CapStar Q+A: Pa. House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton on bipartisanship, redistricting

Then House Caucus Chair Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, walks with her colleagues to a church service in Harrisburg in fall 2020, before she was picked by her colleagues to replace Democratic Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Even if lawmakers are out of town, Harrisburg has stayed busy since the election. The 2020 election has been relitigated, a budget passed, and new leaders picked.

Among the new faces set to drive the action is House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia. She was elected as leader of the House Democrats to replace former leader, and 30-year veteran Rep. Frank Dermody, of Allegheny County, who lost reelection.

The Capital-Star talked with McClinton earlier this month to discuss what it’s like replacing a veteran leader, the Democrats’ electoral woes, and the path forward for the party.

The interview below has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: You’re bringing a lot of experience to this job that hasn’t been there before. You were a public defender. You’re a minister. You’re tied as the second woman to be named as leader of a caucus with [Senate Majority Leader] Kim Ward, and you’re the first Black woman as leader. So, how will you use these experiences to change the House Democratic Caucus and how Harrisburg works?

A: I don’t really get into the ministry that I’ve been able to do in my personal life, but I think that my experience as a public defender, and growing up in faith and becoming a minister as an adult, brings a lot of compassion, and a lot of service. And I’ve always considered myself to be a servant leader. 

So one that’s willing to not just give everybody orders or instructions but really, you know, get in the trenches take the time to listen to my colleagues and to hear their priorities and just, you know, work alongside them to make sure that every time we are called to session that their constituents voices are being amplified, and that we are not only responding to attacks on citizens and working families but that we are making efforts to move the needle.

Q: In American politics at least, we often associate religion to be something that’s used more by Republicans, by the right. How does your faith play into being a Democrat, being someone on the left side of the political spectrum?

A: I could just say that for me, I have it deep in my roots. But unlike what I’ve sadly seen, and not necessarily in Harrisburg,  but on a larger scale, I’ve seen religion be used as a weapon.

And I’ve never, between my family and my actual church where I attend, I’ve never, you know seen that model, see that type of behavior modeled the way I do on the political stage. Usually it’s used as a weapon to separate, to divide, even to condemn or ostracize folks. And for me, it’s a little bit more of a way to unify, and to learn and to most importantly, be able to, understand what’s different and what’s also similar.

Q: You’ve been in office for five years. Your predecessor Frank Dermody had been in office for roughly 20 years when he took on House Minority Leader. Is there a learning curve? How are you approaching this job when you didn’t have as much time in office as Dermody did.

A: I am leaning on members. A third of our members have 20-plus years experience right now. So leaning on my members, and of course, making sure that the team I surround myself with has strong institutional knowledge, because it’s important that, not only as we approach things in a fresh way…we’re also considering what things were not successful in the past. 

Q: What are some of the mistakes you don’t want to repeat?

A: Well, because we’re in the minority, a lot of the things that we have to do is really just be offensive, generally. On the floor and when in committees, bills are called up that are totally contrary to what a predominant amount of working families across Pennsylvania, that just in a major way elected Joe Biden to be their president … want. And many times the electorate is just not informed about these issues and how they’re Republican holdovers or even new Republicans, like in [Dermody’s] districts, are actually going to advocate. So we have to let people know you know what’s going on under the dome and we have to simplify the message for what we stand for, and what the other side is perpetuating, that is not helpful to them.

Q: The Democratic caucus is very diverse. That’s always been the case but it seems like the gap between the most progressive and most conservative members has got even wider: You have representatives who are in districts that Trump assuredly one by maybe 30,40 points, and you’re gonna have members who are endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America. How are you going to manage that caucus and what are issues that you think unite all 90 of those members?

A: So as much as we have diversity, to me it is a strength. It’s a strength that we have members who are literally taking on some very serious business and industry in the state. That’s controversial for other members.

I think the strength lies in the basics. Everybody wants their kids to go to a great public school, right, no matter where you live, no matter who you voted for the president, if you were to ask people ‘hey do you want your kids to have a well, fairly funded educational system?’ Yes, the answer is yes.

And then the next question is, if you were to ask folks across the state ‘if you work, say, 60 hours a week, wouldn’t it be great that for that to be sufficient for you to at least keep a roof over your head?’ And the answer, once again, that would be yes, absolutely, Pennsylvania has not the minimum wage since 2006, and people work 60 hours and can’t afford a two bedroom apartment anywhere in the state …

… And then finally, the pandemic you know has just shone a light between inequities, the haves and the have nots and it’s almost making that gap widen, as we see people out of work who normally would be at work in hospitality and restaurants in the industry. 

