Ted Harhai has been cleaning out his office in Monessen, and closing others in Jeannette, Mount Pleasant and Harrisburg, as he moves on after nearly 19 years in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly.
“I helped my staff to find other jobs,” Harhai said. “I loved helping people, and I still do, but I wanted to do it under a different medium.”
A dream prompted him to find that different medium. One of his longtime habits whenever he was awakened was to write notes on three-by-five cards.
“The night before I decided to retire, I woke up and said, ‘Self, it’s time.’ I wrote that and fell back asleep,” Harhai said. “I had been thinking since August (2015) not to run.”
Instead, voters in 14 Westmoreland County municipalities, as well as parts of two additional townships, would choose Republican Rostraver Township attorney Justin Walsh to succeed Harhai in the 58th Legislative District.
His retirement hasn’t stopped people from calling for his assistance.
“I’ve had approximately 20 people call in the past two weeks,” Harhai said.
And it isn’t stopping calls suggesting he continue in the political arena in Monessen.
“I’ve been asked multiple times to run for different positions in the city, including mayor,” Harhai said.
The one-time, two-term mayor of his hometown of Monessen has done a lot as he approaches his 62nd birthday next month.
“I ran for mayor and I won,” Harhai said. “I never wanted to be a politician. I never aspired to be a politician, but I’m a fighter.”
And Harhai recalls constituent services to all the communities that made up the 58th over the years, such as a $2.3 million grant for sewage upgrades for the 415 residents of Arona, or the funding for a boat launch (named for the late Rep. Herman Mihalich, Harhai’s predecessor), a fire station, the library and the high school football stadium in Monessen.
Harhai served the 58th Legislative District since Feb. 17, 1998, when he was sworn in to finish the term of Mihalich, who died on Sept. 30, 1997 — five weeks before Harhai was to run for re-election as mayor of Monessen.
“I got recruited by the Westmoreland (County) Democratic Committee,” Harhai recalled. He was chosen in a gathering of district committee members at Cedarbrook Golf Course on Dec. 6, 1997, then won a special Feb. 3, 1998, election.
There were those who thought – incorrectly – that Harhai could not serve both.
“I was the eleventh person who was a mayor and a state representative,” Harhai recalled.
Harhai wasn’t done running. He then had to stand for a full term in the May 1998 primary and November 1998 general elections, in a somewhat different district from today’s constituency.
Redistricting took out some Westmoreland constituents, including those in a precinct on the southern end of North Huntingdon Township, but took out more from Fayette County.
“I had a tier of Fayette County,” Harhai recalled. “Belle Vernon, Fayette City, Gillespie, Arnold City and most of Washington Township. They took that away from me and gave me Jeannette.”
That was during the redistricting controversy that stretched over 2013 and 2014.
“I was in Jeannette over 230 times,” Harhai recalled. “(Meanwhile), the GOP gained 14 seats and did not have to spend a penny on it.”
Harhai said the reapportioning of state House seats increased the Republican majority from 105 to 119. The election on Nov. 8 increased that majority to 122, including Walsh and Republicans Bud Cook over Democratic challenger Alan Benyak in the 49th District and Matthew Dowling over Democratic incumbent Tim Mahoney in the 51st District.
Harhai said he would “work tirelessly to change” campaign financing laws, suggesting a limit of “$100,000, $200,000 for a race” such as that this year for the U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania.
Referring to the more than $100 million spent on the contest between U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh Valley, and his Democratic opponent Katie McGinty, Harhai said, “Do you realize how many good things you could do with that money?”
John B. Harhai stands tall in his youngest son’s memory.
“My father was a school teacher for 46 years,” Ted Harhai recalled. “My father impressed upon us to go to college.”
And so Harhai, a sister and three brothers each did. Ted Harhai earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and history, with a minor in administration of management, from Carnegie Mellon University in 1977.
The elder Harhai remained part of his son’s life up until his death in 1999.
“We lived five minutes from the old (Monessen) high school,” Ted Harhai said. “My mother and father never got a car.”
His father also didn’t know he had prostate cancer, until one night when he had to go to the hospital, but John B. Harhai was as much of a fighter as his son.
“He was supposed to die in six months,” Ted Harhai said. “He lived four years and six months.”
During his father’s final battle, Harhai regularly was driving 210 miles in 3½ hours to and from Harrisburg, so he could visit his father — and continue serving as Monessen’s mayor, including attendance at council work sessions and voting meetings.
He also was involved at that time in the city’s centennial, which included an event each month sponsored by the city’s historical society.
“We raised all the money ourselves,” he said of the committee he was on organizing the events. “We put lights in the city park,” he recalled.
Ted Harhai said his first five years in Harrisburg were enjoyable, but the last 14 were more of a struggle. He introduced 12 bills in his first nine years, but his name was taken off of them.
So, “I decided to double down on constituent work,” Harhai said.
One bill to this day has Harhai’s name on it, amending the 1968 Coal Refuse Disposal Control Act to resolve disputes between property owners over the location of coal bed methane wells and access roads.
“It saved 10,000 jobs, 1,800 in the mines, plus 8,200 others,” Harhai said. “Had it not been for (the late state Sen.) J. Barry Stout and (then-state Rep. Camille) ‘Bud’ George it would have never passed.”
House Bill 1847 of 2009 was signed into law as Act No. 4 of 2010 by Gov. Tom Corbett on Feb. 1, 2010.
Before Ted Harhai began his state House tenure, he worked in the steel mills and as a Monessen police officer, was an investment banker and even had a shot at major league baseball.
“I had a tryout with the Pirates when I was 16,” Harhai recalled. “(But) they told me don’t do weights and don’t do other sports. I never went back.”
He lettered in four sports, baseball, basketball, track and football. As a senior in 1972, he recalled “beating out Joe Montana (then a junior at Ringgold) for all-conference quarterback.”
Harhai earned $18,000 working the Wheeling-Pittsburgh steel mill in Monessen in the summer before his senior year at CMU. He returned to the mill after graduating, worked for a year then was laid off, after which he became a police officer for two years.
A family friend, William Malinchak, a Monessen High School alumnus who made his mark with the Detroit Lions and Washington Redskins of the NFL, had this advice for Harhai: “You need to come to New York.”
That started Harhai on the investment banking route, first for six years on the trading desk of Merrill Lynch in New York, then for two years with Kemper Financial Services in Chicago, and later in New Jersey before coming home to the First National Bank of Herminie.
He also traveled the country for two years as a business consultant.
“I found the door still open to investment banking,” Harhai said, though now he’s working on his retirement investments.
Among the items still in a largely cleaned out Monessen office was a plaque honoring John Harhai’s years of service with the Monessen Public Library.
“He was tough but he was fair,” John’s youngest son recalled.
John’s widow, Dolores Harhai, has seen all that, too. Ted Harhai said his mother will turn 93 on Dec. 29.
“As my dad said, ‘Work hard, do the right thing and care. And if you lose sight of any one of those three, you’ll be cheating the people and, more importantly, you’ll be cheating yourself,’” he said.