Democrats move to take power with narrow Pa. House majority
HARRISBURG — Democrats who barely won back a majority of seats in the Pennsylvania House in November moved to take control of the chamber Wednesday and replace one of their incumbents who died and two others who won higher office.
Shortly after Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia was quietly sworn in as a state representative on the House floor, she scheduled special elections for Feb. 7 for all three seats.
The top Republican leader called it an “illegal and unprecedented power grab” based on a specious claim to the majority.
One of those seats had most recently belonged to former Rep. Tony DeLuca of Allegheny County, 85, who was reelected a month after he died of cancer in October. In the other two districts, Allegheny County Democratic Reps. Austin Davis and Summer Lee both resigned from the House Wednesday as they prepared to be sworn in next month as lieutenant governor and to Congress, respectively.
Davis issued a statement calling House service the honor of his life.
“If you had told me as a 16-year-old teen, driven to my first City Council meeting to protest gun violence that had reached my own block, that I would have the privilege to represent my hometown and neighboring communities in our state Capitol, and the opportunity to take those issues head on and improve lives, I wouldn’t have believed it," he said.
Davis previously said he intended to resign from the state House between voting for a new speaker on Jan. 3 and being inaugurated on Jan. 17 as lieutenant governor.
A message was left seeking comment from Lee after McClinton's spokeswoman said she had resigned.
McClinton issued a statement saying House Democrats, who were in the minority, 113-90, in the session that ended last month, won a majority of districts in November so she “becomes the House's presiding officer." The chamber will vote on a new speaker when it reconvenes for swearing-in day on Jan. 3, and McClinton said she will act as speaker until then.
“Pennsylvania’s voters have spoken, and the will of the people is the ultimate authority in this Commonwealth,” McClinton said. Her status as acting speaker “is consistent” with what occurred almost two decades ago, when Majority Leader John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, was acting speaker for several weeks after the death of Speaker Matt Ryan, R-Delaware, she said.
Also Wednesday, acting Secretary of State Leigh Chapman notified the outgoing House speaker, Rep. Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County, that she was rejecting his effort to schedule a special election for DeLuca's seat on Feb. 7.
She said Cutler's move on the final day of the 2021-22 legislative session, “is a nullity, and therefore I must reject it.”
Chapman was appointed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.
Chapman said in a letter to Cutler that special elections must be scheduled within 10 days of a vacancy occurring, and DeLuca died Oct. 9. In addition, she wrote, the vacancy for the 2023-24 session occurred when that session technically began on Thursday, so Cutler's attempt to schedule a Feb. 7 election had been premature by one day.
Cutler called McClinton's move “a paperwork insurrection."
“Democrats are creating internal confusion by simultaneously speciously alleging they have a fake, gerrymandered majority that has the authority to conduct the business of the House,” Cutler said.
Pennsylvania's legislative districts, drawn by a five-member commission dominated by legislative leaders of both parties, were upheld by state and federal courts against challenges by House Republicans, including an argument it amounted to an improper Democratic gerrymander.
McClinton said she and Cutler met Monday to negotiate amid the slim margins but were unable to reach agreement.
DeLuca died after ballots had been printed and after a legal deadline passed to substitute a candidate.
McClinton noted she has been the first woman of either party to be a floor leader in the chamber's 246-year history. Delaware County Judge Richard H. Lowe, swore her in.