By Sojourner Ahebee | Votebeat
State Representative Joanna McClinton made history this year when she was elected House minority leader by her colleagues in the Pennsylvania legislature on November 12, 2020. The 38-year-old became the first Black woman to ever hold a party leadership position in Harrisburg. A Southwest Philadelphia native, McClinton spent seven years as a public defender in the city before working for Senator Anthony Williams in 2013.
Her political ascent has been swift.
In 2015, she was elected State Representative of the 191st district, which serves parts of Southwest Philly, Montgomery and Delaware counties. Two years later, she was appointed by former Democratic House Leader Frank Dermody to the state Sentencing Commission, which creates an equitable criminal justice sentencing policy. In 2016, she joined the House Judiciary Committee. In 2018, she became the first Black person and woman to ever chair the House Democratic Caucus. And in the 2020 election, she won her fourth term in the Pa. House and became the first Black woman to lead the Democratic Caucus.
WURD and Votebeat spoke to Representative McClinton about her recent historic win, and her plans for the future. The interview has been condensed for clarity.
Sojourner Ahebee: In November you were elected House Minority Leader by your peers in the Pennsylvania Legislature. Talk to me a little about what that moment felt like and the significance of the role for you.
Joanna McClinton: It is truly humbling and exciting. I am filled with gratitude to have this great opportunity to be the first but certainly not the last woman to lead the Democrats in Harrisburg in the Pennsylvania House.
SA: With this new historic role, what are some of your priorities going into the new year and issues you’d like to see addressed on the state level?
JM: Going into the new year, the priorities include keeping the people first. The people of Pennsylvania. I’m serving in and living in Southwest Philly so here in my community all the way up to Erie, Pennsylvania there are House Democrats — there are 90 of us in this session— and we serve both rural and suburban and even urban communities. But the issues are overlapping. So that goes from good paying jobs to fully funded schools, to making sure there is accessible healthcare.
And as we move to the next budget season, [I want to] make sure there is support available to those who have had to suffer through this pandemic, whether it’s job loss or even a little bit of your salary cut, and support for small business owners. And as we know, criminal justice reform, police reform is also wrapped into keeping people first.
SA: I’m glad you mentioned Southwest Philly, which I know is home for you as well. Could you talk briefly about what some of your early influences were growing up in Southwest that helped lead you to the career that you have today?
JM: I was not at all from a political family. My mother definitely voted in every election and she would take me with her into the booth. I didn’t start to learn more intimately about politics until I started college at Lasalle [University] where I did several different internships working on campaigns as a political science major working in legislative district offices.
Through that opportunity I got to see what it’s really like to serve people in a different way. But once again, I did not think that those experiences were going to prepare me to run for political office. All I was trying to do was get ready for law school. I enjoyed the experiences but I was never thinking ‘oh one day, I’m going to be in the legislature’. I could not at all have predicted any of these things.
SA: I know these experiences eventually led to a seven-year career as a public defender. Can you talk a little bit about what that work looked like and what attracted you to the work in the first place?
JM: I loved working at the Defender Association of Philadelphia. I truly enjoyed staying in the fight for people who were accused and who were also impoverished, who were facing the loss of their lives, their liberty. And I came into that work as a law student. My second summer in law school I worked as a Philadelphia District Attorney intern. And that is where I learned that I enjoyed being in court. But what I also found out in that summer internship is that I did not like prosecuting people. I did not think that the system was fair.
So when the opportunity came during my last semester of school to be an intern at the Defender’s association, I was excited to see what it was like to be on the other side of the courtroom. And once I started there, I realized that everything was kind of aligning. My passion for justice was more on that side of the courtroom and I applied for a job. I started there in September of 2006 and was happy to be there until 2013, leaving to go work for my state senator. But I just really learned what it means to have injustice happening in the justice system.
SA: And in 2015, you were elected to serve the people of the 191st district as a State Representative. Can you tell me a little bit about the community that you serve and what are some of the pressing issues that are top of mind for folks there today?
JM: I serve a wonderful community. It’a a neighborhood where I’ve lived my whole life. No shade against anybody who’s moved into their district but I’m born and bred in this community. And in Cobbs Creek, and then lower Delaware County, Yeadon, and Darby borough, we have a few different concerns that are at the top of people’s agenda. When I go into Delco, property taxes, depending on how much they cost, can lead you to be in the working poor among us. So many have lost homes. Senior citizens there are often calling my office trying to get support and relief because it becomes the type of situation where they are priced out of living in a neighborhood where they are renting or when they bought a home. And they want to be able to stay in their community.
And right where I live on 60th street we’re very concerned about poverty. We are concerned about the lack of opportunities and most importantly, we’re concerned about our children. And we’re very concerned about one of the symptoms of poverty — crime.
SA: Criminal justice reform has been a mainstay of your political career. What has contributed to that sustained attention to that particular issue? And what kinds of reforms might we see you try to address in your new role?
