish.
"In that regard, I wouldn't want to talk him out of that decision," O'Gurek said. "While all of Northeastern Pennsylvania in general and Carbon County in specific will see a dramatic change in representation in the future, and the rewards that came with Keith's seniority, we should all keep in mind the real winners of Keith's decision are Betty, Courtney and Keith Robert McCall who will get their husband and father back on a full-time basis.
"I'd like to publicly thank Keith for the sacrifices he made many many times in 28 years, and wish him well in his future endeavors," O'Gurek said.
Gov. Ed Rendell said in a statement Tuesday that McCall's departure will be a significant loss.
"For a long time he has been a leader in moving the progressive agenda forward to help meet Pennsylvania's challenges," Rendell said.
House Majority Leader Todd Eachus, D-Luzerne, called McCall a statesman who was committed to working families.
"Speaker Keith McCall has been a strong voice for his district and a good friend to his House colleagues for three decades. He came here as one of the youngest, and throughout his lifetime of service he has been truly committed to improving conditions for all Pennsylvanians," said Rep. Frank Dermody, House Majority Whip. "People of principle like Keith are invaluable to the causes they fight for. We are going to miss his leadership after this year, but I am glad that Keith will continue leading the House as Speaker during what is sure to be an extremely challenging year."
Challenging may be an understatement. McCall stepped into the Speaker's role as the state was poised to descend into an extended battle over a 2009-2010 budget. Marked by bitter partisan sparring, the budget battle suspended pay for hundreds of state workers.
A new budget, with heavy cuts, was signed on Oct. 9.
This year promises even more stress. All 203 seats in the Democrat-controlled House are up for election. The House now has 103 Democrats and 97 Republicans; three seats are vacant.
McCall's departure will launch the legislature into a search for it's fourth Speaker in as many years.
Republican John Perzel held the seat through the end of 2006. another Republican Dennis O'Brien, served in that role from 2007-08, with McCall taking over in 2009.
The changes add yet another gust to the storm buffeting the legislature: "Bonusgate," the investigation launched about three years ago by state Attorney General Tom Corbett into whether officials illegally diverted state workers and resources into campaigns and other improper purposes.
Perzel was among the 25 people arrested in the investigation.
Last week, seven people tied to the House Democratic caucus pleaded guilty to related charges, and four others are expected to go on trial next week.
In the one trial so far, former Rep. Sean Ramaley, D-Beaver, was acquitted of all charges.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.