It seems no one knows whether Democratic leader Joanna McClinton will replace Mark Rozzi as speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives after special elections take place on Tuesday for three Democratic-held constituencies—including Rozzi or McClinton themselves. The Philadelphia Inquirer says that the chamber has traditionally required a two-thirds vote to recall a speaker, though Rozzi, who won the post in a surprise last month, could voluntarily choose to step aside.
But it doesn't seem like he's eager to do so. Rozzi, a moderate who remains a registered Democrat a month after he pledged to run the chamber as an independent, told the Associated Press this week that he wants to keep his gavel and wouldn’t commit to stepping down to support McClinton, who'd been the chamber's speaker-apparent after Democrats won a majority of seats in November. The Inquirer also recently asked McClinton, who would be the first Black woman to run the state House, if she anticipated becoming speaker “any time soon,” to which she responded, “The answer is, I don’t know.”
Republicans began the week with 101 members in the 203-person House compared to 99 for Rozzi and the other Democrats, with those three blue constituencies vacant. (Democrats won a 102-101 edge in November, but Republicans have still enjoyed a small advantage in membership.) Republicans, though, will lose a representative for a few months because state Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver won a Tuesday special election to the state Senate: Schlegel Culver defeated Democrat Patricia Lawton 70-30 to hold a district that Trump took 67-31, and the contest to fill her comparably red House seat likely won't take place until May 16, the same day as Pennsylvania's regular statewide primary.
Until then, assuming they successfully defend all three seats next week in the Pittsburgh area, Democrats would hold a 102-100 majority. It's likely they will: A prominent conservative organization said in December it was “evaluating opportunities” as far as those three races go, but so far, Republican outside groups don’t appear to have deployed any serious resources in any of these contests.
The most competitive race on paper is for House District 35, a 58-41 Biden seat that Democrat Austin Davis won in November before resigning to become lieutenant governor. (Pennsylvania allows candidates to run for the legislature and another office at the same time.) This race pits Democrat Matt Gergely, who serves as finance director for the community of McKeesport, against Don Nevills, the Republican who lost to Davis 66-34 last year.
Local Democratic official Joe McAndrew will also be defending District 32, a 62-36 Biden constituency where state Rep. Tony DeLuca was posthumously re-elected, against pastor Clay Walker. Finally, Swissvale Borough Council President Abigail Salisbury should have no trouble succeeding now-Rep. Summer Lee in District 34, where Biden won 80-19.
Rozzi, for his part, was elected speaker a month ago with the support of the entire Democratic caucus as well as 16 Republicans, but his position has always been tenuous. Democratic state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta tweeted just two days after that contest to predict that, once the specials are resolved, McClinton "will become Speaker Joanna McClinton."
Some of Rozzi’s former GOP backers, who supported him after concluding they couldn’t elect one of their own, have also made it clear they’re not happy that he’s remained close to the Democrats and hasn’t dropped his party affiliation. Rozzi says he only agreed to consider becoming an independent but doesn’t plan to do so, but that isn’t how Republican leader Bryan Cutler recounts it. “I think the mistake was trusting somebody who wasn’t entirely truthful,” said Cutler, adding, “That was a mistake. And there’s still time to correct that.”
Rozzi himself, though, insists that it’s Cutler who betrayed him over a proposed constitutional amendment that would give survivors of childhood sexual abuse a special two-year window to sue over claims that had otherwise expired. Rozzi, who himself is an abuse survivor, says that he believed the GOP-controlled state Senate crossed him by packaging this measure with two unrelated conservative amendments in order to pressure the House into placing all three on the ballot.
The speaker insists he unsuccessfully tried to reach a resolution with Cutler, but had harsh words for the Republican. “You talk to the Democrats up here over the last 12 years and they’ll tell you, like every opportunity that Bryan Cutler got a chance to lie to them, he lied to them,” said Rozzi. Following the debacle regarding the abuse amendment, Rozzi adjourned the chamber until late February without any further legislative action. The House also has yet to agree on operating rules that, among other things, would determine how many members from each party would sit on each committee.
McClinton herself said last week she has a “positive working relationship,” with the speaker, but she hasn’t said if she’d ask him to step aside. Rozzi himself was noncommittal, saying of McClinton, “So, you know, at the end of the day she still has to get the votes to become speaker of the House.” While acknowledging his critics, he insisted, “I think that if I can show people I can lead this House, maybe I could stay in this position.”
An unnamed Rozzi ally, however, told the AP, “Mark is not certain about how long his tenure lasts …. There’s no textbook that he’s going to be able to pull out and read the next play from.” McClinton, for her part, said in response to Rozzi’s comments about her that she “would be honored” to hold the top job and would “trust my colleagues will make the best decision to move Pennsylvania forward.”