Unexpected Pennsylvania House speaker hopes to keep job

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – The humble Democrat, who was unexpectedly elected speaker of the Pennsylvania House as a compromise candidate earlier this month, says he hopes to keep the job after three vacant Democratic seats are filled in next week’s special election.

In a lengthy interview late Monday in his suite at the state Capitol, Speaker Mark Rozzi said he would not necessarily step aside and support Democratic Leader Rep. Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia as speaker.

“First of all, I know how to count votes,” said Rozzi, who represents a mostly suburban area around Reading. “So, you know, at the end of the day, she still has to get the votes to become speaker of the House of Representatives.”

Democrats won 102 seats in November over Republicans’ 101, enough for a slim Democratic majority after 12 years of Republican control, but a reelected Democrat died in October and two others resigned in December because they also won senior office. Elections will be held next Tuesday to fill these three positions, all in the Pittsburgh area.

Republicans failed to garner enough votes to choose their own speaker at the start of the new Jan. 3 session, leading to Rozzi emerging as an alternative. McClinton and all Democrats voted for him, along with all seven members of the House GOP leadership and nine other Republicans.

The Capitol is now rife with speculation that McClinton or another candidate may soon attempt to oust Rozzi from the podium.

McClinton responded to Rozzi’s speech about keeping the job by saying that she would be “honored” to be Speaker and that once the vacancies in the House of Representatives are filled, she will “trust my colleagues to fill the will make the best decision to move Pennsylvania forward.”

The House has been frozen since Rozzi took over as speaker, and has not adopted internal operating rules or appointed members to committees.

Instead, Rozzi has convened a group of three representatives from each party to work on rules, hold listening sessions and figure out a way to achieve what has been his main goal for many years – a two-year window for victims of child sexual abuse otherwise filing outdated civil lawsuits.

Rozzi, 51, who has described being molested for over a year when he was about 13 by a pastor who has since died, said he wants to use his time at the top job to do something good. He acknowledged that some members of both parties were not happy with him and saw this as a sign that he was on the right track.

“I think if I can show people that I can run this house, maybe I could stay in that position,” Rozzi said.

For a speaker who hasn’t worked his way up the ladder, building relationships along the way and drawing on a core of caucus support can be a tall order.

“Mark is not sure how long his tenure is,” said a friend from the Reading area, Republican MP Mark Gillen. “There’s no textbook he could pull out of and read the next piece.”

In two public hearings from Rozzi’s group, the Speaker’s Workgroup to Move Pennsylvania Forward, he heard a range of suggestions, many from people active in groups that have tried to ban gifts to lawmakers, improve transparency and the The Majority Leaders’ firm grip on bills and amendments kept weakening.

After two more listening sessions this week — Wednesday at State College and Thursday at Wilkes-Barre — Rozzi hopes the working group will then come up with viable proposals on internal operating rules and lawsuit window legislation. Insisting he is not procrastinating, he suggested he could soon convene the first voting session of the 2023-24 session.

Rep. Paul Schemel, a Franklin County Republican whom Rozzi selected for the working group, said the new speaker felt some heat, especially when he decided to close the chamber for the time being.

“I’m sure it’s difficult for him, but I think he really wants the system to be reformed,” Schemel said.

Rozzi said he became active in politics through grassroots involvement in efforts to expose and address sex abuse by Catholic clergy, including his participation in protests at the state Capitol before he was elected. When his local Berks County state representative retired, he called Rozzi to suggest that he run for office.

The divorced father of one daughter won that race in 2012 and six years later sold his family’s window and door assembly business.

He sees himself as a Catholic, but not as “practicing Catholics within the institution”. He declined to disclose the amount of a settlement he reached with the Allentown Catholic Diocese a few years ago over abuse allegations.

“Believe me, it wasn’t enough to ever make things right again, I can tell you that,” Rozzi said. “It’s not enough to get my life back in order.”

The statute of limitations window was by far his main concern, but Rozzi sees himself as centrist, fiscally conservative and socially liberal. He supports abortion rights, gun rights and corporate tax cuts, and last year voted with Republicans on a bill that would ban transgender athletes from playing school sports that match their gender identity. This measure was vetoed by then-Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. He is not opposed to expanding voter ID requirements, a proposal opposed by most Legislative Democrats.

Rozzi said he had aired talks a few months ago with his key ally in the window fight of the sex abuse lawsuit, Republican Blair County Rep. Jim Gregory, about becoming a speaker. But when inauguration day began on Jan. 3, he didn’t know what was about to happen and was surprised when Republicans wanted to pursue the idea.

Despite their temporary 101-99 majority, Republicans had missed majority support for electing their caucus Speaker, Somerset County Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar. Rozzi then found himself in a conference room with Republican caucus leader Rep. Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County and several assistants.

By all reports, including his own, Rozzi agreed to position himself as an independent speaker and wanted an acceptance through the lawsuit window. But both Cutler and Gregory insist Rozzi has also promised to change his party registration, which Rozzi said he has no plans to do at this time.

The lack of action in the House of Representatives has effectively dashed Republican hopes for a bundle of constitutional changes in the low-turnout primary. Cutler and other Republicans feel burned by the deal.

“I think the mistake was trusting someone who wasn’t entirely honest,” Cutler told reporters last week. “That was a mistake. And there is still time to correct that.”

Rozzi insists he only agreed to consider changing his voter registration and felt that even that was part of a deal that would see the two-year lawsuit window stand alone. Instead, the Republican-majority Senate bundled it with constitutional amendments to expand voter ID requirements and weaken a governor’s power to make regulations.

Rozzi said he’s been trying to negotiate with Cutler for the past few weeks, to no avail.

“If you’ve spoken to the Democrats up here for the past 12 years, they’re going to tell you Bryan Cutler lied to them on every occasion,” Rozzi said.

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