One Black gay man from Philadelphia is speaking out in an attempt to stave off a political power grab in Harrisburg. But is anyone listening?
“On Jan. 6, we saw [a] revolt with actual violence. On Jan. 3, we’re going to see an attempt to do a different kind of rejection of the will of the American people, but it’s just as dangerous.” So says State Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, who represents the 181st District in Philadelphia.
Kenyatta has been tweeting about the GOP machinations in the Pennsylvania legislature for weeks, noting “There’s a national scandal brewing in the Pennsylvania State House. Everyone should be talking about this.”
Yet the story that Kenyatta talked about in a video on December 15 has flown under the national political radar — even though it has national implications. With mere days until new and returning legislators are sworn in on January 3, there is a battle brewing over who will control the legislature — Democrats or Republicans. Chaos looms.
The GOP has controlled the legislature in the Commonwealth for over a decade. If Republicans hold onto that power, they can force bills through that will challenge abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, voter ID and a myriad of other critical issues that voters seemed to declaratively reject when they chose Josh Shapiro for governor and John Fetterman for U.S. Senate. What’s more, they can do this and bypass Shapiro, who doesn’t take office until January 17.
At issue, as Kenyatta has pointed out repeatedly on Twitter and in interviews, is the will of the Pennsylvania voters who also chose Democrats over Republicans in the midterm election in legislative seats by a slender majority. That majority should take over on Jan. 3.
In November 2020, Delaware County Democrat Joanna McClinton was elected to serve as the House Democratic Leader. She became Majority Leader with the November 2022 election. As Majority Leader, McClinton is legally able and constitutionally mandated to schedule special elections to fill vacant seats. McClinton would be doing so at the earliest date: February 7, 2023.
This is where the battle is being waged. Republicans say that the Democrats don’t have the majority due to two resignations by Democrats who were elected to higher office: Austin Davis, who was elected Lieutenant Governor, and Summer Lee, who was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
In addition, another Democratic seat was vacated by the sudden death of Rep. Tony DeLuca, who died just before the election, but whose name remained on the ballot and was still re-elected. All three of the House districts that elected them are in Allegheny County.
As a consequence of these three vacancies, instead of the Democrats’ one-vote majority of 102-101, Republicans claim the actual vote is 101-99. Which party has the right to set the special elections to fill those three seats? Democrats say they were elected with that one-vote majority. Republicans say that majority doesn’t exist, due to the three vacancies. And Republicans want to keep those seats vacant longer — until May — to maintain their majority and force through the changes they had expected to be able to clinch if the Republican candidate had won the race for governor.
Adding to the conflict in Harrisburg is this: Allegheny County GOP Rep. Valerie Gaydos is circulating a letter saying she will stand for Pennsylvania House Speaker. Gaydos is the first Republican to officially challenge McClinton for control.
If Gaydos and the GOP were to win and those three seats remained vacant for months, Republicans could do an end run around the voters and pass amendments to the state Constitution as they have done in recent years with regard to mail-in ballots. Some of the most contentious issues raised during the midterm campaigning, such as abortion rights and LGBTQ rights, as well as regulations on water and fossil fuels, or the consistent GOP concern of voter ID and voter fraud — all of that could come into play with a 101-99 split and a GOP Speaker.
Kenyatta’s argument seems sound: to allow Republicans to maintain control after January 3 would violate the will of the voters who were declarative in rejecting the GOP agenda as evidenced by the elections of Shapiro and Fetterman and that narrow legislative win, all of which were supposed to have been a “red wave” of GOP wins that would have easily maintained GOP control.
Adding to the schism is that House GOP leader Bryan Cutler has already claimed to lead. On December 12, Cutler took the oath of office, claiming the title of Majority Leader. As Cutler told Penn Live, he chose to be sworn in three weeks early in order to schedule those special elections.
But McClinton herself had already been sworn in herself before Cutler, on December 7.
As McClinton said, “Pennsylvanians cast their ballots in the free and fair 2022 General Election. The results of that election are not in dispute and in the majority of legislative districts — 102 out of 203 — the people of Pennsylvania voted to elect a Democrat to represent them in the House of Representatives. Pennsylvania’s voters have spoken, and the will of the people is the ultimate authority in this Commonwealth.”
McClinton also makes history as the first woman — and first Black woman — to lead the House in Pennsylvania history. For his part, Cutler is parsing his own actions — which predated Gaydos tossing her hat in the ring for leader.
“I was sworn in as the Republican leader,” Cutler told reporters during a news conference following the December 12 ceremony. “It is the math that makes me the majority leader at 101 to 99. In light of [two Democrats’] resignations and the unfortunate and untimely death of our good friend, Representative [Anthony] DeLuca, that is why Democrats are currently down three seats. So it’s the math that actually would make us the majority.”
Cutler called McClinton’s actions “an unprecedented power grab” and a “paperwork insurrection.”
But as Keyatta argues, it’s Cutler’s math that doesn’t add up because voters chose a Democratic majority. Kenyatta said that Cutler and the State GOP want to maintain “a mirage majority,” when Democrats led.
Kenyatta said, “This is a travesty” and a perpetuation of “anti-Democratic” actions. Kenyatta urged Pennsylvania voters to “reach out to Brian Cutler” and to tell him that they don’t want the leadership “stolen by people who don’t respect their votes, who don’t respect their voice.”