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‘A dream deferred’: Pa. House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton unsure if she’ll be the state’s first female speaker

The Philadelphia Democrat was poised to make history, before the House came to a total standstill in recent weeks.

While everyone is questioning the future of the Pennsylvania House, so is House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton.

Democrats won a majority of seats in the state House in the November election. But three vacancies — one from a death and two from resignations after members won higher office — put Democrats at a two-seat disadvantage on the first day of legislative session earlier this month. Immediately after the election, McClinton was expected to take the speaker’s gavel and become the first woman and second Black person to lead the state House.

Instead, all House Democrats and GOP leaders supported Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) to be the new House speaker.

McClinton, the first woman to lead a caucus on the state House floor, told The Inquirer she’s now unsure if she’ll get to take this next history-making role as speaker of the House.

Here’s a look at the status of the stalled House in the eyes of one of its top Democrats:

‘A dream deferred’

McClinton said she is prepared to be a fair speaker for the state House. But does she expect to take the speaker’s gavel any time soon?

“The answer is, I don’t know,” she said.

I’ve been blessed and honored to make history in the House with my current role, as the only woman to be a floor leader in the oldest legislative body in the nation, as the first woman in my caucus to be caucus chair, and I would love to be the first woman to be speaker of the House. I’m grateful to have built skills and capacity to be a fair speaker. I’m prepared to do what is best for my caucus and the state House, and on the third of January, as everybody knows, I did not run for the office because I needed to do what was best for my caucus and the institution. So I don’t know. The answer is, I don’t know.
Joanna McClinton

McClinton previously had not answered questions about whether she expects Rozzi to step down after Democrats take the majority.

» READ MORE: A Black lawmaker from Philly was in line to be Pa.’s first female House speaker

Rozzi could resign as speaker at any time, allowing for new speaker elections. Otherwise, the House has traditionally required a two-thirds majority vote to recall a speaker.

For now, the Philadelphia Democrat will do what’s best for her party, she said, though she still hopes to one day be the state’s first woman — and first Black woman — to be speaker of the House.

“How does it feel? For me, it just feels like a dream deferred,” she added, invoking the iconic Langston Hughes poem “Harlem.”

I just look at it as if Republicans wanted to start this session with a strong start, you know, they should have just voted for me. Because I talked to them about this in early December, but they said they couldn’t. And now they’re complaining. So they have to look themselves in the mirror and ask why they stopped what could have been a wonderful, historic day. But it’s not me, and it’s not my caucus … but you have to have the votes to win.
Joanna McClinton

» READ MORE: What Pa. House Speaker Mark Rozzi’s voting record tells us about how independent he is

First priorities for Democrats

Democrats are expected to take the majority after Feb. 7, when three special elections in Allegheny County are scheduled. Each vacancy is in a solidly blue district.

Once Democrats take the reins, McClinton reaffirmed that her caucus is committed to passing a constitutional amendment to allow adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse a two-year window to file civil suit against their abusers or the institutions that protected them.

After that, McClinton said, her caucus will “continue to put people first over special interests and politics” by taking on issues like public school funding and the minimum wage.

We want to ensure that all of the things we have prioritized in the minority that we’re now able to see legislative wins on, things like fairly funding our schools, things like raising the minimum wage — these are issues that are wildly popular among Pennsylvanians of every political affiliation, but unfortunately politics has stood in the way of the people getting that victory.
Joanna McClinton

However, Democratic leaders will still have to work with the GOP-controlled Senate to get any legislation to the governor’s desk.

“We have to have realistic [proposals], because we want it to pass the Senate, which is still very Republican,” McClinton said.

McClinton’s relationship with Rozzi

For now, the House doors will remain locked while members continue meeting to find a compromise on the chamber’s rules for the session, Rozzi said Wednesday night during a listening tour event in Pittsburgh. Rozzi is working with a select group of three Democrats and three Republicans to solve the state’s partisan gridlock, as well as hosting listening tour events around the state to source ideas from constituents.

No legislating can happen until the rules and committee assignments are finalized.

Many Democrats have stayed mum over the last few weeks as they await further information from their leaders. McClinton said she maintains a “positive working relationship” with Rozzi.

» READ MORE: Pa.’s top House leader wants you to help fix gridlock in Harrisburg

However, McClinton isn’t involved with the speaker’s work group or the listening tour, she said. She’ll wait to hear from the three Democratic members — Reps. Morgan Cephas (Philadelphia), Peter Schweyer (Lehigh), and Tim Briggs (Montgomery) — for updates. (None of the work group’s Democratic members attended the group’s first listening tour meeting in Pittsburgh. Briggs said he had a previously scheduled personal commitment that prevented his attendance, and Schweyer said inclement weather prevented him from attending but he watched live stream. Cephas did not respond.)