Editorial: Madame Speaker, the gavel is now yours03/14/2023 11:17AM ● By Richard Gaw
Since it was first
established as a commonwealth on Dec. 12, 1787, the state governance of
Pennsylvania, while figuring prominently in the birth of the country, has
served as a microcosm of what happens in the hallowed halls of legislation in every state in the
While layered in decorum and ceremony, it is mostly a slow slog in the sausage making of that which creates a legal blueprint for how we live. With exceptions, it is beholden to the visionary whim of the dominant party and given the rigidity of its platform, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives is rarely a site for inspiration, or reform.
On Feb. 28, that all changed.
On that day, State Rep. Joanna McClinton became the first woman – and only the second African-American, after K. Leroy Irvis -- to be chosen as speaker of the Pennsylvania House, ascending to the top position in the Chamber on the strength of a one-vote Democratic majority.
“In my career, I’ve been blessed to achieve other ‘firsts’ in this chamber, and I am equally honored to serve as this historic body’s first woman speaker,” McClinton told her fellow assembly members after she was sworn in. “I stand before you today, humbled and honored to be elected your speaker, and most importantly, my election today makes me more hopeful about the future of our commonwealth and our communities.”
To anyone past or present whose voice for racial and gender equality may have rung hollow or finally been given traction, McClinton’s appointment signifies a triumph that took 250 years to achieve, but now is not the time to re-open a book that has already absorbed thousands of dog-eared debates. The deal is done; the African-American woman now has the gavel, and the focus of the House’s attention should be on the people of Pennsylvania, not on the fact that Democrats now own a sliver of a majority.
* * * *
Upon taking a deep dive into the key platforms of her political career, it would be wise of the House – both sides of it -- to parlay the hallmark of McClinton’s position by following her lead. She has been a vocal advocate for criminal justice reform and women’s health issues, and is a member of the Legislative Black Caucus, LGBTQ Equality Caucus, and Women’s Health Caucus. She helped introduce the K. Leroy Irvis Voting Rights Act, a reflection of her commitment to strengthening the election process and ensuring that every Pennsylvanian has access to the ballot box.
Elected officials in Harrisburg may also want to rip another page from McClinton’s playbook and acquire the temerity to get angry in the name of the people they represent. McClinton’s response to a Republican-led House bill last July, one that that asked Pennsylvanians to amend the state constitution to declare that a woman does not have a right to an abortion, may have been her finest hour.
“We’re talking about women dying!” McClinton said on the House floor. “We’re talking about more than half the population not being able to make decisions — when not even half of this body has a uterus!”
The walls of the stodgy old House began to shake. McClinton was just getting started.
“That’s what we’re talking about tonight,” she said. “That’s why these rules need to be suspended, because we don’t follow the rules in this body. Let the people back home know!
“But here we are, being silenced once again. Understand that when you silence us, we are actually elected officials like you are, so you’re silencing millions of voters from every corner of the commonwealth. When you silence us, and don’t allow us to amend bills that won’t let people vote, that don’t let women make decisions, you’re silencing all of us!”
Last November, McClinton excoriated the entire House.
“As an elected representative, I have watched this institution erode,” she said. “The principles that define our House, that guided Benjamin Franklin to K. Leroy Irvis, are that of deliberate decency. They are that of respect and professionalism. They are that of collegiality, but as our politics have become polarized and our tenures shorter, our ability to see our colleagues as just that – colleagues – has disappeared.
“Rather than collaboratively working toward legislative solutions for the betterment of our entire commonwealth, too often we are looking for political victories rather than the policies that can lead to real progress.”
It should not have taken 250 years for the gavel of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives to be taken up by an African-American woman, but as the reputation of that chamber to effect progressive change for the commonwealth hangs in the balance, that gavel could not be in better hands.