There’s a Black woman leader in Harrisburg: Joanna McClinton makes history

The new Pa. House minority leader is a ‘fierce’ criminal justice advocate — and an ordained preacher.

State Rep. Joanna McClinton in 2019, with constituents at the fall festival in her native Southwest Philadelphia

State Rep. Joanna McClinton in 2019, with constituents at the fall festival in her native Southwest Philadelphia

Joanna McClinton / Facebook
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Southwest Philadelphia’s own state Representative Joanna McClinton, who’s already made history in her five years as an elected official, just broke another shard off the General Assembly’s glass ceiling.

McClinton was on Thursday elected House minority leader by her peers in the Pa. Legislature, making her the only Black woman to ever hold a party leadership position in Harrisburg.

The 38-year-old lawmaker earned the position by beating out Rep. Kevin Boyle, another young Philadelphia legislator.

“I was just very excited and just humbled and, quite honestly, a day later it still is very surreal,” McClinton said in a phone interview. “I didn’t shake hands because of COVID, but I bumped elbows with my opponent, and just thanked my colleagues as best as I could under my mask.”

McClinton, who last week won a fourth term in the Pa. House, said her priorities as the top Democrat will be to fight for working families and advocate for jobs with livable wages. Strengthening the public school system is also high on her list.

“We have…schools like William Penn School District, that serves Yeadon, Darby and Lansdowne, where they’re struggling financially,” she said. “And, of course, Philadelphia’s school district is underfunded. So we look forward to being able to make this one of those issues that you keep fighting for.”

McClinton’s rise to party leadership has been one of the fastest ascents in Pennsylvania politics.

Her three two-year terms representing the 191st Legislative District, which encompasses parts of Southwest, West Philly, Montgomery and Delaware counties, have been dynamic. A former public defender, she was first elected in 2015. The following year, she chaired a Democratic policy hearing about the school-to-prison pipeline, even before she joined the House Judiciary Committee a few months later.

In 2017, she was appointed by former Democratic House Leader Frank Dermody to the state Sentencing Commission, a body charged with establishing fair criminal justice sentencing policy. And in November 2018, McClinton became the only Black person and woman ever selected to chair the House Democratic Caucus.

Philly City Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson’s district overlaps with the Southwest portion of McClinton’s turf. He said her swift rise through the ranks is very unusual. McClinton only began working in the state capital in 2013, as chief counsel for Pa. Sen. Anthony Williams.

“To quote Joe Biden, this is a big f-ing deal,” Johnson said in an interview.

“Joanna has shown in a very short period of time of being in Harrisburg that she can build coalitions, she can build relationships, and most importantly, she’s respected, and has the confidence of her peers.”

McClinton speaks in Harrisburg in late 2020

McClinton speaks in Harrisburg in late 2020

Courtesy Wesley Anderson

McClinton was a ‘fierce’ attorney who wasn’t ‘afraid’

After graduating from Grace Temple Christian Academy in her native Southwest Philadelphia, McClinton earned a dual degree in political science and leadership in global understanding from La Salle University. She received a law degree from Villanova, and worked as an assistant public defender for seven years before joining Sen. Williams’ team.

Philadelphia Chief Defender Keir Bradford-Grey had been at the office four years when McClinton arrived and asked for advice on how to be the best attorney she could. Impressed, Bradford-Grey said the pair formed a working relationship and friendship.

“She was a fierce attorney,” said Bradford-Grey. “She wasn’t afraid to take a case to trial for fear of losing.”

McClinton’s heart for criminal justice reform was a catalyst to her running for office, she told the Inquirer in 2018. As a trial lawyer in Harrisburg, McClinton noticed most of Pa.’s decision makers were older white men.

“I spent all those years in the courthouse as a public defender, and I’m like, No wonder! It became very clear: No wonder we have mandatory minimums,” she said at the time. “No wonder things are so flawed. No wonder I’m in court with these sentencing guidelines, and things seem so unfair.”

McClinton decided to run in a 2015 special election after incumbent Ronald Waters pleaded guilty to political corruption charges and resigned. She beat a Republican and a third party candidate that year, and ran uncontested in 2018 and 2020.

Criminal justice reform among chief priorities

As state representative, McClinton has held several clinics and town halls in her district, on general criminal justice issues and how to move beyond a criminal record.

She’s part of a coalition of state and local officials and community associations called the Police Reform Working Group. Gov. Tom Wolf in October signed into law her bipartisan-supported bill establishing an expungement protocol for people who’ve been unconditionally pardoned or acquitted.

In Harrisburg, she continues to work alongside Philly’s public defender’s office.

“We know that any legislation she’s going to draft is going to be written with an understanding of how things actually work,” Bradford-Grey said. “We love people with the perspective that Joanna McClinton has when they’re working on criminal justice reform.”

As minority leader, McClinton will serve as the face of the state’s Democratic party in the House.

She’ll share all the administrative duties of her Republican counterpart, State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, Centre County, including deciding which bills are voted on and holding influence over spending.

The House is controlled by Republicans, so McClinton will have less command than the majority leader, but will be charged with advocating her party’s positions on crucial matters. And she’ll have a seat at the table during budget negotiations with Governor Tom Wolf.

Where the legislature’s two branches intersect, McClinton will be working with another history-making figure. Republican Senator Kim Ward of Westmoreland County on Thursday became the only woman ever chosen as Pa. Senate majority leader.

Councilmember Johnson noted that many people may not know McClinton is also a preacher.

“She’s a very deep, spiritual individual,” he said. “She’s a minister, so on Sunday, she is also preaching the gospel, as well as a message of social justice, to congregants and constituents.”

Bradford-Grey, who said McClinton is “majorly funny,” recalled when she found out McClinton was also a minister. “I’m like, man, how many hats can you wear?” the public defender said, laughing.

“Her vantage point comes from a God-fearing place, which I know you shouldn’t mix religion and politics,” Bradford-Grey said. “But, when it’s encompassed in a person, I know I’m getting the best public servant that I can get.”

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