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Embattled Pa. House Speaker Mark Rozzi says he’ll ‘reassess’ his speakership after passing bills for childhood sexual-assault victims

Speaker Mark Rozzi's remarks were the furthest he’s gone to suggest he’d be willing to step down from the Pa. House's top spot.

Pennsylvania House Speaker Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat, listens to public comment in Philadelphia on Jan. 27.
Pennsylvania House Speaker Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat, listens to public comment in Philadelphia on Jan. 27.Read moreMatt Rourke / AP / AP

Pennsylvania’s embattled House speaker signaled Wednesday for the first time that he would consider stepping down after weeks of uncertainty about his plans once Democrats take the majority.

Speaker Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) said he would “reassess” after lawmakers pass long-awaited justice measures for victims of childhood sexual abuse, as they’re expected to later this month. Rozzi had previously avoided answering directly or most recently suggested he would stay as speaker.

“I’m gonna take it one day at a time,” Rozzi told The Inquirer. “My focus right now is on those first three [session] days, doing what I said I would get done. And then we can move forward after that. That will be a new day.”

Democrats officially reaffirmed their majority Tuesday, after three special elections in Allegheny County put Democrats at a full 102 members to Republicans’ 101. The three special-election winners will need to have their wins certified before they can be sworn in.

Rozzi’s comment Wednesday was the furthest he’s gone to suggest he would be willing to step down from the top spot. Rozzi, a Democrat who rose to speaker in a surprise deal with Republican leaders, would need to step down for House Majority Leader Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) or be recalled by lawmakers in order for her to take the helm.

As recently as last week, Rozzi told the Associated Press that if he shows lawmakers he’s a good leader, “maybe I could stay in this position.” McClinton, who was poised to become the state’s first woman and first Black woman to be elected speaker, also told The Inquirer last month that she was unsure if there was a path to the speakership for her.

Democrats won 102 seats on Election Day in November, but three vacancies led Democrats to be in the minority when the legislative session started last month. Republicans, for their part, could not coalesce around one GOP candidate for speaker, so they made a deal with Rozzi.

House to consider bills for abuse survivors

Just as those results came in, Rozzi announced three new session days — Feb. 21, 22, and 23 — so the new Democratic majority can pass two bills to allow survivors of childhood sexual assault to sue their abusers and the institutions that protected them over a two-year period: one that would put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot, and another statutory change that would open the window without any constitutional changes. This way, the GOP-controlled Senate could give victims the relief they want much sooner than the November election, Rozzi said.

“The Senate is going to get both,” Rozzi said. “They’re going to have some tough decisions in front of them.”

Rozzi is a survivor of childhood sexual assault. He was raped by a now-deceased Roman Catholic priest around age 13. He accepted an undisclosed settlement from the Diocese of Allentown a few years ago, as part of its compensation program for victims.

Still, Rozzi came to Harrisburg to fight for justice for his fellow victims, he said.

“Here I am, still fighting for victims, for my brothers and sisters who have been raped and assaulted as children. To me, this has to get done,” he added.

“To me, being a representative means nothing,” he said. “Being the speaker of the House means nothing. The only thing that’s important to me is getting this legislation for the retroactive two-year window. So when I look back on my career, if I don’t get this done, it has been a failure to me.”

Senate GOP leaders have long objected to changing state laws to create a two-year window for childhood sexual-abuse victims to sue their abusers, insisting that it would require a change to the state constitution. An amendment should have appeared on the 2020 ballot, but a publishing error by the Department of State made lawmakers restart the constitutional amendment process.

Rozzi said he was frustrated the Senate GOP combined his constitutional amendment into a package of amendments, including a measure to require voters to provide identification to cast their ballot.

“What about the children? What about these victims who have been raped?” Rozzi said about the Senate bill. “Do you not have a heart? Do you not care about these victims?”

Republican leaders from the Senate have not reached out to him to negotiate, he added. He has not reached out to them, either.

“I’m so sick of these politics, this divisiveness and partisanship,” Rozzi said. “If you were concerned about Mark Rozzi, why didn’t you pick up the phone and call Mark Rozzi?”

Rozzi: ‘Power means nothing to me’

In an hour-long interview with The Inquirer, Rozzi insisted he does not want the power that comes with being speaker and has not used his position to fund-raise.

“Power means nothing to me,” said Rozzi, a self-described centrist. “What is important to me is real change for the people of this commonwealth. I made it clear that I don’t stand with institutions, I don’t stand with lobbyists. … The bus I’m driving is going down the middle of the road; you’re either going to get on and be a part of that tour, or you’re going to stay off and just preach your lies on both sides, on the far left and on the far right.”

However, Rozzi hasn’t been shy about using these powers since he’s taken the speaker’s gavel. For example, he pledged to keep the doors to the House chamber locked until House leaders came to an agreement on rules and to get the sexual-abuse constitutional amendment done. He also changed the locks on the front door to a conference room that had been used by House Republicans for years. (He rejects Republican claims that this lock change put any Republican documents in jeopardy.)

“Because we couldn’t compromise, I had to act like the parent and had to send the Republicans back to their room and the Democrats back to their room and said: ‘Until you both stop crying and until we figure out a way forward, then I’ll let you out of the room. Until that happens, I’m keeping your doors locked.’”

Rozzi, who has said little publicly while embarking on a statewide listening tour to fix gridlock in Harrisburg, also shared praise for McClinton, the Democratic leader.

“Joanna McClinton is a great leader, and she has done amazingly great things for the Democratic Party,” Rozzi said. “I have nothing but respect for her.”