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The behind-the-scenes story of Mark Rozzi’s surprising rise to Pa. House speaker

Republicans were the primary engineers behind the Berks County Democrat’s candidacy and announcement — and even wrote his acceptance speech.

  • Stephen Caruso/SpotlightPA
  • Katie Meyer/Spotlight PA
Mark Rozzi (center) is joined by Republican Bryan Cutler (right) and Democrat Joanna McClinton (left) after being selected speaker of the Pennsylvania House.

 House Democratic Caucus

Mark Rozzi (center) is joined by Republican Bryan Cutler (right) and Democrat Joanna McClinton (left) after being selected speaker of the Pennsylvania House.

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, and WITF Public Media.

Before delivering prepared remarks, newly elected Pennsylvania House Speaker Mark Rozzi offered a short, extemporaneous thought on his surprising ascent from the chamber’s literal back bench to the speaker’s rostrum.

“I’m sure a lot of you didn’t expect or see this coming today,” Rozzi said with a grin.

His win capped a month of partisan bickering over control of a chamber that has, as Rozzi put it in his remarks, never been more divided. And it began a new period of speculation over which party really controls the Pennsylvania House.

Rozzi is a registered Democrat from Berks County, but his speech came with the surprise announcement that he would no longer caucus with the party or with Republicans, and would be the state House’s “first independent speaker.” The move increases the stature of an already powerful position by leaving both parties at an even split, and Rozzi the chance to play tiebreaker.

The Democratic caucus was unified in voting for Rozzi, but Republicans were the primary engineers behind both his candidacy and his announcement, according to state House sources. They even wrote the speech in which he declared his independence.

Democrats, meanwhile, were aware of efforts to pick off one of their members but were surprised when it became clear on the floor that Rozzi, who comes from a heavily Democratic district, accepted a deal with Republicans.

In the wake of his sudden election, both parties have attempted to claim that Rozzi is loyal to them.

The one man who can definitively answer that question, Rozzi himself, isn’t returning requests for comment.

But his path to holding the speaker’s gavel showcases not only the backroom dealmaking that can determine so much about power and policy in Harrisburg, but also the many divides, both between and within parties, that have riven Pennsylvania’s General Assembly in recent years.

Joanna McClinton speaks during a press conference

Alejandro A. Alvarez / Philadelphia Inquirer

In the weeks leading up to the speaker vote, Democratic leadership worked hard to get Republicans to vote for their choice of speaker, caucus leader Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia).

Rank and file were in the dark

Contested speaker elections periodically happen in the Pennsylvania House. But the simple math of party control in the chamber usually signals whether the winner will be a Democrat or a Republican.

This session differs.

Democrats won 102 of the chamber’s 203 seats in November — a bare majority. But three of those seats quickly became vacant: One member died before the election and two more resigned to take higher office.

Those seats will be filled in special elections, and Democrats are predicted to win them. But for the purposes of the Jan. 3 speaker vote, Democrats had 99 members on the floor and Republicans had 101 — numbers that gave both parties thin margins for error.

Republicans could have elected a speaker of their choosing, but only if they kept their entire caucus unified. If one member defected to the Democrats, it would have produced a 100-100 deadlock, and possibly no speaker at all until special elections. If two or more Republicans had agreed to vote for Democrats’ choice of speaker, the party would have won.

In the weeks leading up to the speaker vote, Democratic leadership worked hard to get Republicans to vote for their choice of speaker, caucus leader Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia).

They proposed to Republican leadership a change to the chamber rules that would give lawmakers from the minority party more power to make policy, and offered individual legislators grant funding for their districts.

But despite last-minute talks on Monday, Democrats still didn’t have the votes to get McClinton the gavel on Tuesday.

Republicans were aware of Democrats’ efforts — the lure of grant money was noted in a caucus-wide email written by Republican leader Bryan Cutler’s chief of staff.

At 101 votes, Republicans could have elected their preferred candidate if they had complete party unity, even if just for the short term.

But the caucus could not rally together, a product of its range of members — from arch-conservatives who support total abortion bans to suburban moderates who count unions as their closest allies.

Facing a lack of consensus within their party, top Republicans began their own effort to flip a Democrat their way, which culminated Tuesday.

In the meantime, the caucus still had to settle on a speaker candidate of their own, after Cutler said he wouldn’t again pursue the post.

In a series of private votes in a Tuesday morning meeting, House Republicans whittled down four candidates for speaker to a final pick: state Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar (R., Somerset), a backbencher with a libertarian streak.

However, not every Republican supported Metzgar. After a caucus vote like the one Metzgar won, noted state Rep. Jesse Topper (R., Bedford), there are winners, losers, and hurt feelings.

“To try to come back from that and be unanimous — I’m not sure that was because it was Carl, I think it could have been anyone,” Topper said.

Commonwealth Media Services

Bryan Cutler served as state House speaker last session, but declined to run again for the post

In the hours leading up to Rozzi’s speaker nomination, state House Democratic members and staff told Spotlight PA that the party was aware that Republicans were trying to flip one of their members.

In a closed-door meeting on Tuesday morning, Democratic leadership told members to inform them if Republicans approached with a deal, five Democratic lawmakers told Spotlight PA.

