Leroy Irvis accomplished the greatest goal for which a political activist wishes. An activist who called for social change, he entered one of the very institutions that for centuries had worked against his advancement, demonstrated that hard work and intelligence brought him to become the leader of that same institution, and in the process, he changed it and Pennsylvania for the better. Many have been great social critics, many have been great institutional leaders, but only the few such as Leroy Irvis succeeded at acheiving both.
Leroy Irvis gave some of the greatest speeches ever heard on the floor of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Sadly, only a few hundred people ever were present to ever hear them. Fortunately, I was one of those privileged to have heard many of his orations, and I can verify the accuracy of statement often repeated about the eloquence of Leroy Irvis’s speeches. Visitors to the House chambers or the House gallery often note the House chambers to be one where hundreds of people who are scurrying about discussing upcoming bills and amendments with only a few people paying attention to the floor debate. Yet, when Leroy Irvis spoke, people listened. Perhaps the best dramatization of the greatness of Leroy Irvis’s speeches is noted in the frequency of legislators who afterwards stated that, not only did they listen to Leroy Irvis, they found themselves swayed by his arguments. Leroy Irvis was one of the legislature’s greatest debaters and from those debates he was one of the most accomplished legislator.
Leroy Irvis served as a legislator before the days when floor debate was televised. His spoken words are lost to the ages, although fortunately many other recordings of his other speeches and interviews confirm his excellent oratory skills. Leroy Irvis has a commanding presence and a brilliant analytical mind that enabled him to convert listeners to agree with his views. He passionately brought the voices that many on the House floor seldom heard and had neglected; that was, until Leroy Irvis awakened the legislators to their issues. Leroy Irvis cared about people and for decades, Leroy Irvis was the people’s advocate.
The following book is a selected editing of those speeches. Some will despair that Leroy Irvis’s voice was only silenced when he became Speaker, for the Speaker does not participate in debates. Yet, rest assured that Leroy Irvis was fighting just as hard for his passions, and finally was able to do so as a leader in Pennsylvania and national politics. Leroy Irvis won the greatest honor any leader can ever wish for: he achieved changes that improved the lives of many. For that, Pennsylvania and America can be proud.
Kirkland Leroy Irvis began political life being elected President of his Fifth Grade class. As he reminisced years later on the House floor on April 4, 1977, looking back on that grade school electoral victory, his analysis of his political life was “I never thought it would lead to this.”
K. Leroy Irvis became a school teacher and later an attorney. While teaching school in Baltimore, he found himself drawn to public service. On the House floor April 10, 1985, Leroy Irvis told how it was Juanita Mitchell, who was active in law suits and protests against discrimination and whose sons would become noted Maryland politicians, who encouraged Leroy Irvis to become active in social causes. Leroy Irvis continued that activism when he moved to Pittsburgh.
Leroy Irvis entered public service as a social activist. As Rep. Ronald Cowell recalled on the House floor on January 4, 1983, “while a young man in his adopted hometown of Pittsburgh, Lee Irvis became involved in a range of community activities. Some of those activities involved protesting certain public and social politics of the day, which were clearly discriminatory against some members of the community. I am told that while involved in such a peaceful demonstration, young Lee Irvis was challenged by an older member of the community to run for office. The older gentleman told him that it is relatively easy to stand outside and cast stones at the glass greenhouse. But, the gentleman continued, it is more challenging and more effective to go into the greenhouse and try to make some of the flowers grow.” Leroy Irvis accepted the challenge and was elected in 1958 to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
Leroy Irvis grew to become Speaker of the House. With that, he had a grand career that included teaching, organizing against racial discrimination, arguing the law as an attorney, and representing constituents as legislator. Within the legislature, his dedication to duty for the public good allowed his peers to recognize his talent as he steadily rose up the leadership ladder to the reach the Speakership.
On August 6, 1959, Leroy Irvis, as a newly elected legislator serving in his first year, stood for the first time to address the House of Representatives. The legislative tradition was freshmen legislators seldom spoke on the House floor. If they did speak, they kept their remarks short. Rep. Irvis courageously delivered a lengthy yet engaging maiden address. It was on a manner deep to his heart, racial discrimination, and he would not be silent.
