On the final day of Black History Month, Joanna McClinton made history of her own by becoming the first Black woman to be elected speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. McClinton, who is also the first woman ever to lead the chamber, prevailed in a 102-99 party-line vote held minutes after Speaker Mark Rozzi announced he would step down so that his fellow Democrat could take his place.
Upon obtaining the gavel, the new speaker proclaimed, “I’m grateful for all who fought before me … so that this day was possible. It is only on their shoulders that I stand here today.” In her address, McClinton also mentioned two of her predecessors: Benjamin Franklin, the future founding father who served as speaker in 1764, and K. Leroy Irvis, a Democrat who in 1977 became the first African American to serve as speaker of any legislative chamber in America since Reconstruction.
McClinton's elevation came after a two-month delay occasioned by vacancies in three safely Democratic seats that temporarily gave Republicans a 101-99 advantage, even though Democrats had, quite unexpectedly, won a 102-seat majority in November. Rozzi stepped into this vacuum and won the speakership in January with the support of 16 GOP members, but Democrats regained a formal majority with a trio of outsized special election victories on Feb. 7.
For a time, it was not clear whether Rozzi would defer to McClinton, but after he gave up the gavel on Tuesday, he made his loyalties vividly clear as he torched the Republicans who once backed him. In remarks to Spotlight PA, Rozzi said he understood at the time that the GOP was using him to stop McClinton from running the chamber, but resolved that Republicans “were gonna pay for it.”
“[T]he way I was elected speaker, that’s a prime description of what is wrong with Harrisburg because the Republicans had a majority at that time,” Rozzi said, continuing, “But they tried to manipulate, hoodwink, snooker the members of this General Assembly by electing me, thinking that I would do their bidding for them. That I would turn against my party.”
Rozzi had pledged to lead the state House as an independent but infuriated Republicans when he maintained his Democratic affiliation. (He later claimed he'd only promised to consider such a switch, even though he'd publicly said that Pennsylvania would have its "first independent speaker of the House" after his ascension.) Relations turned so sour between him and one of his most prominent backers, Republican leader Bryan Cutler, that Rozzi changed the locks on the office suite Cutler had used when he was speaker.
Democrats also wondered whether McClinton would replace Rozzi even before those Feb. 7 specials confirmed the party's undisputed majority in the state House for the first time since 2010. Rozzi himself said just before those contests that he wanted to remain in charge, but a few days after the specials, he announced that he’d “reassess" after his colleagues had approved an amendment to the state constitution that would allow fellow childhood survivors of sexual abuse to sue their abusers.
The chamber did just that Friday, but the matter is far from over. The GOP-run state Senate passed a single bill in January, bundling the measure with two unrelated amendments pushed by conservatives in the hopes that doing so would pressure House Democrats to put all three proposals on a future statewide ballot. Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman said last week that he felt his chamber had “fulfilled and completed our commitment” to abuse survivors. It's uncertain what will happen next, though Rozzi used his departure speech to declare, “We made it clear that no matter who you are ... justice is coming for you.”