Before she became a lawyer, Joanna McClinton was singing hymns in church and hosting a gospel radio show during vacation Bible school in Southwest Philly.
All that was before a global pandemic and political strife split the country in two. Things are different now. She’s still a believer, but she does a lot of her speaking from the state Capitol in Harrisburg, where she works. In fact, she has been breaking barriers since her time in the legislature began.
The biggest milestone came last year when she was elected as the Democratic leader of the state House, and in the process, becoming the chamber’s first female floor leader and the first Black woman to lead a party in Harrisburg.
Pennsylvania currently ranks 31st in the nation in the number of female lawmakers in the state legislature. The 2021-2022 General Assembly is nearly 30 percent female, just below the national average. As she approaches her one-year mark as minority leader, McClinton reflected on how she adjusted to the new role, how she got there in the first place and how she can pave the way for others after her.
Admittedly, McClinton never wanted to become a politician. Growing up, she said her career ambitions shifted from lawyer to actress to hairdresser, and then, preacher. Surprisingly, she’s been able to check a couple of those off her list. She served in church as a youth for more than a decade and is now an ordained minister. She went on to graduate from Grace Temple Christian Academy in her native Southwest Philadelphia and later earned a dual degree in political science and leadership in global understanding from La Salle University. At Villanova, she earned her law degree.
Democratic Whip and fellow state Rep. Jordan Harris has known McClinton almost their entire lives. He said they went to vacation Bible school together as children and even hosted a gospel radio show in Philadelphia as teenagers. He said two things, in no particular order, drive McClinton more than anything: family and faith.
“She’s always been ahead of her time,” Harris told City & State. “She’s an exceptional student and a very deeply spiritual person.”
McClinton grew up in a tight-knit family with a role model in her mother, who worked at a local university while also running a small catering business.
“I always was pretty fortunate to see my mom as a model of a hard-working woman,” she told City & State. “[She] devoted a good portion of what would be her personal time to giving back in the faith realm, whether it was running a summer camp in our church or something like that. I got to see that we have the ability to do something to help other people. That was certainly a preeminent force in my life and motivates me still.”
McClinton has utilized those motivations to make her way to one of the highest public offices in the state. She has more than just her family and faith to thank, as her legal experiences have also shaped the kind of lawmaker she is today.
Through law school, McClinton worked at the Regional Housing Legal Services in Montgomery County and the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office. Her last semester at Villanova led her to start her career as a public defender. She said one of the most notable issues facing youth in the criminal justice system is a lack of support at home.
“Working with clients at the public defender’s office, you hear stories about them not completing high school, about them raising themselves, about them not having supports at home, and it just seemed to be a really common denominator, unfortunately,” McClinton said.
After working nearly a decade as a public defender, McClinton said she was encouraged to apply to become chief legal counsel to state Sen. Anthony Williams by Tamika Lane, who held the position before being elected judge. Going from Philadelphia to Harrisburg was a huge adjustment for her.
“It was an entirely new world. I was in the place for the first time as a lawyer where I was starting all over again,” McClinton said. Even though she had to start at square one in learning the legislative process and rules of the Senate, Williams said her dedication to the work never wavered.
“Sometimes she literally followed me around my office to find out what I was thinking or asking how to do a better job,” Williams told City & State. “I’d have to tell her to just relax, take five feet back and that we’ll catch up at some point. She was extremely committed to serving.”
That dedication paid off. When the seat in West Philadelphia where McClinton lives opened up in 2015 following the resignation of then-Rep. Ron Waters, Williams knew she would be a great fit. McClinton, on the other hand, didn’t have any interest in running for office. She said she went to a couple of public meetings and began to realize despite not having political motivations, she did have the desire to advocate and be a voice for others.
So she ran – and won the Democratic nomination and the special election in August 2015 – becoming the first female to represent the 191st House District.
Once in the Capitol, Williams said colleagues immediately saw McClinton was “smart, intelligent and full of energy.” She became a strong advocate for disadvantaged communities, spending time as a member of the Legislative Black Caucus, LGBTQ Equality Caucus and Women’s Health Caucus, among others. In 2017, longtime House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody appointed her to the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing to advise fair criminal justice sentencing policies.
When she quickly made waves in the state House, and when Dermody lost his re-election bid last November, some colleagues began to set their sights on McClinton as his replacement.
“I honestly thought it sounded a little silly. But the member called me and said, ‘You’re the only woman in leadership. When will we have another opportunity with this type of vacancy to at least try?’” McClinton remarked. “You don’t want to just try to do something because there’s a void. You have to have real purpose and intention.”
