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Pennsylvania State Representative Mark Rozzi, a self-identified “freethinker,” is now the speaker of the State House after Republicans couldn’t use their slim (temporary) majority to elect a leader from their own party.

If you’ve been following the drama in that state, you know how chaotic things have been. After years of Republican dominance in the legislature, Democrats finally won a 102-101 majority in the State House after the most recent elections. But there were three vacancies: two members were elected to the U.S. House and a third died before the election but won anyway. All three were from reliably blue districts, so after special elections are held, Democrats will almost certainly retain their majority. But Republicans, eager to capitalize on their temporary majority, insisted that they were in control of the chamber (and therefore in control of when those special elections will take place, which they want as late as possible to maintain their majority for a longer period of time).

Total chaos.

Then there’s the vote for House Speaker. Much like Republicans in the U.S. House can’t seem to coalesce over one name as I write this, the Pennsylvania Republicans were also unable to agree on a consensus candidate.

That gave Democrats and some relatively moderate Republicans an opening. According to Spotlight PA, GOP State Rep. Jim Gregory nominated Mark Rozzi, a Democrat with whom he had grown close. Gregory told his caucus that Rozzi pledged to switch his party label to Independent—and caucus with neither party—if he was elected Speaker.

And that’s how, despite never even being floated as a possible candidate before this week, Mark Rozzi, the ten-year Democratic incumbent, became the 142nd Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives… and an Independent. Every Democrat voted for him, as did 16 Republicans. The final tally was 115-85 over the next closest competitor.

On Tuesday, Rozzi pledged to be impartial:

As he took the dais Tuesday afternoon, Rozzi promised to be an independent Speaker of the House who will caucus with neither the Democrats nor Republicans. He also committed to having a staff made up of individuals from both parties.

“I pledge my allegiance and my loyalty to no interests in this building and to no interest in our politics. I pledge my loyalty to the people of the Commonwealth,” Rozzi said.

“Sometimes Republicans will win. Sometimes Democrats will win. And that is fine, so long as the beneficiaries are the people of this Commonwealth,” Rozzi concluded.

That sounds wonderful but we’ll have to wait to see what that looks like in practice. The last thing anyone needs is another Kyrsten Sinema-like “independent” who functions as an agent of chaos. For now, he’s not going down that route. He’s already issued paperwork to set the special elections for next month, which he has the power to do now and which is what Democrats wanted.

Rozzi is a fascinating character in his own right. He’s made a name for himself fighting on behalf of child sex abuse victims, in part because he himself was a victim of sexual assault by a Catholic priest when he was 13. One of the pledges he has made is creating a retroactive two-year window for past victims of childhood sexual abuse to sue their abusers if they’re currently timed out of the legal system due to a statute of limitations.

A bill he sponsored to do just that passed the State House in 2021 but failed to get anywhere in a Republican-led State Senate. (The Catholic League predictably accused Rozzi of pushing his bill in order to “reap a substantial paycheck” because he would get to sue his attacker… which Rozzi said he wasn’t going to do and which would only lead to a paycheck if that priest was found guilty.) Both chambers agreed to put the measure in front of voters via a proposed constitutional change in 2021 but a procedural mistake delayed it for two years.

Making sure that proposal gets in front of voters is one reason Rozzi got all that Republican support.

“If we didn’t do what we did today [and vote for Rozzi as Speaker], the victims of child sexual abuse in Pennsylvania were going to have to wait again until November and I just was not going to have it,” [Republican State Rep. Jim] Gregory said. “I want the victims of those decades-old abuses to know that hopefully what we did today … gives them a chance that they wouldn’t have had had we not gotten a speaker today.”

Even after the special elections are held, and even if Democrats regain the majority, Rozzi is expected to serve as Speaker for the next two years.

What a lot of Pennsylvania media outlets have not reported is how Rozzi recently received an endorsement from the Freethought Equality Fund PAC. Their website lists Rozzi as a “freethinker” (his word) and points out how he has championed medical aid in dying. His other positions are just as progressive:

His other policy priorities include: protecting women’s reproductive rights, generating small business growth, investing in infrastructure improvement and expansion, advocating for term limits and reducing the size of the legislature, improving and investing more funds into pre-k, k-12 and higher education, increasing the minimum wage, safer communities and youth homelessness.

Historically, people without a formal religious affiliation haven’t fared well in elections. That’s changed over the past few years but there are still only a handful of non-religious state senators and only one “Humanist” in Congress.

With his elevation to speaker, Mark Rozzi is now the most powerful openly non-religious politician in the country.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.