Pennsylvania House Speaker Joanna McClinton knows what it means to be first.
In 2018, the Democrat from Philadelphia was the first woman and first African American to be the state House Democratic caucus chair. Two years later, she became the first woman to serve as the House Democratic leader in the chamber’s 244-year history.
“It’s been incredible, humbling, exciting,” McClinton told the Pennsylvania Independent in a wide-ranging interview. “I’m very proud as a woman to be a part of not only the legislative chamber, but to be at the gavel — the first, not the last.
“I often sometimes mention my mother grew up in segregated North Carolina, so it’s really a major accomplishment for my family, but most importantly, showing the progress that we still have to achieve and the equity that has to occur in America in 2023,” she said.
McClinton’s rise to the top of the House, which this year had a Democratic majority for the first time since 2010, is one that paved the way for a significant shift in the chamber’s legislative priorities over the past session. Under McClinton’s leadership, the House has passed more progressive bills than it had for the previous decade. The House has greenlit legislation that would address gun violence prevention, protect abortion care, end discrimination based on sexual identity and hair style, increase the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2026, and set minimum staffing levels in hospitals.
Those bills, among other legislation, were championed by a speaker who has consistently managed to secure not only Democratic backing but GOP votes as well, including on bills that would provide for increased background checks for purchasers of firearms and protect people traveling to Pennsylvania to access abortion care.
“Joanna is incredibly influential inside the caucus,” Democratic Majority Whip Dan Miller told the Pennsylvania Independent. “She’s helpful in bringing everybody together. While she works with the team, she carries that unique role, both as a speaker and then just as her. I don’t think there’s been a tough vote or a challenging debate to which Joanna’s efforts and influence hasn’t been the deciding factor.”
State House Democratic Majority Leader Matt Bradford echoed Miller’s sentiment.
“As speaker, she has prioritized ensuring that all House members have an active role in the legislative process, not just a select few leaders, and moving legislation based on the merits of the issue rather than whether it’s a ‘Democratic’ bill or ‘Republican’ bill,” Bradford said in a statement prepared for the Pennsylvania Independent. “She remains a strong fighter for her constituents and for all Pennsylvanians and cares deeply about making our communities better for everyone. She is one of the most well respected people in the Capitol and I’d argue one of the most well respected people in the commonwealth.”
The fact that Pennsylvania’s House is taking up such issues as abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, racism in the workplace, and the minimum wage is a sign of an evolving Legislature that’s increasingly representative of the people it serves, McClinton said.
“We are pretty excited, though, that not only am I the first woman to be at the speaker’s rostrum, but there are more women than have ever served. We have 60 women in the House. There are more people of color than there have ever been, 40 people of color,” McClinton said.
“We’ve seen a whole lot of change,” McClinton continued. “It’s a really exciting time in Harrisburg.”
Facing a Republican Senate
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for McClinton, whose Democratic majority was held together by one seat. The Democrats’ 102-101 majority returned to a 101-101 gridlock as of Thursday, when Bucks County Democratic Rep. John Galloway resigned from his seat to become a district judge. McClinton on Thursday called a special election to fill Galloway’s seat for Feb. 13. There have been six special elections for seats in the House in 2023, five of which Democrats have won.
Even when Democrats are the majority party in the House, they have to work with a Senate that has been controlled by Republicans since 1994. The Republican majority has let the overwhelming majority of the House-backed legislation languish in committee and has not held hearings or votes on many of the bills.
According to numbers provided by McClinton last week, the House has this year sent 214 bills to the Senate — 186 introduced by Democrats and 28 by Republicans — and the Senate has passed 18 of those. Meanwhile, McClinton said, the Republican-controlled Senate has sent 131 bills to the House, 119 of which were sponsored by Republicans and 12 from Democrats.
That those bills — some of which Democratic lawmakers have been fighting to pass for years, such as the Fairness Act to protect LGBTQ+ Pennsylvanians from discrimination, which they have been battling for for 22 years — have been voted on at all in the House is a significant feat, Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee Communications Director Abhi Rahman said.
“Speaker McClinton is a barrier-breaker who has led the Pennsylvania House with skill and precision while standing up to the MAGA extremists in the Republican-led Pennsylvania Senate,” Rahman said in an emailed statement prepared for the Pennsylvania Independent.
While the Senate did not take up the bulk of the legislation it received from the House during the session that ended this week, McClinton said she’s not giving up hope the upper chamber could push through at least a few of the House’s priorities next year. She emphasized that the Democratic-controlled House’s support for the legislation is representative of the majority of Pennsylvanians who support abortion care and protecting LGBTQ+ residents from discrimination.
Reaching across the aisle
A lifelong resident of Philadelphia who worked as a public defender before first being elected to the state House in 2015, McClinton knows what it means to fight for those who have been disenfranchised and marginalized. She said such a fight must involve people on both sides of the political aisle.
In an effort to connect with her Republican colleagues, McClinton invites a group of first-term lawmakers from both parties to what she calls a weekly bipartisan breakfast. There, she said, first-term lawmakers from both parties break bread and sit with one another in an effort to find common ground.
“Of course, there’s a big aisle that separates the Republicans from the Democrats,” McClinton said. “But the barriers are first in our minds. We come to this job with perceived ideas about who we’re working with and what they stand on and what they believe in and what they support and what others do not support. So I just want to be clear that I have been leading to bring civility back to the government, and, most importantly, starting with the first-term members, and, being the first woman speaker, making sure that I’m leading by example, that no one in the Legislature is the boogeyman.”
McClinton hopes the two chambers, divided as they may be politically, will be able to pass more legislation with this kind of collaboration. The speaker noted one piece of legislation she’s most proud of, House Bill 1100. Signed into law by Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro in August, the bill expands a program that provides a partial refund on rent or property taxes to thousands more older and disabled Pennsylvanians.
“That bill passed the House with flying colors, got over to the Senate, and they sent it to the governor’s desk, so that is something this year that I am very, very proud of,” McClinton said.
Intentions for the new year
As she looks toward 2024, the speaker said she will be advocating for Senate Republicans to pass the Fairness Act and raise the minimum wage, among other legislation sent from the House.
The momentum in the Democratic-led House has not gone unnoticed by national Democratic groups, and the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee announced last week it will spend $30,000 in an effort to keep the majority in the Pennsylvania House in Democrats’ hands.
“The DLCC is proud to partner with her and plans to help Pennsylvania Democrats maintain their one-seat majority in the House and cut into the advantage Republicans have in the Senate,” the committee’s Rahman told the Pennsylvania Independent. “Speaker McClinton’s leadership is invaluable, and we will continue to support her with what she needs to continue to lead in the commonwealth.”
If Democrats retain control of the House and flip the Senate – a chamber that hasn’t had a Democratic majority since 1993 – lawmakers could pass legislation on a large number of Democratic priorities, including equitable school funding, one of the speaker’s priorities.
“In 2024, it is our goal to make sure that people know what difference our majority makes,” McClinton said.