JM: Because of the work I was blessed to do as a public defender, when I came into the Legislature, criminal justice was at the top of my legislative agenda. Because so much of the fallout from the first encounter with police to your first arrest, it leads for so many to a cycle of poverty and being trapped out of the world. And I’ve been very fortunate to talk about it, to advocate for it, and more importantly to see progress happen in the law.
As the minority leader, I’m very grateful to have a bit of a bigger pull to say ‘hey we have to do something about these issues’. We’ve got to make every effort to diminish injustice. As we go into 2021, we have to make sure that our courts are providing fair forum and bail is not based off of what kinds of jobs you have. When public safety is not what is emphasized, which is also an element of criminal justice reform, we see the poor being punished by being over-incarcerated, and these are things that just cause your life to spiral out of control.
SA: I think that reframing of criminal justice as public safety is such an important one. You briefly had mentioned work you had done on other criminal justice bills with your colleagues. What’s some of the past criminal justice work you’re most proud of?
JM: I’d say the most recent bill that I was able to get moving, a bill that I’ve been working on for five years. It’s for you to get your record automatically expunged if you are acquitted of a non-violent crime. So many people that I would represent, I would always have to remind them that they have to file for an expungement. For some, they don’t know what you’re talking about and for others they say they’re going to do it but they might not do it.
And we’ve seen when you apply for housing to rent, landlords are then able to discriminate against you, and for jobs [as well]. [Employers] won’t even look into the record to see what happened, they will just see charges and just discriminate against you. So this automatic expungement will help people clear their records.
SA: Thank you so much for the work that you’re doing, and I know a bill like that will impact the lives of many. You also represent a section of Philadelphia where Walter Wallace Jr. was killed by Philadelphia police officers. From your point of view, what needs to change about the kind of response that we saw happen on that day?
JM: It was just a couple of blocks from my house and certainly the saddest thing to occur in our neighborhood this year. And I think that unfortunately it shines a light on what changes have been necessary. These are not new calls for change. The call for police reform goes all the way back to the founding of Black Lives Matter. But nevertheless, our police in this city need an internal training on approaches, on getting rid of biases, interacting with the community, and not being aggressive when it is unnecessary.
Just last night, one block outside of my district an officer was grazed by getting into a shootout with someone. I’m not one to think that they have an easy job. They do face danger. But there are many times when they approach a Wallace, or a Sojourner, or a Joanna and we are just not threats. And to see them have to unload 15 rounds into this young man whose wife was screaming from the porch that he’s mental and his mom was making every effort to get him to calm down. Our officers need to learn how to de-escalate, they have to learn how to assess a real threat, because our family members who need help also want to be able to go home too. They don’t want to die on the street in front of their family and friends and neighbors.
SA: And feasibly do you think there are tangible reforms that can be made to that kind of response moving forward?
JM: We need to change the state law. There is one state law that I am going to be talking about all the time and that is qualified immunity. People know when they become police officers in Pennsylvania that if you can show that you were in threat with fear of your life with no explanation, you’ll just about always be acquitted of a murder charge. So we need to reign that in. There are times when that is [used as] an excuse.
And if you go to work knowing if things go left, I know I’m going to be good, you are a little more likely to not be as concerned. In other words, we’re protecting officers by fixing the laws in this state that seem to undermine the justice system and seem to keep up bad practices in policing that we all have to witness and endure.
SA: Among the many hats you wear, you’re also a minister. Have you felt that your spiritual practice has guided the ethos of your political work in any way?
JM: I definitely take time every weekend to make sure that no matter how many meetings I need to have that on Sunday, especially now that we worship virtually, I take the time to not have any other obligations or commitments. My faith is a very strong part of who I am. It’s embedded into how I aim to live my life.
And I know one job is not the same as the other at all, but what’s key to me that is similar with being an associate minister at my church and being a state rep in my neighborhood and now a leader in the House is service. Service is key, putting people before yourself is key. And those are things that I learned in church growing up. So that is something that I aim to be able to do and to do it well with whatever hat I have on at the time. That’s rooted in my faith.
SA: What do you most want people to know about you and the work that you’re doing?
JM: I want people to know that we are open to their suggestions and ideas. We are legislated to speak on behalf of people, so please reach out, give your plans because as we go into our next session, we want to listen to our constituents, and we also want to be responsive. Because you might have sat at home in this pandemic and come up with a plan of how we can rescue our small businesses or how we can keep our kids attention while they are virtually learning.
And for those who are also people of faith, whatever your faith may be, then say a prayer because it’s going to be brutal. We have this fallout from the election where people I work with continue to say that the election was stolen and fraudulent and we all know that is not true. We have a lot of hard work ahead of us but if we can get feedback from our neighbors and those who have ideas, then we will make efforts to include them in our agenda.
Sojourner Ahebee is WURD Radio’s Votebeat reporter. This coverage is made possible through Votebeat, a nonpartisan reporting project covering local election integrity and voting access. The article is available for reprint under the terms of Votebeat’s republishing policy.