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January 04, 2023

Pennsylvania Rep. Mark Rozzi becomes state's first independent House speaker

The longtime Democrat from Berks County was elected Tuesday after switching his affiliation

Politics Legislature
Mark Rozzi Pennsylvania House Speaker Source/PAHOUSE.COM

Pennsylvania State Rep. Mark Rozzi, of Berks County, was sworn in as Speaker of the House on Tuesday after a 115-85 vote made him the first independent to hold the position. He had previously been a Democrat.

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives overcame a deadlock Tuesday to elect Rep. Mark Rozzi as its next speaker, making him the first independent to ever hold the position.

The vote was preceded by weeks of political jockeying in the state legislature after Democrats obtained a one-seat House majority in the November elections. Despite the 102-101 edge over Republicans, vacancies in three Democratic districts cut their ranks to 99, leaving the speakership and the chamber's legislative agenda in doubt.  

Rozzi, a longtime Democrat who began his sixth term representing the 126th District in Berks County, changed his party affiliation to independent to garner the support of 16 Republicans. They helped him secure the speakership with a 115-85 vote. 

"As speaker, my goal is to remain nonpartisan in order to deliver a sense of unity within the legislature. It's past time that we work together and restore trust in the people's House," Rozzi said. "Sometimes Republicans will win, and sometimes Democrats will win, and that is fine, so long as the beneficiaries are the people of this commonwealth."

Since the November elections, Democrats and Republicans in the House have battled over control of the chamber and the scheduling of special elections to fill the state's vacant seats. That issue remains tied up in litigation in the Commonwealth Court, with Democrats aiming for three special elections to be held Feb. 7 and Republicans pushing for two of them to be held on the same day as the May primary elections.

Another special election may become necessary with the anticipated resignation of GOP Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver if she wins her bid for state Senate in a special election scheduled for Jan. 31. 

Democrats had planned to elect Majority Leader Joanna McClinton, who represents portions of Philadelphia and Delaware County, as the next speaker. Republicans, led by Bryan Cutler, of Delaware County, sued over the power to elect a presiding officer given the GOP edge created by the Democratic vacancies. Cutler's lawsuit argued that the death of longtime Democratic state Rep. Tony DeLuca, of Allegheny County, preempted Democrats' claims of a majority in the House because DeLuca died before the new legislative session began Dec. 1. 

Despite his death a month before the midterm elections, DeLuca remained on the ballot due to a state law that prevents substitutes from being added once ballots have begun printing. Allegheny County Democratic Reps. Austin Davis and Summer Lee resigned in December because they were elected to higher offices.

Rozzi was nominated for speaker by Republican Rep. Jim Gregory, of Blair and Huntingdon Counties, and also received backing from GOP Rep. Tim O'Neal, of Washington County. McClinton gave her support to Rozzi as well. 

"At first blush, many might be wondering why a Republican is standing up to nominate a member of the Democrat caucus," Gregory said. "The answer is really very simple – we must have a speaker that reflects the realities that we have before us."

Rozzi is best known for supporting legislation to abolish Pennsylvania's criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse. Key pieces of his initiative have not been enacted, but Rozzi and his colleagues have proposed a Constitutional amendment that would be put before voters if the measure is approved by both legislative chambers. 

Rozzi won the vote despite a late push by opposing Republicans to nominate Carl Walker Metzger, of Somerset County.

The vote in Pennsylvania came as the U.S. House of Representatives wrangled in Washington over the election of a new speaker. Republicans failed three times to garner enough votes for GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, of California, resulting in an adjournment Tuesday without a new speaker in place. 

In the Pennsylvania Senate, where Republicans hold a 27-22 majority, with one seat vacant, GOP Sen. Kim Ward, of Westmoreland County, was elected president pro tempore, becoming the first woman to hold that position.