At that point, four of them added, multiple Democrats said they had been approached by Republicans to either become an independent or a Republican. If he had already been approached, Rozzi didn’t volunteer the information at the time.

Democrats also recognized they didn’t have the votes to elect McClinton, and around midday were in discussions to nominate a moderate Republican such as state Rep. Tom Mehaffie (R., Dauphin) for the speakership as a compromise. However, that plan also fell through.

Instead, by late afternoon Democrats settled on adjourning without voting on a speaker until after special elections filled vacancies. Those elections would likely bring Democrats a narrow majority and the ability to name their preferred candidate.

The party, Capitol sources told Spotlight PA at the time, thought they had convinced at least two Republicans to join on a motion to adjourn — the minimum they needed for a successful vote.

At the same time, Republicans were finalizing their own plans. Around 2:30 p.m., state Rep. Jim Gregory (R., Blair) said he was approached by Whip Tim O’Neal (R., Washington) about getting Rozzi to flip and stand for the speakership.

“I just said, ‘You know what, the best question you can ask him is only one question … What would it take?’” Gregory told reporters.

Gregory, who is not in leadership, is a close legislative ally of Rozzi’s, particularly on an effort to pass a constitutional amendment that would give victims of sexual abuse more options to sue their abusers. He said he knew Rozzi was worried that a speaker deadlock could delay the amendment’s final passage and that the two had been talking for “months” about ways to get it to voters.

The caucuses got to the floor for the speaker vote mid-afternoon on Tuesday. Information was scarce among rank-and-filers in both parties when the chief clerk, who oversaw the first day of session, proposed that the chamber adjourn. Cutler opposed the motion and asked for a vote.

Just one Republican, Mehaffie, voted to adjourn, and it failed in a 100-100 tie. Then, Gregory rose and nominated Rozzi, whose bid was seconded by O’Neal.

McClinton quickly announced that she supported Rozzi and urged her caucus to do the same, to the surprise of rank-and-file Democrats, who had been given no warning and were forced to decide how to vote.

Members learned about the vote “literally as it unfolded,” one Democrat said. “It was a total surprise.”

However, with McClinton blessing the arrangement, it was an easy choice for the caucus.

“As long as Joanna endorses it, we are going to follow it,” said another Democratic lawmaker.

“The idea was, we selected our leadership, we have to trust our leadership,” a third said.

Republicans still nominated Metzgar, and most of the rank-and-file GOP members voted for him. One of the lawmakers of that group said while they knew some members had “reservations,” they assumed the caucus was still unified behind Metzgar.

“I honestly don’t know what the leadership plan was,” the Republican added. “I watched it unfold on the floor as it happened. It was extremely confusing.”

What unfolded was a two-candidate election: The state House chief clerk instructed members to press their green buttons for Rozzi, and the red ones for Metzgar. The entire Democratic caucus, plus 16 Republicans — some moderates, some wild cards, and all seven members of leadership — supported Rozzi. He won 115-85.

“We did not have enough votes” for Metzgar, said state Rep. George Dunbar (R., Westmoreland), the GOP caucus chair. “So Rep. Rozzi gave us an alternative.”

Rank-and-file members from both parties were further surprised when Rozzi declared he’d be an independent speaker. Republican leadership knew it was coming; it’s unclear whether their Democratic counterparts did (McClinton has declined to answer questions), and rank-and-filers, except for those who’d heard some whispered rumors, were completely in the dark.

As the dust settled, members began to realize that this could be a big deal for chamber control. It had been assumed that after special elections, Democrats would control the chamber 102 to 101. Now, it looked like the parties could be evenly split.

“In the game of politics, there’s chess and there’s checkers,” Gregory said. “And I think we just played a really good game of chess.”

Matt Smith / AP Photo

Lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives were sworn in on Jan. 3.

‘Now there is no majority’

In the three days since Rozzi’s election and declaration of independence, Democrats and Republicans alike have insisted that they have his allegiance and a numerical advantage in the chamber.

Rozzi has stayed mum, only repeating his promises of independence at a news conference where he was flanked by Democratic leadership.

House Democratic Appropriations Committee Chair Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) said that Rozzi assured Democrats in a private caucus meeting a few hours after the vote that he’s still a member of their party.

Three Democratic rank-and-filers confirmed this account. Asked if he was still a Democrat, Rozzi told the assembled caucus in the meeting that he still considered himself to have a “D” next to his name.

Some took that pledge seriously, and have said they’re hopeful that Rozzi’s newly announced independence will be in name only, and that he’ll functionally still be a Democrat.

Others worry that this represented a more profound break with the party, and are dismayed with leaders for putting their majority in jeopardy.

“Members are pissed, felt betrayed,” one state House Democrat in the latter camp, who spoke on condition of anonymity to freely criticize leadership, said in a text. “There’s some serious disappointment [and] frustration re: how Dem leadership failed our caucus.”

In a brief public appearance, Rozzi himself told reporters that “while I was elected to the House of Representatives as a Democrat, I do not intend to caucus with either party on the legislative happenings of the House. This is consistent with the practice of most speakers.”