So we also know that health care has to be a real accessible option for people. It cannot just be. ‘oh, the socialists want Medicare for all and the traditional Democrats you know want certain benefits for other folks.’ This is real now you know, we’re seeing it.

Unfortunately, even, you know, the governor, just announced that he has the coronavirus. People need to be able to access health care, you know the treatments that the President bragged about. We should all be able to get that type of treatment, God forbid we come into contact with coronavirus and our lungs start to really begin to debilitate. We should all have access to that treatment but the truth is we do not.

Q: Do you think there still can be bipartisanship in light of the 2019-2020 session? It had a lot of partisan fights. There also was some genuine bipartisan compromise. But do you see any reason to be optimistic about the coming session?

A: Absolutely, I mean what we’re seeing as a result of the election is very unfortunate. But I wish I could say it was surprising. You know all year, the president has set up a conspiracy theory of not being able to trust the system of the mail-in voting, and sadly has just deceived a lot of people into thinking [the results weren’t] true. What’s worse, is that in Pennsylvania, we had the opportunity in September to fix Act 77, and make sure that counties could pre-canvass and that it would not take several days to call the election results. But of course my colleagues dumped in a lot of disenfranchisement measures. So what we’re going to have to be on the lookout for is the silencing of voters. Unfortunately, Republicans want to make it harder for people to vote now that they see that taking down barriers makes it easier for working class people to be able to vote..That is threatening their power.

It’s awful because you know any other time they’d be saying, ‘Oh, we want everybody to vote and participate.’ but now that the president has lost clearly he’s lost. I’ve already seen proposals in the Pennsylvania House to change the way voting happens, to make it harder. So that is something we will have to hotly fight. But even in a bad fight I do think we’ll be able to sit down and find out the things that we can agree upon and really make progress on them.

Q: What sort of ways do you think that bipartisanship can be built in Harrisburg to bridge the fact that you are also going to have messy partisan fights over voting?

A: So that partisanship can be built in a number of ways. I mean, the first way is if it was a non-pandemic situation, we can make efforts out of the chamber to sit down and to talk and to just get to know people. There are not enough events or gatherings when it’s safe to do so, where people don’t have to wear their politics on their sleeves or speak on behalf of their constituents.

But what I have found in my few years here is that when you spend time off the floor in somebody’s office, visiting them or talking to them walking to the floor or talking to them after a committee hearing you find out a little bit more about who they are. It takes effort on both sides to decide what types of relationships we want …. In this world where many things are now virtual perhaps even had virtual meetings. Just saying hello and touching bases so that even in this, you know, highly charged political atmosphere, highly partisan atmosphere that we’re able to be humans first.

Q: Democrats lost three seats in the House. Leading up to an election, there seemed to be a lot of optimism that the majority was in play, if not like at least picking up seats and making it closer. Why do you think Democrats lost seats this year?

A: What was not expected was a surge of Trump voters. I think a lot of traditional Democrats were happy that a moderate Democrat was chosen to lead the country, and a lot of Republicans, mostly retired Republicans, you know, coming out endorsing Joe Biden.

But what we saw, particularly in Pennsylvania, was just a surge of newer voters, and some didn’t vote for the president four years ago because they don’t vote normally. But they came out in very high numbers. That really devastated what we thought would have been a very promising election year that would have led Frank Dermody to the speakership. That was what not just we were hoping for, but it was certainly what a number of polls indicated. And also the types of responses our leading candidates were getting from people who lived in their districts. But as we saw it just was not enough the numbers have to add up to win and they did not add up.

Q: How are you going to bounce back from this and potentially build a Democratic majority in the Pennsylvania House?

A: It is still a possibility for us to develop and establish and fight for a Democratic majority in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. It will require a few things. The first thing is a fairer map. 

Many of our legislative districts are gerrymandered in a way that is just not even competitive. Fair Districts, Common Cause. Committee of 70, a lot of nonpartisan groups have been working this legislative session to change the way the maps happen because you know it’s just shown that our state is one of the most gerrymandered states in the entire country. And that makes competitive elections impossible. So that being said, it starts with fair maps.

Q: Would you support changing the process so that you don’t, and your colleagues across the aisle don’t, have a say in how districts are drawn?

A: We do need to have a process where the people who either are benefited or negatively impacted are not at the table. It’s very difficult to say, ‘I’m going to make a pie and enjoy some of it for my family and not make sure it’s the best pie ever.’

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