Since being elected earlier this month to represent Pennsylvania's 79th District, which includes Altoona and parts of Logan Township, John McGinnis said life has been a "whirlwind."
McGinnis, a Republican, said after the rigors of a campaign that saw him elected by a 955-vote margin over Democrat Richard Flarend, he took a few days to "decompress." But that rest period didn't last long.
This past week he headed to Harrisburg for a three-day orientation designed to instruct him how to set up an office, obtain staff, introduce legislation and fill out paperwork.
Mirror photo by J.D. Cavrich
Rep. Richard A. Geist looks at a gift given to him by his staff, including
legislative assistant Cindy Updyke. Geist will be a transportation and project development consultant.
"I like the dull life," said McGinnis, an assistant professor of finance at Penn State Altoona. But in describing his intense three days, he called the week "a blur," "a bit daunting" and "exciting."
His No. 1 priority now is to set up his district and Harrisburg offices.
In Harrisburg, he learned that as part of a Republican Party austerity plan, he and another legislator will share an aide assigned to them by the Republican Caucus.
He will be able to hire three people for his district office - a receptionist, an office manager and an outreach coordinator.
McGinnis said he offered positions to some of the staff now serving outgoing Rep. Richard A. Geist, but they declined the offers, the aftermath of a hard-to-take loss for the 34-year veteran of the State House.
McGinnis said he is attempting to negotiate a lease with the landlord of the Gables Building in downtown Altoona to open his district office in the same quarters now held by Geist.
Geist, meanwhile, is preparing for his new career as a transportation and project development consultant, an extension of his legislative career in which he chaired the House Transportation Committee and became a spokesman for highway and bridge improvements and transportation programs in general statewide.
He, too, is opening offices in the Gables Building and in Harrisburg for his consulting business.
McGinnis, who ran on the platform of a less intrusive and more austere government, said he has already fulfilled one of his campaign promises: He will not become part of the state House pension plan. He signed off on that, stating the pension program represents an expenditure of about $50,000 a year for each legislator.
He said he will not accept per-diem payments, essentially money given to legislators when in session.
McGinnis said he will put in for gas mileage and expenses, but he said he will keep a strict accounting of those legislative benefits.
He will take a two-year leave of absence from his duties at the university, and Penn State will hold his job during that time. If he decides to continue as an elected official beyond that, the Penn State job will be "gone forever," he said.
While in Harrisburg, McGinnis met another newly-elected legislator, Thomas Sankey III of Osceola Mills.
Sankey used the same word - whirlwind - to describe what he went through during the week. He said the new legislators were introduced "to more information than anyone can retain."
While Sankey operates a crane and helps to run a small business, and McGinnis is a finance teacher, they have common ground. Sankey has a degree in accounting and, like McGinnis, he is not going to take a pension, a car or per-diem payments.
"We have a responsibility to maintain the people's money," Sankey said.
He said he ran for office because he wanted to stand up for what he believes, and he said he believes the House is the "steward" of the people's money.
He said he has been granted a staff of one part-time employee and three-full-time employees and he will have an office in Clearfield and a branch office in Osceola Mills.
Sankey will spend next week signing leases and getting those offices in place.
Sankey and McGinnis are each replacing a representative who is among the longest-serving in the history of the House of Representatives.
McGinnis will fill the seat vacated by Geist, who has been in the House for 34 years, the fourth-longest term in history. Sankey is replacing Camille "Bud" George, who is completing his 38th year in office and who is the second-longest-serving House member.
George, a Democrat, who is retiring, backed Sankey's opponent, Democrat Mark McCracken, in the General Election. Sankey won by a margin of 4,609 votes, garnering 61 percent of the popular vote.
Sankey said he never saw the lopsided victory coming, but added that he has concluded the people of his district wanted a breath of fresh air in a time when the area's once prosperous economy of stripping coal, sawing logs and driving truck is ebbing.
He said he'd like to have coffee with George and talk about the future, "just two guys from the Moshannon Valley."
Matthew Maciorkoski, who has served as an aide to George for 13 years, said the Democratic Caucus will assign him another job, but he said at age 58, and his future unknown, he admitted to being "nervous" and "apprehensive."
He reflected on what it has been like working for George for so long: "Challenging, very challenging. It's not a walk in the park."
A decade ago, George was voted "the legislator hardest to work for," and that was George's description of himself as he gave his farewell speech to the House on Wednesday.
Maciorkoski said that despite George's reputation as a tough taskmaster, he inspired a great deal of loyalty.
The manager of George's Harrisburg office, Deb Newton, has been with him for 35 years, while another George worker, Rhonda Campbell, was with him for 30 years.
Geist's staff has displayed similar loyalty. Aide Julius Iacurto has been with him for 25 years.
Neither Newton nor Iacurto wanted to talk about their careers with their favorite legislators.
Geist called his staff "like family."
"I have the best people in the world. ... I have been blessed with really good people," he said.
As his term winds down, Geist's staff threw him a surprise party with more than 300 people in attendance.
Legislators look ahead
In their reflections on their terms in office, Geist and George expressed a similar concern about what's happening in politics. Geist said he didn't like the "political knife-fighting" that is prevalent in today's world and George, who loves controversy and debate, disparaged the partisanship of the present political arena.
"I'd probably argue with a possum. And, I love, to the very core of my being, the give and take between opposing camps," George said.
But, he added, "I can be as partisan as the next person, and neither side is blameless in this, but the naked partisanship in recent years scares me."
Geist believes he accomplished a lot over the years, pointing to the improved Route 22 to Pittsburgh and the completion of Interstate 99 through the Altoona area.
Transportation employs thousands of people in the area, when considering workers at New Enterprise Stone and Lime Co., Grannas Brothers Concrete and the Norfolk-Southern Railroad, Geist said.
As for the State House, Geist said, "Oh yeah, I'll really miss it. I loved crafting legislation."
George said he could never envision the day he would say goodbye to the House. But after Edna, his wife of 60 years; his family; and the 74th district, he said, "I love [the House] more dearly than just about anything in the world."