Pennsylvania Democrats Upended as House Speaker Flips to Independent

HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania—Come January in Harrisburg, there are two constants: The annual Farm Show will be better than it was the year before—it always is—and swearing-in for the new two-year legislative session is guaranteed to be packed with drama. 

Last Tuesday was no exception when the state House, which was supposed to vote for the new speaker at noon, was halted by the chief clerk. Members, their families and the press were left wondering how this divided body was going to be able to fulfill its obligation to elect a speaker to serve as their chamber’s presiding officer.

Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Millersville University, said the drama centers on two things: “The November elections were really close with the Democrats flipping 12 seats to take over the majority; however, that became complicated because one of the Democrats who won, Representative Tony DeLuca, died a few weeks before the election, and two of the other Democrats who won, Summer Lee and Austin Davis, resigned, with Lee heading off to Congress and Davis winning as lieutenant governor,” he explained.

Both Lee and Davis sought their state House seats, and won them, as well as the congressional and lieutenant governor’s offices they ran and won, which makes the margin now 101-99 for the Republicans; once the special elections are held for the DeLuca, Lee and Davis seats, all overwhelmingly Democratic, the Democrats will have the majority, a situation that likely won’t happen until May.

For now, it is the Republicans who have the majority of the Pennsylvania state House. Six months from now, it will likely swing back to Democratic control, hence the drama. 

At the beginning of the last session, there was also drama, only this time in the Senate chamber when that chaotic first day of the session saw GOP lawmakers pass a resolution to remove then-Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) as president of the chamber. 

Madonna said he is not surprised that there was drama Tuesday. “No one really expected the Democrats to win the majority in the state House including Democrats, but the redistricting that occurred after the 2020 census gave them more opportunity to win more seats. We have an almost unprecedented number of newly elected members, 50, who won their seats because of Republican members who decided not to run after their seats became much more Democratic,” he said. 

The day ended up surprising everyone when state Rep. Jim Gregory (R) of Blair County nominated state Rep. Mark Rozzi (D) of Berks County to be the speaker. The move was seconded by another Republican, Tim O’Neal of Washington County, who said, “We need an independent voice and an independent mind.” 

State House Majority Leader Joanna McClinton (D) agreed to support him, and within short order, Rozzi was elected speaker of the Pennsylvania state House. 

Rozzi then proceeded to flip from Democrat to independent in his acceptance speech. “I am sure a lot of you didn’t see this coming today,” he said, then began discussing the importance of the independent voter in American politics owing to their putting “their fellow man first,” he said. 

Rozzi then dropped the bomb no one saw coming that he was no longer going to be a Democrat, adding that he would not caucus with either party and would have staff from both parties. 

State House Rep. Rob Mercuri, an Allegheny County Republican who was in the room when it happened, said it was a move no one saw coming. “It was a surprise result to be sure, but if Mr. Rozzi holds to his newly claimed independent status, this could be both an historic and welcome development for both my constituents in District 28 as well as citizens across the commonwealth of Pennsylvania who are looking for a bipartisan approach to our most pressing issues,” he said. 

“Now it’s time to get to work on solving these issues together,” he said. 

State Senator Devlin Robinson (R) said when the special elections are finished, the partisan count will be 101-101-1, reflective of how divided the state is. As for the drama, he laughs, “Just when you thought you’ve seen it all.”

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