PA House elects new, ‘historic’ speaker

Sets operating rules, deals with harassment claims

Posted 3/7/23

HARRISBURG, PA — After an unusually eventful and dramatic first couple of months, the PA House of Representatives has elected Rep. Joanna McClinton, a Democrat from Philadelphia, as its new …

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PA House elects new, ‘historic’ speaker

Sets operating rules, deals with harassment claims


HARRISBURG, PA — After an unusually eventful and dramatic first couple of months, the PA House of Representatives has elected Rep. Joanna McClinton, a Democrat from Philadelphia, as its new speaker. The first Black woman—and the first woman of any race—to hold this position in Pennsylvania, McClinton was elected along party lines. State Democrats were all in, state Republicans all out.

“It was almost 250 years before a woman could stand at this desk, not just to give a prayer, but to get the gavel. That’s pretty incredible,” McClinton said after getting sworn in. She promised her fellow House members a reset from the turbulent start to the year. “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. Today can be our fresh start.”

How we got here

In case you don’t recall, McClinton was the Democrats’ first choice for speaker from the start. Despite winning back the House majority last November, however, Dems didn’t have the votes to elect her when the time came in early January. Two resignations and a death following the election put them at 99 legislators total, two behind the Republicans. (Democrats have since regained their single-seat majority—102 to 101—following special elections that took place in February).

In a surprising turn of events during that initial January session, Republican Rep. Jim Gregory nominated his friend Rep. Mark Rozzi, a moderate Democrat, for the post. As part of the deal, Rozzi vowed to change his party affiliation to Independent and therefore caucus with neither side of the aisle. He ended up not holding up this end of the bargain, however, and has remained a Democrat.

During his contentious and short stint as speaker, Rozzi’s singular goal was to pass legislation that would allow survivors of childhood sexual abuse a two-year window to revive outdated claims against their abusers. He recently advanced two such bills through the chamber, fulfilling his number-one priority and ushering in his decision to step down. He closed out his abridged tenure castigating Harrisburg as “corrupt.”

“From day one, my priority has not changed: to provide relief for survivors of childhood sexual assault,” he said in his final remarks. “But my perspective has changed. While I knew Harrisburg just worked for itself, I didn’t know how corrupt it actually was.”

What’s next

While the new Speaker McClinton promised a fresh start to fellow lawmakers, the House has the task of dealing with some issues still lingering from before her ascent. Chief among them: accusations that a House lawmaker sexually harassed a lobbyist.

Andi Perez, a union lobbyist, first brought the allegations to light in January. While she originally did not disclose the lawmaker’s name, Perez has since identified Rep. Mike Zabel, a Delaware County Democrat, as the perpetrator. Perez said Zabel inappropriately touched her leg during a meeting in 2019.

“[Zabel] decided to caress my leg while I was wearing a skirt, all the while telling me he was impressed by my passion and knowledge of the issues we were discussing,” Perez said. “I moved away from him hoping he would stop—he did not.”

Democratic leadership in the House, as well as Gov. Josh Shapiro, have both said that these allegations need to be taken seriously. However, at press time, both stopped short of calling on Zabel to resign.

GOP leadership, on the other hand, penned a joint statement unequivocally calling for Zabel’s resignation.

“Rep. Mike Zabel should resign immediately. In 2018, our colleagues on the other side of the aisle said, ‘Anyone accused of a credible violation like this should resign their position.’ Now that a member of their caucus has been credibly accused of multiple and serious incidents of sexual harassment, it would be our hope that Democrats would join us in calling on Rep. Zabel to resign.”

Zabel, meanwhile, has sent a letter to House leadership, saying that he will not resign from office. He did say, though, that he’s stepping down from his position on the Judiciary Committee, and that he plans to seek treatment for an “illness,” which he did not specifically name.

“I will not let myself be a distraction to the important work of this institution. Therefore, I resign my position on the Judiciary Committee effective immediately,” Zabel wrote. “I also will not accept any other committee assignments at this time so that I can better focus on my family, my treatment, and my recovery.”

At least two others have now come forward with allegations of inappropriate behavior from Zabel.

As a result of these claims, the House has adopted new rules to allow more people to bring alleged misconduct before the House Ethics Committee. Under previous chambers’ rules, only lawmakers and House employees could file such claims. Non-employees—such as lobbyists, advocates and journalists—who nevertheless interact frequently with legislators were left with no recourse to file complaints.

That was Perez’s experience after the alleged incident in 2019. When she first tried filing a complaint with the committee, she said she was told “Sorry, the rules do not allow you to file a complaint, since you are not an employee of the House.” She said, “There was nothing in the House Rules that allowed leadership to officially take any further action.”

The new rules, written by former speaker Rozzi, prohibit state House members from sexually harassing “any individual” while performing their official duties. They also include “a five-year lookback for accusations to ensure all those who under the previous leadership had no recourse have a pathway to having their voices heard,” according to Democratic leadership.

During a debate on the proposed measure last week, several Republicans argued that the new rules did not go far enough to protect against harassment cases like Perez’s. McClinton called for a vote, and the rules passed along party lines.

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