That purpose was quickly made clear for McClinton. Her colleagues in the state House of Representatives chose her as minority leader. McClinton, alongside state Sen. Kim Ward, who was elected the Senate majority leader, became the state’s first female floor leaders in the process.
McClinton said that day was proof that anyone can get your phone number, as she received countless calls and texts from friends, family and an abundance of unknown numbers.
“It was an overwhelming feeling, and the next day, it was still surreal,” she said. “People wanted to do interviews and I just remember thinking, ‘I’m exhausted from all the angst leading up to the race. I can’t do a television interview. I look terrible.’”
The scale of it all soon subsided and turned into a feeling of great responsibility and opportunity. It had been more than 40 years since a person of color was a party leader in Harrisburg.
“It means a lot, not to just women, but anyone who feels they’re not heard or are being dismissed and overlooked. Her priorities are her family and her faith. That’s not something we hear a lot about in politics today,” Williams said. “It can be very inspirational, but frankly, it’s much more than that. Her story is much broader and means more to others and not just women and people of color.”
There’s no downplaying anyone breaking glass ceilings in the state Capitol, but that’s not all that matters to McClinton. She said what’s most important is if that person isn’t ensuring the door is open for others after them.
“It’s no good being the first if there won’t be a second, third or fourth,” McClinton said. “How do we get ourselves organized so that when I’m off the scene that there are other serious women state representatives that are considered for this role? How are there real opportunities for women to not just come after me but surpass me?”
Once taking over her leadership role, McClinton’s demeanor didn’t change. Although she said she was taken aback when so many members wanted to ask questions and make comments, she quickly realized that’s not a form of criticism but a recognition of power and a call for change.
Williams and Harris said she handled the transition well. “These roles help you grow and help you ensure more of a sense of urgency. They help you open your eyes to more things than you ever thought,” Harris said. “She was committed to making sure everyone’s voice was heard and that everybody had an opportunity for input.”
“[She acted] with a steady hand, not overreacting, not overreaching and not always engaging. She was thoughtful about the next step that should be taken. That doesn’t necessarily always come to a young leader that’s trying to make an imprint, but that’s just not Joanna’s M.O.,” Williams said.
He noted that there were discussions about McClinton’s next political move almost immediately after her election as minority leader. He said she dismissed them “with a lot of vigor.” Rather, McClinton says she’s focusing on the job at hand.
Democrats in Harrisburg have spent the last year attempting to implement voting reforms, such as allowing automatic and same-day voter registration and protections for absentee and early voting, but to no avail. They’ve also called for federal pandemic relief funds to be spent on closing gaps exposed by the pandemic, including earmarking a large portion for public school districts across the state. Those ambitious goals have yet to be met as the General Assembly has sided with keeping most federal funds in savings for future emergencies.
“I’m really determined that I’m not going to be discouraged by what I’ve seen thus far. Every week is a new opportunity … a new page and a new chapter where we’re presented with the opportunity to do the right thing,” McClinton said. “We have a responsibility to make sure that we don’t have our children winning or losing because they’re not at a school that has the supports to give them an education and chance at life.”
Unsuccessful in getting the desired voting reforms done in time for this past November election, McClinton said that still remains a top priority going into 2022. Another priority is the redistricting process that’s underway.
McClinton is one of five members of the state’s Legislative Reapportionment Commission. She and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa represent Democrats on the commission, while Ward and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff represent Republicans. Chair Mark Nordenberg, former chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, is the nonpartisan appointee who’s played a critical role in swing votes.
The redrawing of legislative maps will have significant effects on elections in the state for the next 10 years. McClinton said getting her resolution regarding prisoner data reallocation approved was a major step in the right direction. Her resolution, approved by a 3-2 vote, will allow incarcerated individuals in state correctional facilities to be counted at their last home address and not the district in which the institution is located, an act referred to as prison gerrymandering. Another resolution, proposed by Ward, was approved at the following meeting, scaling back McClinton’s resolution to only include inmates whose sentences end prior to the 2030 Census.
“I’m thrilled the commission ended prison gerrymandering,” McClinton said. “For the most part, the majority of inmates in state facilities will be counted at their home addresses, which is really a matter of justice and humanity.”
McClinton has previously indicated her focus is not on moving on to higher political office. Right now, she said she’s committed to getting through the 2021-2022 legislation session, with the duty to help people and small businesses get the support they need.