Tapped for leadership, Ward, McClinton shatter 244-year-old glass ceiling in Pa. General Assembly

Philadelphia Democrat Rep. Joanna McClinton, left, and Westmoreland County Republican Sen. Kim Ward, right, became the first two women to be elected as floor leaders in the Pennsylvania General Assembly's 330 year history Thursday. (Capital-Star photos by Stephen Caruso)

Women made history in Pennsylvania’s House and Senate Thursday, when lawmakers elected two female legislators as floor leaders for the first time in the General Assembly’s 244-year history.

State Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, and Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, will become the highest-ranking women in the General Assembly when they start their new terms as Senate majority leader and House minority leader next session.

McClinton will be the the first Black woman to serve as floor leader in the General Assembly, as well as the second Black lawmaker to lead a caucus – a height not seen since 1977, when the late K. Leroy Irvis was elected the first, and so far only, Black House speaker in the chamber’s history.  

She will replace Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, as the House’s top-ranking Democrat. Dermody lost his reelection bid to Republican challenger Carrie DelRosso in an upset race last week. 

In the Senate, Ward shattered precedent as the first woman in either chamber of the General Assembly to be elected majority leader — a position that gives her great influence over the Senate’s legislative agenda and floor debates.  

Ward will succeed Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, whose colleagues promoted him to president pro tempore to replace retiring Sen. Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

Lawmakers typically hold their internal, closed-door leadership elections in the last weeks of a legislative session, after voters have decided who will represent them in Harrisburg for another term. 

Senate Democrats have postponed their elections until next week, as they wait for election officials to count the final votes in the 39th Senatorial District, where incumbent Jim Brewster, D-Allegheny, currently leads challenger Nicole Ziccarrelli by 44 votes.

Leaders of majority caucuses decide which bills are voted on, which are not, and command a powerful position in state budget negotiations. They also have a final say on staffing and the caucus budgets.

Minorities leaders, meanwhile, share those same administrative duties, but do not have the same authority. Instead, they must command the bully pulpit for their party in debates while playing defense with amendments or procedural motions. McClinton will also sit in on budget negotiations with Gov. Tom Wolf, a fellow Democrat.

The new slate of leaders will have their work cut out for them in January, as the state continues to confront the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on workers, schools and communities. 

They will also have to manage a once-in-a-decade redistricting process, when political lines are redrawn and seats shifted to match new Census data. The new maps will influence the balance of power in Harrisburg for years to come.

Signs of change?

Research suggests that adding women to political leadership should help prevent polarization and promote cooperation between the parties, according to Jennie Sweet-Cushman, a Chatham University professor who studies women in Pennsylvania politics.

Pennsylvania has never elected a female governor. And while there are a record number of women serving as lawmakers in Harrisburg, they still make up barely one-quarter of the legislative body. 

Women are also underrepresented in top leadership posts, which have typically been held by white men. 

The General Assembly traces its lineage back nearly 330 years, to a unicameral legislature founded in colonial times. But until Thursday, the highest rank a woman had achieved in the House since the 1950’s was majority whip.

House Republicans made history earlier this year, when Rep. Donna Oberlander, R-Clarion, was elected to that post over the summer.

Sweet-Cushman said the slow gains for women are partially a result of the seniority-based structure of the General Assembly.

Pennsylvania doesn’t have term limits, Sweet-Cushman noted, so the longest-serving lawmakers, historically men, are in better positions to hold leadership. 

“The full-time professional Legislature has historically attracted more male candidates than women candidates, which is changing in the last few election cycles, but that takes time to increase the number of women in the Legislature, both caucuses, and ultimately leadership,” Sweet-Cushman said. 

McClinton’s victory in particular represents a shift in the balance of power away from the western half of the state and towards a younger, more diverse generation of lawmakers, Sweet-Cushman said.

In 2018, most Democratic leaders were men who came from the western half of the state who had more than a century of combined experience in the Capitol.

But McClinton “well-represents the face of the party in a way that the traditional western [Pennsylvania] older, white men who preceded her have not,” Sweet-Cushman said in an email.

A former public defender, McClinton, 38, has been a trailblazer since she was elected to the House in a 2015 special election. She currently serves as caucus chair, and was the first Black woman to hold the post.

Her quick assent from freshman lawmaker to floor leader is among the fastest in the General Assembly’s history. 

Ward was first elected to the Senate in 2008, when the then-Westmoreland County commissioner replaced an incumbent Republican who dropped out of his race barely two months before the general election. 

In a recent tribute to retiring Scarnati, Ward said she was reluctant when local party leaders tried to recruit her for the race. But she changed her mind when Scarnati called her personally to pledge his support. 

“They called and said ‘we have a week to put someone on the ballot … and it has to be you,’” Ward said in a video message to Scarnati, which aired on the Senate floor in October. “I didn’t want to do it … but you called and said you’d take care of it, and you did. I’ve trusted you ever since.”

Ward acknowledged the historic nature of her post in a brief interview following the closed-door Senate Republican caucus meeting Thursday.

“I’m very honored to have been elected to this position,” Ward told the Capital-Star. “Yes, I am a woman. But I am a senator first.”