HOLLIDAYSBURG - The door on a new political year opened Wednesday with state Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Martinsburg, announcing he won't run for re-election in 2014.
Stern, in his 22nd year in the General Assembly, said he prayed with his wife, Susan, and others in his family, and he said, "We are comfortable with the decision."
The longtime legislator and former Blair County prothonotary and clerk of courts said he is not running because of the changing atmosphere in the political arena, and, secondarily, because a congenital illness has put him on the list for a liver transplant.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
State Rep. Jerry Stern, R-Martinsburg, sits in his Allegheny Street office in Hollidaysburg with his chief of staff, Jody Gahagan, who has worked with Jerry for 20 years. Stern announced he will not run for re-election in 2014.
Stern said he will be meeting soon with the head of a liver transplant team at Penn State Hershey Medical Center to discuss the medical procedure.
The chairman of the Blair County Republican Party, A.C. Stickel, said Stern recently informed him of his intentions not to run for a 12th term and asked what his feelings were. Stickel said, "I have so many it's hard to comprehend."
"I can't say enough about Jerry Stern," Stickel added.
He said he has had two mentors in his life who were not politicians, and one of those was Stern.
Stickel made the distinction between Stern as an elected official and other officials who are outwardly political.
"He's one of the good guys. He cares about his constituents. He cares about people. He cares about his faith. He doesn't care who gets the credit. He's an all-around decent guy," Stickel said.
Stickel said he applauds Stern for announcing his decision at the beginning of the new political year. He predicted that many candidates will consider running for the office.
He said he can think of five or six right off the bat who might be interested in becoming the state representative in a district that includes all of Blair County except Altoona and Logan Township.
"Obviously, this will create a big fuss," Stickel said.
"I look forward to many years spending time with Jerry Stern as a friend as opposed to Jerry Stern, political colleague and mentor."
Stickel said as leader of the Blair County Republican Party, he will not actively support or endorse any particular candidate but will be willing to give advice and help anybody who asks for it.
Stern said he has spent more than 40 years dealing with the public. As a young man, the son of Merle "Pete" and Vera Stern, he said he worked in a supermarket and a gasoline station before hearing that there was a job available in the Blair County Prothonotary's Office in Hollidaysburg. He took the job as a deputy prothonotary under Vernon Weicht and then ran for the office when Weicht retired.
He said he initially ran for the 80th District seat because he saw it as a chance to do good for his neighbors and the communities in Blair County.
He said he also had "a passion for leadership."
Stern has not been a representative who holds a plethora of press conferences or loudly proclaims his stance on issues but instead has quietly worked his way to the top echelon of Pennsylvania's Republican Party, running for speaker of the House in 2010, a race he lost.
One of his reasons for deciding now was the time to give up his seat was the growing pressure to raise money.
Although Stern was safe in his district - twice he received more than 80 percent of the vote when he had a Democratic opponent - as a member of the House Republican leadership, he was expected to help raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for Republican candidates, an effort that helped the Republicans win a majority in the House.
He said that he thinks there is a "changing dynamic" in the political worlds of Harrisburg and Washington.
Many newly elected people nationally and at the state level "are more concerned about doing their own thing, not working with colleagues," he explained.
He remembered a time in 1997 when he decided to buck the system. His Republican colleagues from the area were supporting a 3-cent increase in the gas tax and the doubling of the registration fees to raise funds for PennDOT - the last increase in transportation revenues.
Stern objected, wanting instead to transfer the costs of the state police from the transportation fund to the general fund, a move that would have freed up $350 million a year for transportation.
Gov. Tom Ridge was in office, and the move made sense, he said, because at that time there was a surplus in the general fund.
Stern said his plan would have produced more than $5 billion for transportation in the last 16 years and eased PennDOT's financial woes.
Despite being at odds with his colleagues in 1997, he was not blackballed or ostracized.
"They still accepted me," Stern said.
Despite some setbacks, Stern said he believes he has accomplished more than he ever imagined when he first took office.
One of the most important projects he was involved in was helping to obtain a $10.6 million Pennvest loan to expand the Greenfield Township, Blair County, sewage treatment plant that enabled the creation of a thousand jobs in southern Blair County.
Stern has obtained grants for five libraries in his area, helped with the funding for Peoples Natural Gas Field in Lakemont and the Blair County Convention Center, and obtained a $2.4 million grant for Spring Cove School District to help it become one of the nation's first digital schools.
He has been in the forefront of action to remediate acid mine drainage and other water projects for the benefit of agriculture in the Susquehanna River basin.
But, as pointed out by Tricia G. Lehman, the public relations manager for the Republicans in the House, Stern's accomplishments have been done without fanfare.
When he served on the House Appropriations Committee, he obtained funds for the Pennsylvania Association for the Blind.
He introduced a bill that provided money for the training of new sheriff's deputies. The state mandated training, but the counties were having a hard time coming up with funds, said Stern.
A woman came to him a couple of years ago complaining that she gave her mother a gift card and because her mother didn't use it right away, it was devalued. Stern had legislation introduced and passed that mandated gift cards retain their value no matter when they are used.
He led the effort to twice pass legislation outlawing bath salts, a popular, yet dangerous street drug that surfaced three years ago and was prevalent in Blair County.
The list of projects in which Stern was involved is lengthy, but he summed it all up by saying, "I have loved working with people, meeting people, doing good things for people and the district."
Since birth, Stern has suffered from spherocytic hemolytic anemia, a blood disorder, he said. It was weeks before he was allowed to go home after birth, he said.
Explaining the problem, he said his liver is "saturated" with iron.
Stern said he thought about not running two years ago and decided to keep going.
His medical problems apparently now will require a liver transplant, and the situation only reinforced his decision to not run in 2014, even though it was not the primary reason he is planning to retire.
When he was 19 years old, his spleen had to be removed because it was no longer able to screen his blood. His spleen, when removed, weighed three times that of a normal spleen, due to the iron.
"People get liver transplants and have normal life expectancies all the time," the 58-year-old said. "I'm a fighter."
As the chairman of the House Tourism and Recreational Development Committee Chairman, Stern said he has at least one more major project to complete.
He wants to see an independent, 11-member Pennsylvania Tourism Commission created that would include tourism professionals who would develop a consistent theme and tourism program for Pennsylvania.
Tourism is the state's second largest industry, responsible for more than 500,000 jobs and $38 billion in the economy.
The small tourism program, now operated by the Department of Community and Economic Development, changes with the administrator that takes office and doesn't have a program that projects Pennsylvania's amenities on a national scale in Stern's view.
The House has already passed legislation to create the commission and a $15 million tax credit to fund it.
The next step is Senate approval, Stern said.