The proud voice of Rep. Irvis delivered a stunning presentation on a major controversial topic. The Democratic Leader, Rep. Stephen McCann from Greene County, took the microphone afterwards and let it be known that this was one freshman legislator whose speech had been appreciated. Rep. McCann announced “I rise to pay compliment to the gentleman from Allegheny, Mr. Irvis. For the first time this session he spoke into the microphone and I think he added dignity to this wonderful House of ours. I compliment him on his maiden speech.” The words of Mr. Irvis helped spark House passage of the measure, which recorded 131 yeas against 66 nays.
Mr. IRVIS: “I rise to my feet as a freshman Legislator with, I believe, justifiable trepidation. I decided when I first came into the Hall of the House as a bubbling neophyte, to do very little bubbling and a lot of neophyting.
“I decided I would keep my eyes and ears open and my mouth reasonably shut. Having seen what happens to the experienced men on this floor who rise to address this august body, I think my rule is an excellent one. Nevertheless, the problem to which (a bill prohibiting racial discrimination in housing) addresses itself is one of such magnitude in this country and in this Commonwealth of ours that I find it incumbent upon me to break my firm rule.
“Since the end of World War II all of us in the Hall of this House are aware that we have lived in a house with glass walls. Prior to World War II, it was possible for us to burn, to tear down, to destroy each other and only we knew about it. Since World War II we have been watched by the emerging peoples of this world to see whether or not we are actually, as the Communists label us, a bunch of pious hypocrites in our constitution, but refusing to abide by our proclamation.
“We are watched by better than 2 billion people in this world. Most of those people are colored. The white race, while in the majority in this Commonwealth and in the United States of America, is not in the majority in the entire world. My children and your children and perhaps our grandchildren will have some day to give an accounting of whether or not we truly believe in the democracy we proclaim.
“The Supreme Court in Brown vs. the School Board in 1954, gave to the world the proclamation that the elimination of discrimination was within the public policy of the United States of America. This statement I think is no longer open to successful attack. But this declaration of policy in the School Board cases has not solved the problem and it will not solve the problem as long as the ghetto is with us. And the ghetto keeps all the problems of the ghetto-economic waste, the waste of human intelligence, crime, and disease. And crime and disease and economic waste do not remain inside the ghetto but spread their evils throughout the total community…
“I am asking today…that no one in this Commonwealth shall be refused a decent place to live because of his race, his color, his religious creed, his national or geographic origin…
“In Allegheny County we built in the period of 1950 to 1955, 40,000 new homes-40,000-and of the 40,000 new homes only 130 were made available for Negro occupancy…It is not that Negroes enjoy living in substandard homes. It is the fact that they are ghettoized; they are surrounded by invisible walls which have been raised not primarily by the individual home owners, but primarily by the men who are in the business of selling and leasing real estate, even though these men will tell you that they are doing it only because their clients tell them to. This I do not believe.”
Rep. Irvis long continued the fight against discrimination. On February 21, 1961, an amendment was proposed that would make the fine for an employer who engages in workplace discrimination $100 or less. Rep. Irvis immediately understood what this amendment actually meant and rose to argue against it.
Mr. IRVIS: “The proposed amendment would, in my opinion, so weaken this measure as to make it ineffective and ineffectual. It would permit the biased and prejudiced builders, if such actually exist in this Commonwealth, to merely add the $100 fine to the total price of whatever building he is building, and then go ahead and discriminate. This would, in my opinion, be a license for discrimination rather than a prohibition against it.”
The amendment was defeated with 94 yeas and 102 nays.
The call to speak out against discrimination reached Rep. Irvis again on March 21, 1961. Rep. Irvis requested and received permission to address the House of Representatives on a non-legislative matter.
Mr. IRVIS: “We are this year, 1961, celebrating the Centennial of the American War Between the States. The guns have long since grown silent, and the long lines of the boys in blue and in Confederate gray have descended into history; but, unfortunately for the welfare of this country and for the safety of democracy all over the world, the combat stemming from this collision of two great historical forces still exists in the minds of men.
