(*This post was updated shortly after publication on Thursday, 11/19/20 with comments from state Sens. Katie Muth and Maria Collett.)
Two progressive freshman lawmakers broke into leadership ranks in the state Senate Democrats on Thursday, beating out moderate colleagues with many more years of Capitol experience.
Sens. Katie Muth and Maria Collett, who both hail from the Philadelphia suburbs and were among a wave of Democratic women elected to office in 2018, were chosen by their colleagues to serve as policy chair and caucus secretary, respectively, when the General Assembly starts its new legislative session in 2021.
Both women are former healthcare professionals, and will join the Senate’s minority leadership slate as the General Assembly confronts the worsening COVID-19 pandemic.
Muth ousted current policy chair Lisa Boscola, a moderate Democrat and five-term senator from Northampton County, who has served in the Legislature since 1994.
A sometimes polarizing figure in the usually staid Senate, Muth gained fame – and notoriety – in 2019 when her protest of cash welfare cuts led to a shouting match on the Senate floor.
Along with Collett, she has been a vocal critic of the way the General Assembly has handled internal complaints of sexual harassment and abuse.
She’s sponsored legislation to curb carbon emissions and environmental pollution, and championed a measure, signed by Gov. Tom Wolf this year, that makes it a crime for law enforcement officers to have sex with people in their custody.
A former physical therapist, Muth will now have more sway over her caucus’s legislative agenda. Her new post as policy chair comes with the power to convene public hearings across the state, where experts and members of the public can weigh in on policy debates.
As caucus secretary, Collett will help shepherd executive nominations through the Senate’s confirmation process.
The position is currently held by Sen. Larry Farnese, of Philadelphia, whose reelection campaign ended in June when he lost to a progressive primary challenger.
Collett, who was a prosecutor and nurse before her election to the Senate, ran against two-term Sen. John Blake, of Lackawanna county, for Farnese’s vacant leadership seat.
The leadership shakeup follows a bruising election cycle for Pennsylvania Democrats, who hoped to wrest control of the state House and shave away the Republican majority in the Senate.
Down-ballot Democratic candidates failed on both counts, and also lost two statewide races for row offices.
Some Democrats were quick to blame progressive candidates for the losses, saying they’d alienated voters with their proposals to radically alter law enforcement and take aggressive action against climate change.
Neither Muth or Collett were up for reelection this year. But the 2020 election hasn’t shaken their commitment to progressive policies, and both say they ran for leadership to help the party improve its appeals to voters.
Collett said she’s known since 2016 that Democrats need to “rebuild and reach people that we didn’t necessarily reach before.”
“For some reason, our message isn’t resonating with half the Commonwealth,” Collet told the Capital-Star Thursday. “This [caucus secretary] position became open, and I saw it as an opportunity to work my way into leadership, help us redirect, and get us thinking in new ways.”
Muth said she hopes to use her policy perch to “streamline the Democratic message, advocacy and platform” in all of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, and to increase public awareness of how state government works.
Knocking on more than 100,000 doors in her district during her 2018 campaign, she said, “I realized that the disconnect was huge” between voters and their representatives.
Muth and Collett will be the only new additions to the caucus leadership slate, which was chosen in a closed-door meeting Thursday.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, of Allegheny County, as well as Sens. Vincent Hughes, of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Wayne Fontana, also of Allegheny County, the current caucus chairman, all ran unopposed for their leadership posts.
Sen. Tony Williams, of Philadelphia, fended off a challenge from Sen. Steve Santarsiero, of Bucks County, to serve another term as Democratic whip – a position that tries to secure votes and mediate differences among caucus members.
Internal leadership positions can grant lawmakers more sway in the Capitol, and also come with new office staff and a bump to their $86,000 base annual salary.
Lawmakers elect their caucus leaders in closed-door meetings at the end of every two-year legislative session.
Muth and Collett aren’t the only women to ascend to new leadership positions in the General Assembly this month.
House Republicans appointed Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, as the General Assembly’s first-ever female majority floor leader.
Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, made history on the same day when she became the first woman – and first Black woman – to be elected minority leader in the House Democratic caucus.