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

House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton spoke with Pluribus News about what policies her caucus will push for if — or when — they officially take control of the lower chamber next year.
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)

Amid a fight over which party technically holds the majority in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton spoke with Pluribus News about the controversy and what policies her caucus will push for if — or when — they officially take control of the lower chamber next year.

Pennsylvania Democrats in November won a one-seat majority in the House when members of the party were elected to 102 of its 203 seats. But one Democratic lawmaker died before winning re-election and two have since resigned to take higher office.

McClinton and House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler have both declared themselves the chamber’s next majority leader. McClinton cites the election results, and Cutler points to the number of legislators who will be seated when lawmakers convene in January.

The two leaders also have announced competing dates for an election to fill the three empty seats. Cutler has sued to stop the vote from taking place on Feb 7, as McClinton has scheduled.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Pluribus News: Are you the House majority leader? Walk us through where things stand, and in your mind, what your position is right now.

House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton: So for right now, I recognize what’s indisputed is that voters in Pennsylvania in 102 districts elected Democrats to represent their voices, their ideas and to form an agenda with their support in mind. Since Nov. 8 — as you know, it is quite complex — we lost the [Democratic] chairman [of the House Insurance Committee] before the election, and we had two members who, in addition to being re-elected resoundingly in their communities — also by a larger constituency — got historical promotions, with brand-new jobs in public office.

So when all of them were still in our caucus, I was definitely majority leader.

PN: How will this confusion affect speakership elections when the legislature convenes next year?

McClinton: So it definitely will be interesting to see how it plays out. One of the things that I’ve been hearing from many Republicans — although not in their leadership team — is that they recognize that my caucus won the majority, they’ve congratulated me, they’re telling me they look forward to working with me in my new role. So it’s one of those things that we have to watch and wait and see.”

PN: Are you implying that some Republicans might cross the aisle and vote for you as speaker? What do you mean by that?

McClinton: I mean we have to watch, wait and see, just like I said.

PN: How will the dispute over who holds the majority shape what gets discussed at the beginning of the session? Will there be a chance to talk about policy?

McClinton: Well I’ll say, there definitely will be talk of policy. Depending on who gets the gavel will determine whether or not some of the extreme ideas that Republicans not only have had, but have moved through the legislative process to get to the voters as constitutional amendments.

I think there are many people in their caucus who recognize voters rejected that, and do not want to be tainted with perpetual, what I’ll call as bad ideas, because the voters called them bad ideas and they voted them out of the majority.

PN: What’s an example of one of those extreme ideas that might come up early next session?

McClinton: There’s an abortion ban that was very controversial that they ran on the last night of our session, before our summer recess. And did not allow us to fully debate it, cut off debate, ended the discussion early.

We don’t take it lightly, and that is why we’re fighting very hard currently, even in the appellate court system, to make sure that voters in these districts that are unrepresented currently get to have their voices heard as soon as possible.

PN: Assuming those seats are won by Democrats once again, what will you and your caucus push for as the majority party?

McClinton: My colleagues and I are excited to get to work in Harrisburg on a people-first agenda. We want to focus on the needs of working families, our senior citizens, our students, we want to have better jobs, schools and safer communities.

We’re going to get started by championing policies that support our workers and working families. We want to protect the right to join a union, we want to fight for paid sick leave, we want to ensure workers have safe working conditions, we want to end wage theft. We want to help the people in our districts save for retirement.

We believe oil companies are making record profits in the billions. So we want to have common-sense policies enacted where we can stop price-gouging and price-fixing.

We want to expand access to health care for everyone, and we want to make sure that we trust individual Pennsylvanians to make decisions about their own health with their health care providers. We want to make sure that the money that was invested in the bipartisan, bicameral behavioral health commission for adult mental health actually enacts the recommendations on how to distribute the $100 million to address adult behavioral health needs.

We want to work on public safety. We want to get to the root of crime, so that our communities are safer. We want to talk about some of the common-sense gun measures: banning assault weapons, lost and stolen guns, getting law enforcement the tools that they need to succeed.

And then with business, we want to make sure Pennsylvania is an outlier in attracting businesses to build their roots here in the commonwealth and expand opportunities for our families to be able to work at their companies. And for folks who own small businesses, for them to be able to grow here.

PN: Do you have a sense of any areas where House Democrats could reach bipartisan agreement with the Republican-controlled state Senate?

McClinton: It’s too early to discuss anything yet. But certainly, with every session, by the time you get midway, as they close the budget, the only way they move bills is usually by an agreement. If they move our bill, we’ll move their bills. So certainly there’s going to be plenty of room for discussion about what ideas they really want to get to the governor’s desk and vice versa.

PN: What were some of the issues that Democrats ran on this year that really resonated with voters? Are there any lessons learned that could be useful in other states where Democrats are looking to expand majorities or flip a legislative chamber?

McClinton: We’ve been consistent with talking about how we want to put people first, people being at the forefront of our legislative agenda. Trusting people to make their own decisions.

When our last session began and Republican leaders tried to throw out millions of votes by urging Congress not to take the electoral votes — saying that the Electoral College wasn’t supposed to vote, because of quote-unquote the Big Lie — we’ve just been able to call out these continuous, really sick efforts of Republican leadership, and it really resonated with voters in this cycle.

Calling out the fact that they waited until the last night to debate an abortion ban, and cut off debate. We made sure that became public knowledge — that we can’t trust these Republicans to do the right thing, because they are showing us repeatedly that they are not on the side of democracy, little D, not the party of democracy. And that’s concerning for folks.

And we recognize that so many races were close. So we’re not here with a supermajority. We’re here, November the 8th, having won just one more seat which you need for the majority. So that changes everything. And we want to look forward to the point in the new year where we’re able to be in the majority, set the agenda, send over common sense bills that get to the governor’s desk.