The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Pa. legislators cut a bipartisan deal built on friendship. Will the bond survive?

A Republican nominated his Democratic friend as a compromise state House speaker. Now politics are straining their relationship.

The Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg last week. (Matt Smith/AP)
9 min

HARRISBURG, Pa. — When Republican state legislator Jim Gregory nominated his Democratic friend and colleague Mark Rozzi to be speaker of the Pennsylvania House last week, the move stunned close political observers and seemed to offer new hope for bipartisanship.

As with the nation, politics in this critical swing state, the country’s fifth-most populous, have become bitterly divided in recent years along ideological, geographical and racial lines. Donald Trump won the state in 2016, and Joe Biden took it back in 2020.

False claims over the legitimacy of the 2020 contest became prominent Pennsylvania GOP rallying cries in 2022 and reinforced a dynamic pitting the state’s eastern and western flanks — dominated by liberal metro areas — against the vast stretches of conservative terrain in between.

After voters in November sent an almost equal number of Republicans and Democrats to the state House, gridlock seemed inevitable. But in sharp contrast with the chaos over the speaker’s gavel unfolding two hours down the road at the U.S. Capitol, Gregory’s proposal for a compromise was quickly embraced by the leaders of both parties. Rozzi was elected.

The two men, both survivors of childhood sexual abuse who entered politics to fight for victims’ rights, stood on the rostrum under massive, gilded chandeliers as Gregory handed the speaker’s gavel to “my good friend and partner” and embraced him as their colleagues cheered.

“I trust him. I believe in him,” Gregory said.

Then the bottom fell out. On Monday, Gregory called on Rozzi to resign in an emotional letter accusing him of failing to keep his promise to change his party affiliation to independent and be an impartial arbiter of House business. “The bonds of trust between friends — as close and you and I have been — are now broken,” Gregory wrote.

The flicker of bipartisanship may have fizzled, too. Political stalemate looms in the Pennsylvania House, which adjourned Monday after just 20 minutes in session. The two parties retreated to their offices to try to work out disagreements over a tangle of House rules and other issues — including whether Rozzi had enough support to continue as speaker.

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Rozzi’s election, and a similar compromise in Ohio, were widely seen as hopeful glimmers that state officials might be better suited to overcoming the nation’s deep political divisions than officials in Washington, where the U.S. House needed 15 rounds of voting to finally elect Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as speaker.

At both the federal and state levels, the country’s political divisions are often fueled by extreme ideology, ferocious culture-war battles, weaponized social media and a geyser of money. But relationships still matter, too, and the strength or weakness of any given agreement across the aisle can rise or fall on a friendship.

“Relationships are king,” said Charlie Gerow, a Republican strategist in Pennsylvania. “You word is your bond. In that position, your word is everything.”

Beyond the personal dimension, the speed with which the concept of an “independent speaker” went off the rails reflects the difficulty of finding middle ground between two parties that are so far apart. Rozzi is widely seen within the state House as likable, reasonable and motivated by an issue few disagree on. Yet even he lost the backing — on Day 1 — of his primary supporter in the opposing party.

According to officials in both parties, Rozzi as of Thursday had not officially changed his party affiliation to independent. Both sides agreed that he had explicitly promised to do that, and Democrats did not explain why he hadn’t.

In interviews, Republican members said they worry about whether they can trust Rozzi if his old friend can’t.

“At this point, I really don’t know what is worth believing from Mr. Rozzi any more,” Gregory said in an interview in which he seemed close to tears, accusing Rozzi of jeopardizing victims’ rights legislation before the House. “I was given the opportunity to not only nominate him but to hand him the gavel, while at the same time not knowing that as I was doing that I was being violated by the very man I was giving this opportunity to.”

Rozzi declined to be interviewed and had made no public comment on Gregory’s letter until Wednesday evening, when he emailed a statement to The Washington Post.

“Jim Gregory is a friend,” he wrote. “All friendships have ups and downs but at the end of the day I believe we will come together to ensure that survivors of childhood sexual abuse receive the Justice that they deserve.”

