PENNSYLVANIA

Democrat elected Speaker in Pa. House, foiling GOP hopes

MARK SCOLFORO and MARC LEVY
The Associated Press

HARRISBURG — A Democrat who promised to govern as an independent was elected speaker of the narrowly divided Pennsylvania House of Representatives on Tuesday on the strength of about a dozen GOP votes.

Rep. Mark Rozzi was elected speaker by a vote of 115-85 after Republicans were unable to convert a two-seat majority into a vote to retain control of the chamber.

Rozzi, who began his sixth two-year term from a Reading-area district this week, is best known as a champion of the effort to give victims of child sexual abuse another chance to sue perpetrators or institutions that covered it up over claims that are barred by time limits in current law.

The November election was so close — and complicated by the death of one Allegheny County Democrat and the resignations of two others — that what is normally a highly scripted event instead became an afternoon of drama and uncertainty.

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Pennsylvania Speaker of the House Mark Rozzi is photographed at the speaker's podium, Tuesday, Jan. 3, 2023, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Smith)

Democrats flipped a net of 12 seats in November, the minimum amount needed to take over the chamber, 102-101, after more than a decade in the minority. But that margin is now 101-99 for Republicans because state Rep. Tony DeLuca died of cancer a month before winning reelection, Rep. Summer Lee quit to become a member of Congress and Rep. Austin Davis resigned ahead of becoming lieutenant governor.

Rozzi had worked alongside Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro — and closely with Rep. Jim Gregory, a conservative Republican who nominated him — in pushing for the lawsuit window after Shapiro, as attorney general, unveiled a landmark grand jury report on his office’s investigation into the state’s Roman Catholic dioceses.

Gregory, from Blair County, said he and Rozzi had talked about such a possibility for months but did not bring it up until Gregory contacted House Republican leaders at midafternoon Tuesday and encouraged them to reach out to Rozzi.

The child sexual abuse lawsuit window has not been enacted. But Rozzi and others have advanced a constitutional amendment that will go before voters if both chambers give it a second round of approvals over the coming two years.

Rozzi himself has told of his rape by a Catholic priest when he was 13.

Rozzi said he would be independent, pledging to not to caucus with either Republicans or Democrats and to staff his office with members of both parties. He decried dysfunction and obstruction in the chamber’s politics, and said “never has this House been so divided.”

It was not immediately clear whether he would change his voter registration.

“I pledge allegiance and loyalty to no interest in this building, to no interest in our politics, I pledge my loyalty to the people of the commonwealth,” Rozzi said in his remarks.

Upon taking the oath of office, Rozzi turned to the parliamentarian and asked, “Alright, what do we do?”

Democrats had hoped to elevate their floor leader, Philadelphia Rep. Joanna McClinton, to become the state’s first woman speaker, but with the chamber so close their attempt to delay the proceedings for seven weeks failed. If that had worked, the Democrats would have had time to fill three vacant seats.

Instead, Rozzi overcame the rival candidacy of Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar, R-Somerset, who received 85 votes.

Among the 16 votes from the GOP caucus were several leaders and their floor leader, Rep. Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County, who has filed a still-pending lawsuit designed to delay the special elections to fill the Lee and Davis seats until May.

McClinton has moved to schedule those elections for Feb. 7, when voters will pick a successor to DeLuca.

Assuming Democrats retain the three open seats, Rozzi as an independent would tie the House at 101-101, when every seat is filled. A Republican member, Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver, R-Northumberland, is running for an open state Senate seat, potentially creating a GOP vacancy in the near future.

Nearly a quarter of the House is made up of newly elected members, turnover driven by retirements and incumbent defeats caused in part by redistricting that occurred after the 2020 census.

In the Senate, Republican Kim Ward, of Westmoreland County, was elected to serve as the chamber’s presiding officer, the president pro tempore. She is the first woman to hold the job and was picked for it by her fellow Republicans, who hold a 28-22 majority in the Senate.

Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, is succeeding Ward as majority leader. The Senate’s former president pro tempore, Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre, did not seek reelection to run in the gubernatorial primary, but he lost.