House Majority Leader Joanna McClinton speaks on the House floor on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. (Capital Star photo by Peter Hall)
[This story was updated at 4:14 p.m., Tuesday, 2/28/2023, to include additional reporting.]
The Pennsylvania House of Representatives elected Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, on Tuesday to lead the chamber as the first woman and second Black speaker.
McClinton’s election immediately followed Rep. Mark Rozzi’s resignation as speaker after the Berks County Democrat said he had accomplished his goals by passing a proposed constitutional amendment and legislation that would allow childhood sexual abuse survivors to sue their abusers.
McClinton, a former public defender, recognized the significance of her election by remembering Rep. K. Leroy Irvis, the first Black speaker of the House, and the first women elected to the Legislature and higher offices, including Rep. Crystal Bird Fauset, the first Black woman elected to any state Legislature.
“But there’s still so much farther for us to go,” McClinton said, noting that no woman has served as governor or U.S. Senator in Pennsylvania. “And 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.”
Alluding to the two months of stalemate after the House was unable to agree on operating rules, McClinton said the moment also calls for real change in the way lawmakers work.
“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.
She also said she would lead the House in standing up to every form of discrimination.
“We are going to have rules that protect women, people of color, LGBTQIA+, because this is Pennsylvania where democracy was born. It shouldn’t matter who you love. It shouldn’t matter whether you pray, and it shouldn’t matter how you were born, and the color of your skin,” McClinton said.
In his speech nominating McClinton, Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, said she has worked to ensure in her career as a public defender, as chief counsel to Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia and as a state representative.
“You have been a phenomenal member of this body. You have been an outstanding leader of our caucus, and you are such a leader that we need for such a time as this to lead Pennsylvania to a better place,” Kenyatta said.
McClinton inherits control of the House after discord over which party could rightfully claim control after the death of longtime Rep. Anthony DeLuca and the resignations of Reps. Austin Davis, who was elected lieutenant governor, and Rep. Summer Lee, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. All three were Democratic lawmakers from Allegheny County.
McClinton was originally nominated to serve as speaker on Jan. 3 when the House convened for the first day of the current session. With narrow vote margins, neither party was able to elect its nominee for speaker.
Rozzi was elected with the support of 16 Republicans in a compromise in which he vowed to lead the chamber as an independent. He drew the ire of Republicans, including a key ally in his fight to secure justice for child abuse survivors.
Although Rozzi pushed through relief for abuse survivors and worked to untangle an impasse over the chamber’s operating rules, he expressed ambivalence about whether he would stay in the role of speaker.
In his speech before resigning, Rozzi said he never had a desire to be a state representative, much less the House Speaker, before he realized that the General Assembly put the policy goals of special interests ahead of the people. As a survivor of abuse himself, he sought office to advocate for his childhood friends who had suffered the trauma of sexual assault.
But after seeing his legislation to give abuse survivors a two-year window to renew expired legal claims against their attackers fail session after session, Rozzi said he realized he could not accomplish change as a rank-and-file lawmaker.
“That’s why when presented with the opportunity to become speaker of the House, I jumped on it. I thought that finally I would be able to change things. I thought that finally I could place kids above special interest. But yet again, my perspective has changed,” Rozzi said.
In a series of public hearings, Rozzi gathered public input on how Pennsylvanians want the General Assembly to work to formulate new.
Last week he announced that “the Rozzi Rules” would focus on ending the ability of majority party leaders to bottle up legislation in committees, changing the partisan makeup of committees, and giving rank-and-file members more power to move legislation forward.
Rozzi said he was convinced of the need for reform by the state Senate Republicans’ move to tie the constitutional amendment for survivors to proposals that would require every voter to provide identification at the polls and that would give the General Assembly veto power over regulations from the executive branch.
“No member should be forced to choose between providing relief to kids who were raped and disenfranchising untold numbers of their fellow Pennsylvanians,” Rozzi said.
He also chastised House Republicans for what he characterized as an attempt to use the death of a colleague and the historic election of Pennsylvania’s first Black lieutenant governor and congresswoman to claim an undeserved majority in the House.
“The reality is I only stand at this rostrum because [of] what is wrong with Harrisburg. Not what is right,” he said.
Rozzi called the Republican support for his election an attempt to “hoodwink the House, and elect a member of the other party as speaker to do their bidding for them.”
In a statement after Rozzi’s resignation, Republican Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said in a statement that support for Rozzi’s election was an attempt to build trust to move the House forward.
“Unfortunately, despite the attempt to find a unique solution for an evenly divided House, Rep. Rozzi openly broke that trust essentially from the moment he was elected,” Cutler said.
“Right now, the House is in dire need of a reset, and I remain committed to working with anyone who is willing to work with us to find solutions,” Cutler said. “However, the only way we will be able to move forward is by lowering the temperatures that have risen due to an unforeseen lack of integrity that has set back our ability to work across the aisle.”
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