In a stunning move that took place on Tuesday, a Democrat who had pledged to govern as an independent was chosen speaker of the House of Representatives in the closely split state of Pennsylvania. This was accomplished with the support of every Democrat and more than a dozen Republican votes.
After Republicans could not convert a temporary two-seat advantage into a vote to retain the job, Representative Mark Rozzi was chosen speaker by a vote of 115-85. Just a few hours before the vote, the movement to nominate and elect Rozzi got underway. However, his election raises doubts regarding the short-term operations of the chamber as well as whether or not he will continue to identify as a Democrat.
This week, Rozzi started his sixth two-year term representing a district in the Reading area. He is best known for championing the effort to give victims of child se*ual abuse a second opportunity to sue perpetrators or institutions that covered it up for claims barred by time limits in the current law. Rozzi began his sixth two-year term this week.
The election in November was so close, and it was exacerbated by the death of one Democrat and the departures of two others elected to higher seats. As a result, an often highly scripted event became an afternoon of drama and uncertainty.
After spending more than a decade in the minority, the Democratic Party successfully won a net of 12 seats in November, which was the bare minimum required to take control of the chamber with a vote count of 102-101.
However, with the three seats that are currently vacant and won’t be filled for at least another month (February), that margin has shrunk to 99-101. Rozzi did not answer the questions about how the chamber will function in the interim and who will serve as the majority on Tuesday night.
Rozzi made a few brief remarks on the floor of the House in which he stated that he would be an independent representative, that he would not caucus with either the Republicans or the Democrats, and that he would staff his office with members of both parties. He condemned the dysfunction and obstruction in the politics of the House and claimed that “never in the history of this House has it been so split.”
In his remarks, Rozzi declared: “I swear allegiance and loyalty to no interest in this building, to no interest in our politics, and I promise my commitment to the people of the Commonwealth.”
Democrats have asserted that Rozzi will continue to identify as a Democrat and will not change his voter registration to that of an independent. On the other hand, Republicans emphasized that this was not the case on Tuesday night, indicating that Rozzi will switch parties. In the event that the Democrats win back all three open seats, Rozzi’s election as an independent candidate would result in a tie vote in the House of Representatives at the 101-101 level.
Several hours after the vote, Rozzi told reporters in the Capitol that his move to the dais was “completely out of the blue.” Rozzi was appearing with leading Democrats at the time. Rozzi, however, stated that he would not be making any “big announcement.” He declined to answer any questions from the reporters that were present, including one on whether he will switch to an independent registration.
According to what he shared with the press, “the speakership is a nonpartisan officer of the House, and I want to stress that — nonpartisan officer of the House,” with the responsibility of “maintaining the integrity of the House.” “As a speaker, I will be concentrating on that topic.”
Even so, the speakership is not necessarily a nonpartisan office, as the House just emerged from a dozen years of Republican speakers who caucused with Republicans and helped lead the Republican majorities. This is the case because the speakership is a position that Republicans have historically held.
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 had nominated Rozzi. Rozzi had worked alongside Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro in pushing for the lawsuit window.
Gregory, who is from Blair County, stated that he and Rozzi had discussed such a possibility for a considerable amount of time; nevertheless, Gregory did not bring it up until he contacted the leaders of the House Republican caucus on Tuesday afternoon and encouraged them to get in touch with Rozzi.
Rozzi received the support of all Democrats and sixteen Republicans, one of whom was the floor leader for his party, Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County. Republican leaders praised Rozzi in the House of Representatives in a statement for being “Pennsylvania’s first Independent Speaker of the House.”
“It is vital that we have an independent voice to conduct House business and manage the House floor,” they stated. “Reflecting the realities of an evenly divided parliament, it is imperative that we have a truly independent voice.”
Initially, Democrats harbored the expectation that their floor leader, Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia, would be elected as the first female speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. However, it was unclear whether or not Republicans would back her bid for the position.
Instead, Democrats chose to side with Rozzi, who was able to secure the support of Republicans and prevail over the competing candidacy of Representative Carl Walker Metzgar, a Republican from Somerset who earned 85 votes.
In the meantime, Cutler is in the process of filing a lawsuit to delay until May the special elections that will be held to fill two of the three seats in the Democratic party that are vacant. McClinton has taken steps to set those elections for February 7, with the third special election scheduled for that day.
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