Rep. Joanna McClinton, leader of the House Democrats, said in an interview that she still supported Rozzi and that he was being unfairly attacked by Republicans.

“He was a consensus, compromise speaker candidate,” she said. “I am very disappointed that House Republicans one more time have put politics over the business of the people.”

McClinton said Gregory’s letter amounted to “holding a voter registration over the head of the speaker and over all these victims” of sexual abuse.

Rep. Bryan Cutler, the GOP leader, said in an interview that Rozzi’s “lack of action on all the promises has made it difficult” to support him. “It hurts the likelihood that people will be willing to trust each other in the future,” he said.

Rozzi’s path to the speakership was quick and surprising.

In November’s election, the state’s voters largely mirrored a national trend and rejected the most extreme deniers of the 2020 election results, including Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, a state senator, who was soundly defeated by Democrat Josh Shapiro, the state’s attorney general.

The outcome was much closer in the 203-seat House, where Democrats won 102 seats and Republicans 101. But one Democrat died shortly before his election and two others resigned after winning races for other offices, leaving Democrats with just 99 members. Both parties claimed to have a majority when the new House met for the first time on Jan. 3, creating an impasse.

With no clear solution to the speaker question, the clerk proposed adjourning. Republicans were opposed, but one Republican voted with the Democrats to remain in session. The vote was 100-100.

Gregory then rose and nominated Rozzi, a move that he said had been suggested to him by other Republicans. Both party leaders, Cutler and McClinton, stood to say they supported Rozzi.

The leaders’ support caught many rank-and-file members unaware, especially Democrats who were hoping to make McClinton the state’s first Black female speaker.

Rozzi was elected 115-85, with votes from all Democrats and 16 Republicans — including the entire GOP leadership.

“I’m sure a lot of you didn’t expect or see this coming today,” Rozzi said from the rostrum, framed by a huge painting of giants from Pennsylvania’s history, including William Penn, Benjamin Franklin and Daniel Boone.

“The commonwealth that is home to Independence Hall will now be home to this commonwealth’s first independent speaker of the House,” Rozzi said. “I pledge my allegiance and my loyalty to no interest in this building, to no interest in our politics. I pledge my loyalty to the people of the commonwealth.”

Republicans said the deal hinged on Rozzi’s promise to switch his party affiliation to independent. From the rostrum, Rozzi pledged: “I was elected to the House as a Democrat. I do not intend to caucus with either party on the legislative happenings of the House.”

Cutler, the GOP leader, told reporters that day: “I think it’s good news for the voters of Pennsylvania because he has pledged to work with both sides. I think that’s ultimately why that all came together.”

Despite the optimistic words, some members said they felt sandbagged.

“I was shocked,” Republican Tim Twardzik said in an interview this week. “But it was an opportunity for us to make a change.”

Twardzik didn’t vote for Rozzi, but he still thought compromise was important and could yield results. “My father used to tell me you walk out of a meeting, and you’re not very happy and they’re not very happy, that’s a good deal,” he said.

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Monday’s meeting of the House was part of a special session, called by outgoing Gov. Tom Wolf (D), to discuss a proposed constitutional amendment to create a two-year window for people who had been victims of child sexual abuse to sue their abusers, even if the statute of limitations has expired.

Such amendments require approval by voters. Both parties support the measure and want it placed on the ballot in May. Republican leaders want two additional amendments — one that would tighten voter-ID rules and one that would make it easier for legislators to reject administrative regulations — placed on the same ballot.

McClinton said Democrats are committed to getting the sexual abuse amendment passed but are opposed to Republican proposals to add the others.

Gregory said he worries the victims’ rights bill could be a casualty of the state capital’s latest political convulsions. As he finished speaking to a small group of reporters, his phone rang.

“That’s a victim, a former Boy Scout,” he said, looking at the number on his screen. “He’s called me many times over the years to ask what’s happening with the bill, and are we close. What do I tell him?”

In a statement Rozzi issued Monday, he said he would create a working group of three Republicans and three Democrats “to sit down and find a way forward.” Rozzi announced the members of that panel late Thursday afternoon and said they would begin work next Tuesday.

In the meantime, the House chamber remained empty.