Pa. House Democrat’s flip to end leadership limbo stemmed from a GOP leader’s quip

‘Just ask him what it would take and listen. If you don’t like what you hear there’s nothing lost,’ Rep. Jim Gregory said

By: - January 5, 2023 5:04 pm

State Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, speaks before signing a package of three bills, which mirror three of the Grand Jury’s recommendations on addressing the statute of limitations for victims of child sexual abuse, inside Muhlenberg High School on Tuesday, November 26, 2019 (Commonwealth Media Services photo).

In a matter of minutes on Tuesday afternoon, House Republican leaders brought an outsider into their fold and struck a deal to end a stalemate over leadership of the chamber.

Pennsylvania House Speaker Mark Rozzi’s election began with a half-joke on the chamber floor as lawmakers ran down the clock on the impasse, one of the Republicans who nominated the six-term Democrat said.

Neither party appeared to have the votes for a nomination for speaker to succeed and a motion by Democrats to adjourn until after special elections in February failed with a tied vote, Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, said.

Gregory said he and Rozzi, who have collaborated closely on legal relief for sexual abuse victims, were having a conversation about topics unrelated to House business when Republican Whip Tim O’Neal, R-Washington, joined them.

O’Neal asked in jest what it would take for Rozzi to flip.

“It was just a half-hearted conversation, nothing at all serious,” Gregory said.

A short time later O’Neal texted asking whether Gregory thought the Republicans could get Rozzi to switch parties, Gregory said.

“I said, ‘Just ask him what it would take and listen. If you don’t like what you hear there’s nothing lost,’” Gregory said.

Republican leaders called Gregory to a back room later that afternoon and told Gregory they had persuaded the Berks County lawmaker to become an independent. 

With Gregory’s nomination, seconded by O’Neal and endorsed by Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, of Philadelphia, Rozzi was elected speaker by a 115-85 vote, with 16 Republicans joining Democrats who were unanimous in Rozzi’s support.

Republican Leader Bryan Cutler, of Lancaster County, said Tuesday that Rozzi’s election would be good for the people of Pennsylvania, allowing the House to advance legislation with votes evenly divided between the parties. 

But Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware, whose seat is next to Rozzi’s on the House floor, said that by accepting the Republican nomination and becoming speaker Rozzi seized an opportunity to protect his work on providing justice for sexual abuse survivors.

“Obviously, the issue of compensation for victims of sexual abuse was his one burning issue,” Vitali said, adding that Rozzi was greatly displeased by the failure of colleagues in the General Assembly and Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration to help him bring his efforts to fruition.

The willingness of Democratic House leaders to allow his work — which depends on a time-sensitive vote — to wither while the House stood idle, may have been a factor in Rozzi’s decision to become an independent, Vitali said.

While Democrats won a majority of 102 House seats in November, the death of an incumbent Democrat, and the resignations of two others elected to higher office, meant Republicans have the majority of votes.

If Democrats win the elections for the three vacant Allegheny County seats – which is likely – the house will be split 101-101 with Rozzi as an independent vote.

While Cutler said he expects Rozzi to remain at the rostrum for the whole two-year session, at least one prominent Democratic representative cast doubt about Rozzi’s tenure, predicting McClinton would replace him.

In a Tweet thread Thursday, Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, called Rozzi’s election as speaker the “least worst option” to avoid Republican control of the House.

Kenyatta added that by supporting Rozzi’s nomination, Democratic leaders ensured that voters in the vacant districts would have representation sooner than later. Cutler last month asserted that two of the special elections should be held on primary election day in May to avoid additional expense and confusion.

“These elections will reaffirm that for the first time in over a decade Pennsylvanians gave control to the Democratic Party to deliver for their families,” Kenyatta tweeted. “When the house has its full complement of members Leader Joanna McClinton will become Speaker Joanna McClinton.”

Kenyatta and McClinton did not respond to requests for telephone interviews. McClinton on Thursday filed a motion to dismiss a Commonwealth Court lawsuit Cutler filed after she filed writs for the Feb. 7 special elections last month.

After his election, Rozzi ratified McClinton’s writs of election, mooting Cutler’s claim that he had the authority to schedule the elections in May. Cutler and McClinton essentially agreed that the election for the first of the three vacancies should be held Feb. 7, but each argued that the other had no authority to say so.

Even if Democrats win all three seats in the special election, installing McClinton as speaker would require Rozzi to vote against himself. Rozzi did not respond to requests for an interview.

First elected in 2012, Rozzi left his family window and door installation business to campaign on a platform of winning justice for survivors of childhood sexual abuse who had missed their opportunities to seek justice against their attackers.

Rozzi had been raped by a priest at the Catholic school in Reading where he attended eighth grade. Beset by shame and guilt, Rozzi kept his abuse a secret for decades until a childhood friend, who was also a victim of the priest, died by suicide.

Against the backdrop of the grand jury investigations of rampant sexual abuse by clergy in Philadelphia and, later, in other Pennsylvania dioceses, Rozzi won election to the House. There, he began pushing for an end to the statute of limitations that gave victims of childhood abuse only until the age of 30 to sue.

Gregory, also an abuse survivor, said he took office in 2018 and saw Rozzi struggling to pass a statutory “lookback window” that would give abuse victims whose claims were too old to bring to court a two-year window to file lawsuits. 

“I believe God puts everyone in our path for a reason,” Gregory said.

He offered to work with Rozzi to put a proposed amendment to the state Constitution before voters. In order to amend the Constitution, proposed language must be approved by the General Assembly in consecutive sessions and then passed in a referendum.

Rozzi and Gregory were successful, and the proposed amendment was set to be on the primary election ballot in May 2021. But an error by the Department of State forced them to start over. 

The same amendment was passed in both chambers last session and would have to be approved again this year to make it to the primary election ballot in May.

Gregory said the failure to elect a speaker would have again scuttled his and Rozzi’s efforts.

“They didn’t think they had to have a plan. Their plan was to run out the clock,” Gregory said of the Democrats’ attempt to adjourn on Tuesday. 

“Go home without a speaker. Do no business for Pennsylvania. Collect our paychecks. I wasn’t OK with that,” Gregory said. “For Mark and I, we want to get the constitutional amendment on the ballot for May.”

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.