While speakers technically serve as officers of the chamber as a whole, they generally use their considerable procedural authority to benefit their own party by shutting down the minority’s efforts to block or amend bills they oppose, and limiting debate.

Both Cutler and Gregory said they believe Rozzi intends to switch his voter registration to independent, and that he truly will not act in Democrats’ interests.

Cutler said that switch will keep Democrats from ever fully controlling the chamber this session, and suggested both parties could be equally represented on committees. Usually, the majority party gets more seats, providing an important advantage in moving legislation.

“Now there is no majority,” Cutler said.

Not all Republicans buy that. One member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they expect Rozzi to still defer to the Democratic caucus, and expressed disappointment that Republicans hadn’t been able to stick together and use their numerical advantage to pick a GOP speaker.

But, they added, “I understand the situation that [leaders] were in.”

Other Republicans were willing to wait and see. Rozzi’s “public pledge in his official capacity from the rostrum to go independent and not to caucus with either party is a very good start,” said state Rep. Mike Jones (R., York), a member of the conservative Freedom Caucus.

Added state Rep. Valerie Gaydos (R., Allegheny), one of the three unsuccessful GOP speaker hopefuls: “We need to bring trust back into the process, so I want to trust that [Rozzi] will honor his commitment to work with both sides.”

Rozzi and Democratic leaders didn’t say whether he would serve as speaker for the entire two-year session, or whether he would resign and support McClinton after Democrats likely pick up three more members later this year.

Asked in the private Democratic meeting post-vote, two lawmakers said Rozzi was noncommittal about the future.

But even without legislative rules agreed to or a second voting session day in the books, some Democrats inside the legislature are banging the drum for the party to remove Rozzi as soon as possible.

It’s unclear whether such a maneuver would even be possible, as it would likely require Republican backing or Rozzi to vote for his own ouster.

Still, Democrats across the political spectrum, from progressives to moderates, were already looking ahead to the outcome of the three pending special elections.

“I am disappointed that Joanna McClinton was not named speaker,” state Rep. John Galloway (D., Bucks) told Spotlight PA. “Perhaps that will change as early as this March.”

Other Democrats inside and outside the Capitol privately smarted at yet another delay in the state House having its first female speaker, who would also be the chamber’s second Black speaker.

State Rep. Donna Bullock of Philadelphia, chair of the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, was diplomatic.

“As Pennsylvania becomes more and more diverse, I look forward to the opportunity where we can elect a speaker of the House that reflects that diversity,” she told Spotlight PA.

Will that still happen this session?

“I don’t want to answer it,” Bullock said.

Commonwealth Media Services

House Speaker Mark Rozzi (center) is shown here in 2019 with Gov. Tom Wolf (left) and Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro (right)

Why would Rozzi want to be speaker?

The speaker of the Pennsylvania House wields significant power. Among other abilities, the speaker moderates floor debate, calls up bills for votes, and names the chamber’s committee chairs. Rozzi positioning himself as an independent figure between two otherwise evenly divided caucuses could afford him enormous opportunity to pick his own legislative priorities.

In the days since his election, speculation has been rampant in Harrisburg about what Rozzi might have promised Republicans in exchange for the role.

After the November election, Republicans indicated they’d hoped to use their likely temporary numerical advantage at the start of the session to pass major constitutional amendments, including one that would require all voters to present ID at the polls.

It’s not yet clear how Rozzi will handle those amendments, though he voted against an omnibus bill containing all of them the first time they came before the chamber. He’s already moved on one Democratic priority: affirming McClinton’s chosen special election dates over Republicans’.

One of Rozzi’s legislative priorities does seem clear: making sure the legislature sends to voters a constitutional amendment that would give adult survivors of child sexual abuse legal recourse.

Gregory said he and Rozzi began discussing the possibility that Rozzi could run for speaker because of their concern for the amendment’s prospects in a chamber teetering on impasse.

The proposed amendment would affect older survivors, who are limited from taking legal action over their abuse by Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations. It would open a two-year window in which those survivors could sue their abusers and institutions that covered for them.

It was dealt a severe setback two years ago.

Amendments must pass the legislature in two consecutive sessions before a statewide vote. In 2021, when it appeared the amendment had cleared its legislative hurdles and would appear on the May ballot, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration announced that due to “internal systemic failures,” the measure had been insufficiently advertised and could not legally go to a vote. The process to pass it would have to begin anew in the legislature.

“It was a matter of, what was the most important thing to him and myself?” Gregory said Tuesday, after Rozzi’s election to speaker. In order to get the amendment on the May ballot, it has to quickly pass the legislature another time so that it can be advertised for three months, he noted.

Cutler confirmed that this had been a factor in GOP leadership’s conversations with Rozzi.

“The Democrats’ plan was to adjourn us out until the end of February,” he told reporters Tuesday. “For Rep. Rozzi, the constitutional amendments were very important, and so that timeline mattered … which I think is what made him amenable to some kind of agreement where we can work through those issues together.”

If Rozzi didn’t stand for speaker, Gregory said, he is convinced that “the victims of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania were gonna have to wait, again, until November.”

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