This article is shared with LebTown by content partner Spotlight PA.
By Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA and Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA
HARRISBURG — In the Pennsylvania Capitol, no other issue defines the legislative career of newly minted state House Speaker Mark Rozzi more than helping survivors of decades-old sexual abuse.
In every legislative session since he was first elected in 2012, Rozzi has sponsored bills that would suspend the state’s statute of limitations for two years to allow people sexually abused as children to sue their perpetrators.
And as each legislative session came and went with no action, the onetime small businessman from Berks County became an unabashed advocate. He organized rallies with survivors in the Capitol rotunda. He called out legislators — sometimes, in unflattering terms — who opposed his bills.
And he butted heads with powerful interests seeking to block his efforts, which only intensified following the scathing 2018 grand jury report detailing decades of child sexual abuse and cover-up in the Roman Catholic Church.
At one point, Rozzi, who was abused as a child by a Catholic priest, even found himself at odds with the very survivors he was seeking to help.
But even in those darker moments, his supporters say, he did not back down.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about this,” said Shaun Dougherty, who was molested by a priest as a boy in the Altoona-Johnstown diocese, and has been coming to the Capitol for years to push for a two-year reprieve. “He doesn’t quit. It wasn’t that long ago that [Rozzi] came here as a citizen survivor to try to get something done on this issue. He then ran for office after being turned away, got elected, and now he’s the speaker of the House.”
Few saw that ascent coming — and even fewer still know what they can expect from him going forward.
Until the moment he was elected to the state House’s top position this week, Rozzi was a Democrat who never held a leadership position.
His rapid rise was organized by top Republicans, who saw an opportunity to tilt the chamber’s partisan score to an even 101-101 by asking Rozzi to become an independent in exchange for their votes.
Both parties claim the outcome as a victory. Republicans say his speakership means that no party has total control over the state House, while Democrats have Rozzi listed on their website as the “Democratic Speaker of the House.”
Which version is true remains unclear. Rozzi has so far refused to resolve the confusion. And in uncharacteristic fashion, he hasn’t responded to requests for comment. When he did hold a brief press conference Tuesday after winning the speakership, he did not take questions.
Rozzi has said he won’t caucus with either party, has already tapped a top Democratic staffer as his first hire, and claimed in his speech he’d still hire Republican staff.
He also gave Democrats a win by affirming their preferred February date for two disputed special elections.
But privately, many Democrats don’t know what to expect of Rozzi’s next steps. Though in theory the speaker’s position requires a certain level of statesmanship, past speakers have not hesitated to use their power to drive their party’s agenda.
Rozzi’s voting record typically aligns with Democrats, including on abortion access. Traditionally Republican-aligned groups like the National Federation of Independent Business, Americans for Prosperity, and the state chamber of commerce have given his record low marks.
Still, he hasn’t always aligned with the Democrats on some high-profile topics.
He was one of four Democrats to vote in favor of a sports ban that targets transgender girls and women in spring 2022. Rozzi told the Pennsylvania Capital-Star at the time that it was “one of my toughest votes,” but that as a youth sports coach, he thought a ban was necessary. (Gov. Tom Wolf ended up vetoing the bill.)
And in 2019, Rozzi was also one of four Democrats who backed a standalone $100 million expansion of a landmark state tax credit for businesses that donate money to finance private school scholarships. (Wolf also vetoed that bill, but the program has since been expanded in subsequent budget deals.)
When first running for office in 2012, Rozzi, who had run his family’s window and door installation business, campaigned on promises to help small businesses and increase funding for infrastructure projects. He has said he was inspired to run — and publicly discuss his own abuse — after the suicide of a childhood friend who had been abused by the same Catholic priest as he was.
Though he talked about the need to strengthen child abuse prevention efforts at the time, it did not dominate his campaign message, according to newspaper reports.
In his first term, Rozzi introduced legislation for a two-year window in the statute of limitations, but it did not gain traction or much attention. He was also the prime sponsor of a bill that would legalize medically assisted death in Pennsylvania (the measure never made it out of committee). A decade earlier, he had watched his father die of a brain tumor, and he wanted to give patients with terminal illness the ability to “end their life in a humane and dignified manner,” according to a campaign website.
In subsequent legislative sessions, though, he became laser-focused on helping survivors gain the right to sue over decades-old abuse. Those efforts came to a head after the grand jury report in 2018, when he joined forces with Attorney General and now Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro and others to push the measure through the legislature.
But the bill failed to make it across the finish line after a frenzied few weeks of intense lobbying in the Capitol. Opponents, including the then-top Republican in the state Senate, argued that reopening the statute of limitations after it had already expired would violate the state constitution.
It was at that point that Rozzi, without much warning or fanfare, decided to take a new approach — and in doing so, alienated a number of high-profile advocates in the survivor community who had been deeply invested in the fight to pass the bill.
His new tactic called for amending the state constitution to allow for the two-year window, a process that allows voters to make the final decision — but also one that takes years to unfold. A number of survivors felt blindsided and betrayed by the unexpected change in strategy.
Rozzi, rarely one to hold back emotions, inflamed the disagreement when he told The Inquirer in 2019 that his critics “just don’t get it.”
In introducing the proposed constitutional amendment, Rozzi partnered with a Republican colleague, state Rep. Jim Gregory (R., Blair), also a child sexual abuse survivor. As it stands now, the measure could appear on the ballot for voters to decide as early as this spring.
The Republican caucus is pushing to pass its own constitutional amendment package that would implement stricter voter ID requirements and make it easier to override regulations. Rozzi voted against the measure last session. But in a radio interview, state Rep. Robb Kauffman (R., Franklin) claimed the new speaker had “agreed that other constitutional amendments … such as voter ID” would “be part of the mix and be on the ballot as well.”
In an interview, Gregory — who nominated Rozzi to be speaker — said he believed the Berks County legislator will leave a unique mark on the top job, if for no other reason than he is driven by doing right by people rather than politics.
“I’ve seen how he cares about his district,” said Gregory. “I know he will care that way about all our constituents.”
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