Pa. House shuffles speakers after passing childhood abuse protections

Interim House Speaker Mark Rozzi (D) stepped down in favor of state Rep. Joanna McClinton (D).
Pennsylvania state Rep. Joanna McClinton (D) was set to become the first woman to lead the state House after Democrats claimed control. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives will be led by a woman for the first time in its 340-year history after interim House Speaker Mark Rozzi (D) stepped down in favor of state Rep. Joanna McClinton (D) on Tuesday.

McClinton’s ascension looked all but certain after Democrats mounted a stronger-than-expected showing in November’s midterm elections, clinching the barest majority of 102 out of the chamber’s 203 seats. But her rise was derailed by vacancies caused by one member who died before Election Day and two more who resigned to take higher offices.

Those vacancies left the House’s 101 Republicans outnumbering the 99 remaining Democrats. Both McClinton and Republican leader Bryan Cutler claimed to be the rightful majority leader, escalating a partisan feud that seemed to derail any hint of comity in Harrisburg.

But when the House met on Jan. 3, a small number of Republicans joined with Democrats to elevate Rozzi instead.

Democrats won all three special elections to fill the vacancies in February, reestablishing their 102-101 majority. But Rozzi, who represents exurban Berks County, did not immediately step aside.

READ: Q&A: What Pennsylvania’s speaker-in-waiting plans to do with the majority

A survivor of childhood sexual abuse, Rozzi pushed the House to agree on a bipartisan proposal to amend the state constitution, to give other abuse survivors a window in which to sue their alleged accusers in civil court.

The state House finally passed that legislation on Friday, though sticking points remain with the state Senate, which is under Republican control.

After the bill’s passage, Rozzi said it was time to step aside for McClinton.

“The start of this session has not been easy, but ultimately we came together in a bipartisan fashion for the victims, and we passed what will be one of the most important pieces of legislation this session,” Rozzi told colleagues on the House floor on Tuesday.

Rozzi said he would cast his vote for McClinton, calling her “one of the most intelligent and compassionate women I have met in politics.”

McClinton, 40, has served in the state House since 2015. She was the first woman and the first African American to be elected to head the Democratic caucus, the first woman to serve as House Democratic leader and now the second African American to serve as House speaker, after Leroy Irvis in the 1980s.

All 99 Republicans voted against McClinton, a departure from tradition in the state House and a reflection of the bitter politics left over from the fall spat between party leaders.

In remarks on the House floor, McClinton pledged to offer an olive branch.

“I’m confident if we collaborate rather than criticize, debate rather than disparage and replace shortsighted political gain with sincere cooperation, this body can do better and will do better,” McClinton said. “Today can be our fresh start.”

McClinton will become an important ally for new Gov. Josh Shapiro (D), on the job for a little over a month. But much of the Democratic agenda will face a tough slog in the Senate, where Republicans hold 28 of 50 seats.

Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R) has thrown doubt on the childhood abuse survivors measure the House has passed, pointing to his own chamber’s version of a constitutional amendment — one that also includes a provision requiring voters to show an identification at the polls. That provision is a nonstarter for House Democrats.