by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA | Feb. 28, 2023
Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters.
Democrat Joanna McClinton was elected the first female speaker of the Pennsylvania House on Tuesday after Mark Rozzi stepped down following two tumultuous months presiding over the lower chamber.
McClinton, who has served as her party’s floor leader since 2020, was supported by all 102 state House Democrats and no Republicans.
“I’m grateful for all who fought before me … so that this day was possible,” the Philadelphia Democrat said after taking the oath of office. “It is only on their shoulders that I stand here today.”
McClinton is the first woman and second Black lawmaker to be speaker of the Pennsylvania House, after K. Leroy Irvis. The 40-year-old pastor, former public defender, and one-time legislative staffer was first elected in 2015.
She will preside over a closely divided state House where her party holds a one-vote majority and must work with the Republican-controlled state Senate in order to send legislation to first-term Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro.
Her ascent was made possible after Rozzi announced he was resigning the speakership at the beginning of the Tuesday session.
His brief time as speaker was defined by partisan fights and gridlock over the rules that govern the lower chamber. Rozzi told Spotlight PA he hopes his legacy will be a rules package that would give rank-and-file lawmakers from both major parties more say in the chamber’s agenda.
“The rules that I’m going to institute [are] going to allow 102 members from whatever party they are in to move legislation through this House,” the Berks County lawmaker told Spotlight PA.
“Leaders need to be equal amongst everybody,” he added.
In her acceptance speech, McClinton struck similar notes.
“The time calls for real reform and real change,” McClinton said, arguing the chamber needs to focus on issues that unite lawmakers in both parties while building cooperation and professionalism, rather than picking partisan fights.
Rozzi told Spotlight PA he resigned because he had accomplished what he wanted to do, and to make way for McClinton.
“There’s going to have to be compromises on all legislation because of how tight the numbers are,” Rozzi said. “So I think that [McClinton is] the right person to lead this House right now.”
Rozzi announced his resignation four days after he oversaw the state House’s passage of two measures that would allow childhood victims of sexual abuse to sue their perpetrator and the institutions that shielded them for damages. The issue has been a defining one for Rozzi, who was abused by a Catholic priest as a teen.
Rozzi’s surprise rise to speaker was engineered by state House Republicans, who approached him on swearing-in day in January and offered to back him if he became an independent.
He was elected speaker in a 115-85 vote with the support of all Democratic lawmakers and 16 Republicans, including the party’s entire leadership team.
If Rozzi had dropped his registration, neither Democrats nor Republicans would have held the majority.
But though he pledged to govern as an independent in his acceptance speech, Rozzi did not leave the Democratic party.
Mark Rozzi told Spotlight PA he resigned from the speakership because he had accomplished what he wanted to do, and to make way for McClinton.
Within a week of Rozzi’s election, his closest Republican ally, state Rep. Jim Gregory (R., Blair), called for his resignation from the speakership. At the same time, Rozzi regularly met with state House Democratic leaders.
Rozzi told Spotlight PA he went into the deal aware that Republicans were trying to use him, and he decided that they “were gonna pay for it.”
“There’s a lot of things wrong with Harrisburg. And the way I was elected speaker, that’s a prime description of what is wrong with Harrisburg because the Republicans had a majority at that time,” Rozzi said. “But they tried to manipulate, hoodwink, snooker the members of this General Assembly by electing me, thinking that I would do their bidding for them. That I would turn against my party.”
Rozzi’s time as speaker was mostly marked by a partisan stalemate over the rules that govern the chamber and dictate who controls the legislative agenda.
State House lawmakers usually adopt rules on the first day of a new legislative session. Democrats did not publicly offer a proposal in January, but Republicans did and urged a vote on them.
Rozzi instead recessed the chamber, formed a bipartisan work group, and embarked on a statewide listening tour to solicit input from citizens and activists.
Overwhelmingly, Rozzi was told the chamber should enact rules that give all lawmakers, rather than leaders and committee chairs, more say in policymaking.
As of Tuesday, Rozzi had not publicly released his rules proposal, though his office summarized some of the proposed changes in a news release last week.
Among them: making it easier to force votes on legislation in committees or on the floor, giving the minority party more representation on committees, and expanding sexual harassment and discrimination protections. (The latter have increased relevance after a lobbyist told Rozzi’s work group earlier this month that an unnamed, sitting lawmaker harassed her. Under previous rules, she was unable to file a complaint.)
Rozzi said he thinks Democrats “will be the bigger people” and support fairer rules, but that remains to be seen.
Some Democrats told Spotlight PA they want to use their new majority powers to push through their policy priorities, as Republicans did over the past decade while ignoring many of the minority party’s top issues. Some of these issues had bipartisan support, like raising the minimum wage and expanding non-discrimination protections to LGBTQ individuals.
Others, including many from this year’s large freshmen class, said they want fairer rules that give lawmakers from the minority party some say.
“I love to win, but the message that I’m very much getting from constituents back home is that they want legislators who can govern,” state Rep. Izzy Smith-Wade-El (D., Lancaster) told Spotlight PA last week.
Democratic rank-and-file lawmakers said Tuesday that they have yet to see a draft of the rules proposal. Democratic leadership has largely remained silent on specifics, but McClinton seemingly backed a shift in rules during her Tuesday speech.
“The majority will no longer silence the minority party,” McClinton said after winning the speakership.
State House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster), who previously served as speaker, struck a similar tone in a statement congratulating McClinton on her election to the position.
“After several months of gridlock and a state House of Representatives that has not been working for the people, we are in dire need of a reset,” Cutler said.
Still, it was noted by one Capitol veteran that McClinton did not receive any Republican support. Typically, the minority party, once defeated, allows the vote to be recorded as unanimous for the chamber’s record as a sign of respect for the new speaker.
With McClinton’s ascent to the speakership, the Democratic caucus also reshuffled its leadership Tuesday. Democratic Appropriations Committee Chair Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) was elected in an internal vote to be the new majority leader; the role places him in charge of the caucus’ internal operations and policy agenda.
State Rep. Jordan Harris (D., Philadelphia) was elevated from whip to chair of the state House Appropriations Committee, where he will lead the caucus’ budget negotiations.
State Rep. Dan Miller (D., Allegheny) will replace Harris as whip, a role that’s tasked with ensuring the caucus votes the party line.
WHILE YOU’RE HERE… If you learned something from this story, pay it forward and become a member of Spotlight PA so someone else can in the future at spotlightpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.
Featured image caption: Joanna McClinton is the first woman and second Black person to serve as Pennsylvania House speaker. ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER
Spotlight PA is dedicated to producing nonpartisan investigative journalism about Pennsylvania government and urgent statewide issues. We are an independent watchdog unafraid to dig deep, fight for the truth and take on the powerful to expose wrongdoing and spur meaningful reform. We connect Pennsylvanians to their state, and to each other, through public service journalism that matters to their lives and is creatively told in the many modern, digital ways they consume their news.