Philly state Rep. Joanna McClinton made history on Tuesday, becoming the first woman and second Black person to ever serve as speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
A Democrat who represents parts of West Philadelphia and some of Delaware County, McClinton is taking on the role as her party holds its first House majority in over a decade, albeit with a slim margin of just one rep.
Many expected her to win the leadership seat when the results of the 2022 November election rolled in, but several vacancies of Democratic-held seats — some reps were elected to higher office, and one had died — meant Republicans started the year with their own slim majority.
That led to a short-lived stint at House Speaker by Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Democrat who ascended to the role in January by way of a bipartisan compromise as part of a drama-filled series of happenings.
Rozzi had been unclear if he would step aside for McClinton if the vacant seats were won back by Dems as expected in February’s special elections.
That’s what happened, and as the chamber returned to session this week, Rozzi supported McClinton’s nomination by fellow Philadelphian Rep. Malcom Kenyatta, and she finally rose to the position. All 102 of the chamber’s Democrats voted in favor of making her speaker.
McClinton, a 40-year-old from Southwest Philly, has served in the House since 2015, became minority leader in 2020, and was voted majority leader earlier this year.
Here are five things to know about McClinton and her path to leadership.
She began her career as an assistant public defender
McClinton dreamed of being a lawyer since first grade, and the Defender Association of Philadelphia was the first place she lived that dream as a full-fledged lawyer after graduating from law school at Villanova. A colleague there called her a “fierce attorney.” After working at the office for seven years, she moved on to a job as chief counsel for state Sen. Anthony Williams, spending two years there before running for office herself.
Criminal justice has been of her top policy priorities
McClinton credited her time as a lawyer for inspiring her to take on criminal justice reform as a state rep. During her time in the House, she’s sponsored a bevy of criminal justice-related legislation in previous sessions, like a bill that would end what’s sometimes referred to as “prison gerrymandering,” and a proposed constitutional amendment that would make it easier for people convicted to life sentences to be considered for pardons.
A bipartisan criminal justice bill she cosponsored, allowing expungement of Pennsylvanians’ records if they’ve been pardoned under certain circumstances, made it to the governor’s desk and was signed into law in late 2020. It built upon other Clean Slate legislation passed in 2018, which McClinton also cosponsored alongside 42 other colleagues.
She’s made history more than once
This week isn’t McClinton’s first time breaking a legislative glass ceiling. Her ascent to House Democratic caucus chair in 2018 marked the first time a woman held the role AND the first time a Black person held the role. Also, her election as the House Democratic Leader in 2020 made her the only Black woman to ever hold a party leadership role in Harrisburg.
Now that McClinton is House speaker and Republican Sen. Kim Ward of Westmoreland County is Senate president pro tempore, it’s the first time in history that women have led both chambers — or either chamber, for that matter — of the state legislature.
She’s an actual preacher
McClinton, whose faith has been important to her since she was young, is an ordained minister. In 2020, Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson told Billy Penn that McClinton is a “very deep, spiritual individual,” who preaches not only the gospel but also a “message of social justice.”
She’s the first House speaker from Philly in over a decade — and the first Philly Democrat since the 90s
The last time a Philadelphian led the Pa. House was when Rep. Dennis M. O’Brien, a Republican who later served as a Philadelphia at-large councilmember, was elected to the speakership in 2007 despite the Democrats holding a majority in the House. (The deal that made that possible was brokered by now-Gov. Josh Shapiro, then a representative from Montgomery County.) O’Brien stayed in the position through 2008.
O’Brien was preceded by Rep. John M. Perzel, a longtime Republican rep from Northeast Philly who served as speaker from 2003 to 2006. Delco Republican Rep. Matthew J. Ryan — who was born in Philadelphia — was speaker before Perzel, serving from 1995 until his death in 2003.
Before that, the most recent Philadelphian to serve as House speaker was Robert W. O’Donnell, a Democrat who occupied the role from 1990 to 1992.