State Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, speaks during a press conference in Philadelphia about protecting abortion access on May 4, 2022. (Commonwealth Media Services)
History, a very wise Vulcan philosopher once said, is replete with turning points. And, occasionally, if you are lucky, you even notice one unfolding right in front of you.
That’s exactly what happened on Tuesday when House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, took the Speaker’s Gavel, replacing Democratic Rep Mark Rozzi, of Berks County, to become the first Black woman to preside over the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
That McClinton’s ascension to the rostrum was long expected did not dilute the significance of the moment. For the very first time, Black women across the commonwealth could look to Harrisburg and see someone who looks like them safeguarding their interests.
As they unveiled a report on the state of Black Pennsylvania, members of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus alluded to the weightiness of the moment more than once, noting that it was part of broader changes within a 253-member General Assembly that is slowly, but inexorably, beginning to look like all the people it serves.
“We will have the first African American female speaker — which means so much for all people,” Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia said, even as McClinton assumed power in another part of the Capitol.
“We have a more equitable Senate, a new governor, and new legislative lines that have increased representation … this work needs to be appreciated,” he said.
And, those same lawmakers added, it also needs to continue.
McClinton recognized that herself during remarks from the House floor, saying that “we, in this moment in time right now, have to pinch ourselves because it was almost 250 years before a woman could stand at this desk, not just to give a prayer, but to get the gavel.”
It has, without doubt, been a big year for women in state politics.
On the other side of the Capitol, Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, is the first woman to oversee the 50-member Senate. And on the other side of Commonwealth Avenue, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Debra Todd is the first woman to run the state’s nearly all-encompassing legal system.
In a statement, Todd said the long-overdue ascension of women to the highest levels of state government are “historic moments” that send “a strong message to every little girl wondering what her future may hold.
“For the first time in Pennsylvania history, women are rising to the highest levels of leadership,” Todd said “While we celebrate our collective achievements, we also pause to remember those who came before us; their strength propelled us to break through the glass ceiling and continues to drive women to new heights.”
Unlike other states, however, Pennsylvania has yet to elect women to the Governor’s Office or the U.S Senate — leaving two more glass ceilings to be shattered.
Meanwhile, McClinton takes power with a precarious 102-101 majority that could be upended at any time — as the past two months of a brief Republican interregnum have shown.
And while her fellow Democrats may have grand visions of spending the state’s currently bulging (and apparently transitory) budget surplus, McClnton will be, as both a matter of practicality and political survival, required to work with Republicans to get Gov. Josh Shapiro’s policy priorities across the goal line in the lower chamber
And McClinton, who may be as good a vote-counter as any the House has produced in years, made it clear Tuesday that she knows that’s the case as well.
“There have been times when we’ve had policy debates where we haven’t agreed on everything, but I encourage us to find the issues where we have common denominators,” McClinton said.
That first test will come next week when Shapiro delivers his first budget address to a joint session of the state House and Senate.
Details, thus far, are scant — but the administration has signaled that it will focus on meeting a state court’s mandate to change the way the commonwealth pays for public education.
“I will say stay tuned for our budget, because I think … there’s going to be a lot to say about creating an equitable education system in Harrisburg,” Lt. Gov. Austin Davis said during a Monday speech before the Pennsylvania Press Club.
For now, McClinton’s election is being met with the tributes and accolades appropriate to the moment.
Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, who delivered a speech seconding McClinton’s election, said in remarks after she took the oath, that he’s “said it before and I’ll say it again: Pennsylvania, Joanna McClinton is going to make you so proud.”
McClinton’s election, on the final day of Black History Month, was a history-making moment in an historic month, Khalif Ali, the executive director of the good government group, Common Cause of Pennsylvania, said in a statement.
“We’re thrilled to congratulate her for being the first woman of color to occupy this office,” Ali said. “The people of Pennsylvania have been waiting for a leader who understands the need for voting rights reform, and the expectation is that Speaker McClinton will be that champion.”
Spock, that Vulcan philosopher who coined that aphorism I started with at the top of this column, also noted that, when it comes to those historic turning points, “you must have faith that the universe will unfold as it should.”
Of course, this is Pennsylvania, where anything that can go wrong often does — and in the most spectacular of ways. But, for now, it feels like appreciating this historic moment is enough — even as we trust that the universe will unfold as it should.
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