HARRISBURG, Pa. – The rank-and-file Democrat who was unexpectedly elected speaker of the Pennsylvania House as a compromise candidate earlier this month is saying he hopes to keep the job even after three vacant Democratic-leaning seats are filled in special elections next week.
In a lengthy interview late Monday in his state Capitol suite, Speaker Mark Rozzi said he won't necessarily step aside and support the Democratic floor leader, Rep. Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia, as speaker.
“I know how to count votes, first of all,” said Rozzi, who represents a mostly suburban area around Reading. “So, you know, at the end of the day she still has to get the votes to become speaker of the House.”
Democrats won 102 seats in November to Republicans' 101, which was enough for a bare Democratic majority after 12 years under Republican control, but one reelected Democrat died in October and two others resigned in December because they also won higher offices. Elections are next Tuesday to fill those three vacancies, all in the Pittsburgh area.
Republicans were not able to muster enough votes to elect their own speaker when the new session began Jan. 3, leading to Rozzi's emergence as an alternative. McClinton and all Democrats voted for him, along with all seven members of House GOP leadership and nine other Republicans.
The Capitol is now rife with speculation that McClinton or some other candidate may soon try to evict Rozzi from the speaker's rostrum.
McClinton responded to Rozzi's talk of keeping the job by saying she “would be honored” to be speaker, and that once the House vacancies are filled, she will “trust my colleagues will make the best decision to move Pennsylvania forward.”
The House has been frozen since Rozzi took the speakership and has not passed internal operating rules or assigned members to committees.
Instead, Rozzi has convened a group of three representatives from each party to work on rules, hold listening sessions and come up with a way to pass what has been his primary objective for many years — a two-year window for victims of child sexual abuse to file otherwise outdated civil lawsuits.
Rozzi, 51, who has described being molested by a now deceased parish priest for over a year at about age 13, said he wants to use his time in the top job to do some good. He acknowledged that some members from both parties are not happy with him, seeing that as sign he's on the right path.
“I think that if I can show people I can lead this House, maybe I could stay in this position,” Rozzi said.
It may prove a tall order for a speaker who did not work his way up the ladder, building relationships along the way and leaning on a core of caucus support.
“Mark is not certain about how long his tenure lasts,” said a friend from the Reading area, Republican state Rep. Mark Gillen. “There's no textbook that he's going to be able to pull out and read the next play from.”
In two public hearings by Rozzi's group, the Speaker’s Workgroup to Move Pennsylvania Forward, he has heard a range of suggestions, many from people active with groups that have sought to ban gifts to lawmakers, improve transparency and weaken the tight grip that majority leaders have held on bills and amendments.
After it conducts two more listening sessions this week — in State College on Wednesday and Wilkes-Barre on Thursday — Rozzi hopes the working group will then formulate viable proposals on internal operating rules and the lawsuit window legislation. He insists he's not stalling and suggested he may soon convene the 2023-24 session's first voting floor session.
Rep. Paul Schemel, a Franklin County Republican who Rozzi picked for the working group, said the new speaker has been feeling some heat, particularly when he chose to shut down the chamber for the time being.
“I'm sure it's hard on him, but I think he genuinely wants reform of the system,” Schemel said.
Rozzi said he became active in politics through grassroots participation in efforts to spotlight and combat sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, including his participation in protests in the state Capitol before he was elected. When his local state representative in Berks County was retiring, he called Rozzi to suggest he run.
The divorced father of one daughter won that race in 2012 and sold his family's window-and-door installation company six years later.
He considers himself a Catholic but not a "practicing Catholic within the institution." He declined to disclose the amount of a settlement he reached over claims of abuse a couple years ago with the Allentown Catholic diocese.
“Believe me, it wasn't enough to ever make things right, I can tell you that,” Rozzi said. “It's not enough to put my life back together.”
The statute of limitations window has far and away been his primary issue, but Rozzi considers himself as a centrist, fiscally conservative and socially liberal. He supports abortion rights, gun rights and business tax cuts, and voted with Republicans last year on a bill to prohibit transgender athletes from playing school sports that align with their gender identity. That measure was vetoed by then-Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. He is not against expanding voter ID requirements, a proposal opposed by most legislative Democrats.
Rozzi said he had engaged in pie-in-the-sky talks about becoming speaker several months ago with his main ally in the sex-abuse lawsuit window fight, Blair County Republican Rep. Jim Gregory. But when swearing-in day began Jan. 3, he did not know what was about to occur and was surprised when Republicans wanted to pursue the idea.
Despite their temporary, 101-99 majority, Republicans had fallen short of majority support for their caucus' choice for speaker, Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar of Somerset County. Rozzi then found himself in a conference room with the Republican floor leader, Rep. Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County, and several aides.
By all accounts including his own, Rozzi agreed to position himself as an independent speaker and wanted a commitment about the lawsuit window. But both Cutler and Gregory insist Rozzi also promised to change his party registration, something Rozzi said he does not currently plan to do.
The lack of House floor action has effectively killed Republican hopes of getting a bundle of constitutional amendments on the low-turnout primary ballot. Cutler and other Republicans feel burned by the deal.
“I think the mistake was trusting somebody who wasn't entirely truthful,” Cutler told reporters last week. “That was a mistake. And there's still time to correct that.”
Rozzi insists he only agreed to consider changing his voter registration and felt even that was part of a deal in which the two-year lawsuit window would be considered on its own. Instead, the Republican-majority state Senate bundled it with constitutional amendments to expand voter ID requirements and to weaken a governor's authority to enact regulations.
Rozzi said he has tried to negotiate with Cutler in recent weeks, to no avail.
“You talk to the Democrats up here over the last 12 years and they'll tell you, like every opportunity that Bryan Cutler got a chance to lie to them, he lied to them,” Rozzi said.