PA House Democrats Abandon #MeToo Movement to Cling to Power

Member Group : Broad + Liberty

The identity of a state representative accused of groping a lobbyist for the Service Employees International Union is one of the worst-kept secrets in Harrisburg political circles, yet that member appears to be facing no discipline for the misconduct while Democratic leadership seems content to allow the issue to evaporate without consequence.

If the scandal were to slip into obscurity, it could signify many of the new norms and reforms brought about in the wake of the #MeToo movement have lost vigor — or, that such standards are only likely to be enforced when the political circumstances allow.

Andi Perez, a lobbyist for the SEIU, told House Speaker Mark Rozzi (D) at a listening session in late January that a sitting member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives touched her inappropriately.

“This lawmaker decided to caress my leg — I was wearing a skirt — all the while telling me he was impressed by my passion and knowledge of the issues we were discussing. … I moved away from him, hoping he would stop,“ Perez said. “He did not.”

In her January testimony to Rozzi’s listening tour, Perez did not explain why she was not naming the individual. She and a press representative for the SEIU did not respond to a request for comment for this story.

Broad + Liberty has received at least a dozen tips, many unsolicited, from bipartisan sources, of the identity of the representative. All of the tips identified the same person, who is a Democrat.

Because Broad + Liberty does not have a report from Perez as to the person’s identity, and because no person would put their name behind an accusation of who the alleged groper is, Broad + Liberty is currently declining to name the individual.

However, the number and quality of sources willing to identify the same individual — albeit off the record — easily demonstrates the identity of the alleged groper is well known in the State Capitol.

Yet if that is true, why, after the reckoning brought forward by the #MeToo movement, is an allegation of sexual misconduct allowed to languish? While it might be true that current ethics rules restrict who can file an official complaint, it’s also true that elected officials have been willing to use unofficial channels, like public pressure, any time they see fit to do so.

One former lawmaker believes politics has trumped ethics yet again.

“Having witnessed a few of these kinds of scandals in my time in Harrisburg, I can tell you that if this accused person were a Republican, there would be a full-court press from elected Democrats and from the media to name and oust this person,” said former state representative Becky Corbin, a Republican in Chester County. “But in this particular instance, the only explanation that makes sense for all of the silence is that Democrats can’t afford for this person to be expelled because of their narrow majority,” in the House.

Republicans entered the 2023 legislative year with a two-seat majority, 101-99, in the House of Representatives, but only because of three vacancies in Democratic districts left Democrats short. Once special elections were completed, Democrats correctly believed they could expect the speaker’s gavel.

It was in the uncertainty of that January moment — Democrats eager to begin exercising the power of a forthcoming majority and Republicans eager to forestall the more progressive wing of the Democratic caucus — that both parties cut the deal electing Mark Rozzi as Speaker of the House.

Rozzi’s ascent to the speakership was so unexpected it made national news, as some pundits were cautiously optimistic that the move might signal a new experiment in bipartisan cooperation at a time when partisan distrust feels insurmountable. A Democrat from Berks County, Rozzi pledged to change his affiliation to independent, and promised not to caucus with either party — the first part of that promise Republicans say he reneged on.

court ruling helped cement Feb. 7 as the date for the three special elections that would complete the House membership, and as expected, Democrats won all three, giving them a 102-101 edge.

The expulsion or forced resignation of a Democratic member of the House would likely only extend Rozzi’s time as Speaker, while some Democrats are eager to elect Majority Leader Joanna McClinton (D -Philadelphia/Delaware County), a representative with a decidedly more progressive agenda and constituency.

To reorganize the leadership, Democrats would need perfect unity on the vote to do so, meaning even Rozzi would have to vote to remove himself as Speaker, a move that would not only stunt his new ambitions but would also clearly be a betrayal to the Republicans who helped elect him.

A special election in this particular case would not be without other risks for Democrats. The district of the accused member leans Democratic, but is far from out of reach for Republicans.

Requests for comment to the top four leaders in the Democratic House Caucus — Speaker Rozzi, McClinton, Dem. Whip Jordan Harris, and Dem. Caucus Chairman Dan Miller — were not returned. A request for comment to the office of the accused individual also was not returned.

Whether lawmakers can or should move against a sitting member in the absence of an official ethics inquiry is a layered difficulty, involving not only the obvious ethical considerations, but also issues of due process and political style.

In September 2021, Democratic leadership stripped Rep. Kevin Boyle (D – Philadelphia) of his chairmanship of the House Finance Committee and also of his Capitol access badge for reasons never made clear.

“The move to sideline an elected official of their own party is one that legislative leaders have used sparingly,” Spotlight PA reported. “When it has happened in the past, it’s almost always been used either punitively — to punish a lawmaker who has angered leadership — or because of a personnel issue involving the lawmaker.”

Leadership later restored those privileges to Boyle, but only Broad + Liberty inquired about those developments. The outlets that originally reported on the discipline did not report on how Boyle returned to his party’s good graces, and Democrat leadership remained tight-lipped. At the time, Democrats were not positioned for a majority, and Boyle’s district is also a safe one.

In 2017, Gov. Tom Wolf called for his fellow Democrat Sen. Daylin Leach to step down after a report from the Inquirer alleged improprieties against the senator. Wolf took that step even though an ethics inquiry wouldn’t be launched until 2019.

State Senator Katie Muth (D – Montgomery/Chester) was a driving force behind Leach’s ultimate departure from the senate.

On the day Perez broke her allegation, Muth authored a 20-tweet thread supporting Perez, but also detailing many other past sexual assault scandals in the Capitol, labeling it the “dome of corruption.”

As with the House Democratic leadership, Muth did not respond to questions as to whether she knew the identity of the accused, whether House Democratic leadership had pursued the issue aggressively enough, and if the politics of a one-seat majority might be in the decision-making mix.

Rozzi, meanwhile, called the House back into a special session on Tuesday that will only focus on two bills dealing with the statute of limitations on certain child sex crimes.

The House had been in recess because Republicans and Democrats could not agree to rules for the new session, a political debate that was made all the more difficult by the narrow and shifting majorities.

As Perez noted in her spoken complaint, House ethics rules greatly restrict who can bring an ethics charge against a sitting member. Changing those rules to allow greater flexibility is expected to be debated sometime this year.

However, as the special session got underway Tuesday, Republicans complained that they weren’t given enough of an opportunity to amend the rules of the special session, amendments that might have included the exact kind of ethical changes Perez advocated for in her speech to Rozzi from January.

Perez previously singled out Rep. Kate Klunk (R – York) for her proposals for many of the kinds of ethics changes Perez spoke of.

On Tuesday, Klunk expressed her frustration at not having enough of an opportunity to offer amendments to the rules for the special session.

“So I hope that at some point we will be able to offer amendments to our special session rules, in addition to House rules when we get back into regular session, that include language on sexual harassment, because there are victims out there and we need to protect folks who come and interact with us,” on a daily basis, Klunk said Tuesday.

Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at [email protected], or use his encrypted email at [email protected]. @shepherdreports