A special election on Tuesday won’t just decide who will represent PA House District 163 in nearby Delaware County. It will also determine whether the Democrats retain their razor thin majority in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
For PA State House Speaker Joanna McClinton, that one election between Democrat Heather Boyd, Republican Katie Ford and Libertarian Alfe Goodwin, will decide if she remains in this new position or resumes her old job as minority leader.
The second highest ranked woman in the history of Pennsylvania state politics (only former Lieutenant Governor Catherine Baker Knoll, also a Democrat, held higher office in the commonwealth) McClinton has overcome every barrier placed along the way to becoming the first woman (and only second Black) speaker.
McClinton believes that Pennsylvania governance will reflect the diversity she brings to the office. “I think it will [change] over time. I think it has already started. There are a lot of folks who do not grasp how much representation is impactful in opening doors for others.”
Pennsylvania politics has room for growth. Current Lieutenant Governor Austin Davis – the youngest ever elected – is the first Black man in an executive branch that has never had a Black person or a woman in the top office. Likewise, Pennsylvania’s two United States Senators have never been women or people of color.
In fact, the commonwealth sports the oldest legislature in the nation, and yet for 244 years the leaders of that branch had always been men. Speaker McClinton understands the responsibility of being the first.
“The fact that 142 men preceded me is incredible,” she said. “My goal is to work in such a way and to have the character and reputation that there should be 142 women that can follow me.”
McClinton didn’t just start making a difference on Feb. 28 when her party unanimously elected her to lead them. Her rapid rise has come, in no small part, to the work she was able to accomplish as chief counsel for PA State Senator Anthony Hardy Williams (D-8), and later after winning her own special election to the State House in 2015.
The Speaker’s decade-long career at the Defender Association of Philadelphia makes her uniquely qualified to change Pennsylvania criminal justice laws – especially those that impact defendants.
In her time at the legislature – just under eight years – McClinton has worked with her colleagues to assure that Pennsylvanians do not carry around the stigma of arrest. Her influence on Clean Slate legislation dates to 2016. After being elected the first African American Democratic Caucus chair, she continued working to expand that law. “It was revamped in 2020 when it included language from a bill I had for automatic expungement when acquitted of non-violent crimes or found not guilty,” she said. “It was very important to me that no one ends up in a situation where they don’t get an apartment or a job interview because of an outdated record.”
That concern for her constituents, which as speaker includes every person in the Keystone State, extends to people who face discrimination in housing or the workplace because of who they are or who they love.
Speaker McClinton, a vocal supporter of House Bill 300, urges voters to contact representatives that did not support the Fairness Act. In light of the fact that none of the Republican representatives from Bucks County voted to protect individuals from discrimination, she encourages constituents to call their offices, “There is nothing more influential than contacting your representative. Some people say it doesn’t matter, but that’s not true.” And yes, she means even after the fact. “It’s very important that our neighbors let their representatives know if they are not happy with how their member voted.”
McClinton feels there is a tendency for House members to think “no one is watching.” She says this leads some lawmakers to misrepresent their record when campaigning for re-election. Without naming names, the Speaker described witnessing less than genuine campaigning. “I experienced that when I was on the campaign trail in Bucks County last year – a few sitting Republicans not being straightforward about their voting record.”
McClinton recommends that people living in those Bucks County Republican-held State House districts contact their representatives immediately and let their displeasure be heard. She says they should remind them that, as voters, they are watching. Additionally, McClinton recommends callers should discuss their support for House Bill 300 and explain to their Republican state representatives’ staff person that their boss, “Could have voted yes. Should have voted yes – because there was not anything extreme in that bill. It doesn’t take away anyone’s rights to exercise their faith. It doesn’t violate anything but provides protection we’ve needed here for a long time.”
The Speaker knows – and the Bucks County lawmakers should too – that voters have the final say. Noting the existential shift caused by fair districting in a post-gerrymandered Pennsylvania, the last election cycle impressed McClinton. “In just one election with a fair map there were opportunities for more competitive races and most importantly – the big beautiful broad spectrum of diverse members that were elected in November of 2022.”
While only Speaker for a short while, McClinton and her colleagues have hit the ground running.
“Last week we sent a constitutional amendment to the senate to provide workers a right to organize. We amended bills last week to have them ready for consideration when we return in two weeks that provide for safe storage [of firearms] and requirements for lost and stolen guns. We’ve only had two weeks where we’ve had the majority and we’ve been able to do a lot of great things, including sending a Republican bill to Governor Shapiro’s desk.” That legislation, Senate Bill 8, provides free imaging for persons at high risk for some cancers.
When speaking of her purpose, whether she finishes this term as speaker or not, McClinton intends to maintain the highest of standards for her party in particular and the commonwealth in general. In addition to keeping her eye on the election in Delaware County, the Speaker is concerned about school board races everywhere.
“Republican attacks against our children. Whether or not girls can play sports. We are not going to empower those types of ideologies,” said McClinton. “They are creating problems that don’t exist and they are ostracizing members of our communities – our children.”
As for the PA House of Representatives, “It’s my goal to make sure that I lead in a way that’s very different from some of the speakers that I was a member with … where you just knew, going to the floor, that you were going to get shut down.” For as long as Speaker McClinton is in charge, she promises to “ensure that our institution is a respectful place where there is great decorum and dignity.”