House Speaker Joanna McClinton has ‘the weight of the world’ on her shoulders. We chat about her first weeks on the job.
On top of figuring out the nuances of her new job, McClinton is acutely aware of the scrutiny she faces because of both her race and gender.
I’ve been thinking lately about the late K. Leroy Irvis, who was the first African American to serve as a House speaker in Pennsylvania and the first Black man since Reconstruction to serve in that position in any statehouse in the country.
Irvis — whom people used to call the Lion of Pennsylvania — led the chamber in the 1970s and again during the 1980s. I can’t help but wonder what he would have to say about House Speaker Joanna McClinton, the first woman as well as the second African American in the position. So I reached out to his daughter, Sherri Irvis-Hill, who told me last week: “He would be so proud of her and he would say: ‘It’s time. It’s really time.’”
It’s actually past time, and McClinton is more than ready for the job.
There’s a lot going on right now. Less than two weeks after McClinton was sworn in on Feb. 28, State Rep. Mike Zabel, a Delaware County Democrat, resigned after multiple accusations of sexual harassment, making the already razor-thin majority in the House even thinner. (Since then, reports have emerged that House Democrats had heard allegations about his behavior since 2019.)
On the day McClinton and I sat down for an interview, she had just been in Northeast Philly, where President Joe Biden was rolling out his budget proposal. Reporters around the state were clamoring for one-on-ones with her. By the time McClinton and I wound up connecting, it was over the telephone.
On top of figuring out the nuances of her new job, McClinton is acutely aware of the scrutiny she faces because of both her race and gender. “So any time someone is the first, the weight of the world is on their shoulders because there is a higher expectation that they perform better than anyone who preceded them because they are the first,” the 40-year-old Philadelphia native told me. (Besides McClinton, there are only five other Black statehouse speakers in the United States, according to USA Today.)
“It’s no different for me than any other role that I’ve had in my life,” added McClinton, who worked as a public defender before entering politics. “There’s always expectations. There’s always public scrutiny.”
So she’s getting to work. Expanding educational opportunities for children is No. 1 on her agenda, including ensuring that public schools are fully supported and funded, regardless of zip code. Her goal, too, is to make sure bills move out of the statehouse to Gov. Josh Shapiro’s desk for his signature, rather than stalling in committees because they have been blocked by partisan bickering. (An analysis by Fair Districts PA found that, in the 2021-22 session, just one bill introduced by a House Democrat made it to the governor’s desk.)
And, of course, she’s trying to lead the party through the controversy that led to the resignation of one of their own — Rep. Zabel — earlier this month. The incident was “very unfortunate,” she told me.
“Our leadership team had private conversations with him where we laid out what we thought was best,” she said. “But unlike certain jobs, even me being speaker, none of the state reps work for me. They work for their neighbors. So, even if I demanded his resignation, it wasn’t going to change anything.” (McClinton did not publicly call on Zabel to resign.)
“But he made the decision he needed to make for himself and it’s just a very unfortunate situation and colleagues [and] our caucus continue to stand by any victims of harassment or discrimination.” Indeed, when McClinton assumed office, the House adopted new rules that expanded who can make a complaint of sexual harassment, which allowed one accuser, lobbyist Andi Perez, to come forward.
It wasn’t always certain that the position would be hers. In November, after House Democrats held a news conference declaring that they finally had a majority and announced McClinton as their pick for House speaker, their control did not become effective until after their candidates won three special elections. Meanwhile, Republicans elected State Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Democratic lawmaker from the Reading area, to be speaker, a role he assumed in January, only to step aside last month. An ordained minister in the Pentecostal faith, McClinton dealt with all of the soap opera-style uncertainty going on in Harrisburg by leaning on her faith: “I was waiting it out. And one thing about me is that I recognize, as someone who chooses to live a life with faith, is that things work out as they should.”
I met McClinton years ago in West Philadelphia, I believe, at a vigil for a young person who had been shot. I’ve followed her career from afar, marveling at how — with everything that she had going on — she still had time to don her clerical collar and preach sermons. (”It’s just about us balancing out our time and taking the time to respond to the calls that are on our life,” she told me.) My head really snapped around in her direction last summer after she gave a particularly fiery speech that went viral against a Republican-led effort to force through a constitutional amendment to curb abortion rights just before the summer recess.
“We are talking about women dying. We are talking about more than half of the population not being able to make decisions when not even half of this body has a uterus,” she declared in a mic-drop moment from the podium.
The job ahead won’t be easy. But with Democrats in the majority in the House (barely) and McClinton now firmly encased as speaker, there’s reason to feel optimistic about the state of Pennsylvania politics.
As Irvis would have said, “It’s time.”