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Leading With a Minister’s Touch and a Public Defender’s Insight

Joanna McClinton, the first Black woman to win the Pennsylvania House speakership, blends a patient, service-oriented approach with her practical courtroom experience.

By Taylor Huhn  |  January 9, 2024

Joanna McClinton, a former public defender and chief counsel in the Pennsylvania Senate, is making history as the first woman and first woman of color to serve as speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

While it wasn’t a straight line from courtroom to candidacy, being a public defender was a big factor in McClinton’s decision to run for office.

“As a public defender, I was a firsthand witness to how underinvestment in my community impacted our neighbors, our outcomes and our opportunities,” she says. “I was helping them tackle their challenges one case at a time. I went to work for my state senator immediately after leaving the public defender’s office and my perspective broadened in a major way.”

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First, she says, she saw the shortsightedness of some of the laws that were moving rather quickly through the Legislature. “I also got to see who was making those laws and recognize that many of them, unlike myself, did not have recent courtroom experience in the criminal justice system.”

McClinton says the focus of her legislative agenda has always been, and probably always will be, changing the criminal justice system and ending the cycle of underinvestment in communities of color.

The NCSL Leaders’ Center caught up with McClinton to learn more about her leadership role and the issues facing Pennsylvania.

What do you see as the most pressing issue that you want to take on and define your time as speaker?

The biggest challenge that I see is in education and literacy. Public education has always been a No. 1 priority for my caucus. This year our appellate court, the Commonwealth Court, issued a ruling that determined our state’s education funding is unconstitutional. I’ve been aware that we’ve been underfunding schools for a generation, and now, because of this ruling, our caucus has a mandate to fix it. We’ve done a great job preparing for our next group of innovators, civic leaders in government, teachers and doctors, but it’s harder and harder when the resources are not there. We look forward to making sure we can fill in those gaps and put resources in. We recognize that when you fund public education, it not only helps kids, but it starts to dismantle community violence and a whole lot of other challenges, including overincarceration.

“We’re not here to play games. Our jobs are serious. This isn’t a place where you’re doing a comedy show.”

—Joanna McClinton

Once you got into the Legislature, what motivated you to pursue a leadership role?

I was in the House for less than two full terms when I first ran for leadership. Pennsylvania does not have term limits. Most of the people who end up being in the leadership circle have served already for at least one decade. I ran for caucus chair because it was vacant and because I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to just grow as a lawmaker. It’s one thing to be serving your constituents; it’s another thing to take on leadership responsibility to serve your colleagues directly. I was excited about making a difference as caucus chair.

Fast forward, once that full term was done, our former caucus leader lost his reelection, and the leadership position was open. At the time I was the only woman on the leadership team, and members started calling me saying, “If you don’t run, when will there ever be a woman who’s in position to run for leader?” They supported me even though I wasn’t technically next in line.

What experiences in your life have helped prepare you for a leadership role?

I’ve always been very service oriented. I spent many years as a youth leader at my church, so I have developed the skills of listening, patience, and I spent a ton of time driving kids around, picking them up, planning programs, keeping them engaged even when their schedules are as busy as adults. I spent time in court learning how to build bridges, first with my clients, because they never hired me, I was always assigned. Sometimes that was fun; other times it was tough. Those different skills, from ministry to defending people in court, kind of helped me be prepared for what I’m doing now as the speaker.

What is the most challenging part of the job so far?

The biggest challenge for me is that I have to stay above the fray of political distractions while we’re on the floor of the House. I set a tone of respect, and nobody’s going to be silenced. Speak your piece, represent your constituents. I’d say at least once a week, sometimes more, there’s something political going on that could incite problems on the floor. In those moments, I have to just make it clear that we’re not here to play games. Our jobs are serious. This isn’t a place where you’re doing a comedy show. I must maintain my personal decorum, and I have to respectfully remind my colleagues from time to time what’s acceptable, what’s not acceptable and why it isn’t acceptable so that we can all grow together and do better.

What would people be surprised to learn about you?

I’m an excellent soul food cook. I think people would be surprised about that. I’m a minister, which is not something I really talk about too much. It was one of the goals I had for my career when I was a young girl, so I’m proud about that.

Who is your leadership role model?

I would start with K. Leroy Irvis. He was the first African American speaker of Pennsylvania’s House, and the first Black speaker in the nation. He passed during my lifetime, though I never had the privilege to meet him or get to know him. I have heard amazing things from colleagues we still have in the Legislature who served with him in the 1970s and the 1980s. Recently, his wife came up to the Capitol in May, and it was an honor to meet her and to learn about how, even against the odds, he was able to make history. But he also was well respected for generations on the tone he set as speaker. I also learned that his wife did work with Shirley Chisholm to make way for more women of color to join the state legislature. So, in many ways, I feel that I’m a beneficiary of both of their hard work laying the groundwork.

What book has had an impact on you?

“Everything Is Figureoutable,” by Marie Forleo. I read it in the past year and it was profoundly impactful. It takes us through her many years of changing careers trying to pursue her goals and also her journey of entrepreneurship, which, although I’ve never been one, I know is very tough. It vacillates through good times and horrible times, and it impressed on me that even with all we deal with in our district offices and in the state Capitol, we can figure things out. We can get to a solution. We don’t have to see every deterrence as a complete roadblock or a stop sign or “no.” So that was very inspirational, and she’s someone who’s not in politics.

Taylor Huhn is a program manager in NCSL’s Leaders and International Program. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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