Black Dems take over Pa. House floor; Turzai calls for special session on police reform

(Photo courtesy Pa. House Democratic Caucus)

(*This story has been updated to include comment from Senate Republicans and Reps. Stephen Kinsey, D-Philadelphia, and Valerie Gaydos, R-Allegheny)

The most powerful Republican in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives said Monday that he “[stands] in solidarity,” with Black lawmakers who have called for votes on long-delayed police reform bills, and proposed a special legislative session on those bills.

The remarks by state House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, came as the chamber’s Black members, all Democrats, occupied the House chamber and refused to allow Monday’s voting session to begin until there was a guarantee of action on the legislation. The measures include a ban on chokeholds, expanding public access to police footage and adjusting use of force guidelines.

“In the matter of peaceful civil disobedience. They have expressed their anger. Their frustration. Certainly the issues they raise are legitimate,” Turzai, who is retiring at year’s end, said in remarks that stretched about nine minutes.

#BlackLivesMatter rally in Harrisburg: ‘We will get police reform in the state of Pennsylvania’

Turzai told the Black lawmakers, who were joined Monday by some white colleagues, that House leadership would meet to discuss the legislation, and send a joint letter to Gov. Tom Wolf to call for the special session.

Turzai acknowledged Monday that there wouldn’t be a consensus on more than 10 Democrat-backed reform bills, but did say there was room for consensus.

Turzai vowed to lawmakers to “personally” review the proposals and hoped to reach “common ground.” A 30-minute session on Monday afternoon did not immediately yield a result. Across the Capitol, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, announced she planned to hold hearings on reform measures.

The takeover in the House Monday came together over the last two days, Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, said in a text message. Rep. Stephen Kinsey, D-Philadelphia, the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, said lawmakers had reached their tipping point.

“We can’t keep going back to our communities talking about Republican-led House majority and not getting anything done. Just like you’ve seen action in the street you’ve seen action in the Capitol,” Kinsey told the Capital-Star.

Rep. Valerie Gaydos, R-Allegheny, stood during the moment of silence like many of her colleagues– though a few paid the moment if silence little mind and scrolled through their phones.

Gaydos said the protest had merit, but said that it had set a precedent that any lawmaker with demands could copy the approach to get their way. Then, the chamber would have “abandoned rule of law.” She could not yet say what she would vote for.

While symbolically important, special legislative sessions rarely result in concrete legislative action. The notable exception was a special session in crime in 1995, under former GOP Gov. Tom Ridge, that saw lawmakers pass a glut of get-tough measures.

Democrats also asked for, and were rebuffed, in their request for a special session following the death of Antwon Rose, a Pittsburgh teen who was shot to death by a white police officer two years ago this month. The officer who shot Rose was later acquitted.

Turzai’s remarks came after more than an hour of fiery speeches by Black lawmakers lambasting the lack of action on the legislation, which has been stalled in committee for months.

“You all want calm right now. You just want to go to caucus, and ‘We will talk about this at another time,'” Kenyatta, his voice steadily rising with emotion, said during his turn at the rostrum.

“We’re not going to have the ceremony and pomp and circumstance of us coming up here like its another day,” Kenyatta continued. “This is our moment to say enough is enough.”

The chamber had been set to gavel in at 1 p.m., when Turzai was expected to publicly address the protests that have rocked Pennsylvania and the nation since George Floyd, a Black man, died under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer two weeks ago.

Shortly before 1 p.m., the House’s online feed switched to a color-bar test pattern as Democrats staged their takeover. Black lawmakers, including Rep. Chris Rabb and Minority Whip Jordan Harris, both of Philadelphia, respectively streamed the peaceful takeover on their Instagram and Facebook accounts.

“We respect this body, we respect this institution … for this promise and its potential,” Rabb said, as Democrats began their round of speeches.

In remarks from the rostrum, Rep Margo Davidson, D-Delaware, said the Democrats’ policing package would bring accountability to law enforcement.

“We hold criminals accountable in this House. Let’s hold criminals accountable no matter what uniform they are wearing,” Davidson said.

Rep. Summer Lee, a Pittsburgh lawmaker who’s been in the vanguard of the reform effort, said lawmakers “have a responsibility to step in … even when it’s not your neck.”

Late last week, Wolf rolled out a package of police reforms that included citizen review boards for state and local police. Wolf also said the state would redo its use-of-force training standards, and create an inspector general to investigate fraud and misconduct among law enforcement.

While the state Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police released a statement acknowledging the need for change, saying Floyd’s death has “has diminished the trust and respect,” for law enforcement, Wolf faced pushback from the union representing Pennsylvania State Police troopers, an agency he directly controls.

Asked about reform matters during a Monday afternoon news conference, Wolf said, “we have to get out of denial. We all have a vested interest in making this a fair society.”

While it’s up to Wolf to call a special legislative session, a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans said Monday that the leaders in upper chamber “don’t believe that a special session is needed to move bills.”

“We can do that now – and faster,” Senate GOP spokeswoman Jenn Kocher said.

In a series of memos Monday, Democratic lawmakers signaled their intent to introduce bills creating new accountability measures for police and limiting use-of-force tactics.

Associate Editor Cassie Miller and staff reporter Elizabeth Hardison contributed to this story.