“A National Civil War Centennial Commission, to which Pennsylvania belongs, has been appointed to supervise the celebration of the 100th anniversary of that war. It had been planned that this Commission meet in session at Charleston, South Carolina. This meeting originated at the invitation of the South Carolina branch of the Commission. A member of the National Commission, Mrs. Madeline A. Williams, also is a member of the Commission’s New Jersey unit, is a Negro. She was informed by a hotel in Charleston, South Carolina, that if she showed up with the other members of the Commission for the Charleston meeting on April 11 and 12, she could not stay at that hotel, which is to be headquarters for the National Commission, nor could she eat at the hotel dining room with the other commissioners.
“So it appears, Mr. Speaker, that 100 years after the onset of the Civil War some of the conditions which led to that historic struggle which cost the lives of thousands of white and Negro soldiers still remain…
“Pennsylvanians gave their lives in the struggle to unify this country. Pennsylvania was the battleground for part of this great war, and Pennsylvanians must not now participate in any activity which negates the very purposes for which men died from 1861 to 1865.”
The legislature in 1961 was vastly different from the legislature of today. The Pennsylvania legislature met for shorter periods of time, required legislation to be filed only when the legislature was in session, and provided legislators with little support in terms of staff and expenses. The legislative branch in Pennsylvania conceded much authority to the administrative branch. Rep. Irvis studied how the New York legislature handled each of these matters differently. He then urged the Pennsylvania legislature to adopt some changes that proved successful in New York. Rep. Irvis was an early proponent as well as a leader in helping craft in Pennsylvania what has become a modern legislature with strong oversight over government operations. Mr. Irvis provided the House chamber with beneficial concluding remarks on his observations on August 7, 1961.
Mr. IRVIS: “In New York State the members of the General Assembly there do not wait for the Governor to propose a program. They have their own program officials and they draw up their own programs…They are truly a coordinate branch of the government. They work on their own programming and they sit with the Governor to see which part of his program they approve of. I think this is something we need to devote a considerable amount of time and thought to.”
In 1963, Rep. Irvis ascended into legislative leadership. He was elected Democratic Caucus Chairman, serving two terms: the first as Minority Caucus Chairman and the second as Majority Caucus Chairman. The duties of this office included conducting information sessions amongst Democratic legislators as they learn about, question, and discuss the legislation before them. It placed Leroy Irvis in an important position to shape legislation.
An attempt to take away having Election Board members selected by voters was rebuffed by the legislature. Rep. Irvis was a leading voice in defending the election of the Election Board. On April 23, 1963, he addressed the House on the issue.
Mr. IRVIS: “There is no miraculous guarantee to the people of this Commonwealth that the men and women who will in the future sit in the seats which we now occupy will be as concerned with the rights as we are. We trust that they will be; we work that they shall be. But the only guarantee that the people of this Commonwealth have against tyrants, no matter what they may be called, are those guarantees which are written into their constitution and which they, and only they, can change at their willing.
“I think that history will teach every single one of us that the greatest threat to our society is the ignorance or the lackadaisical approach of the electorate. If we here today say by an affirmative vote that we do not care to further guarantee the rights of the people to elect their own local officials on Election Boards, then we are inviting, in the future, that tyrants may take charge and dictate who shall and shall not be qualified on local Election Boards. I hope to never live to see the day when this will happen in this Commonwealth. But I am sure that some place in the long line of history, which still unravels before us, there will be those men, be they Republican or be they Democratic or be they some party no yet born, who will seek to maneuver the election of local officials on Election Boards to favor their particular personal aims. This is the very grave and very great danger in this bill…
“I ask that all thoughtful members of this House of Representatives weigh carefully their vote on this particular issue and remember that they are not now voting solely for themselves but they are deciding what the future course of history may well be.”
Rep. Irvis was quick to note and denounce inconsistencies in legislation. On May 13, 1963, he argued that a complex tax bill being rushed through the legislature by the majority Republican Party should be sent back for further study by a legislative committee. While the motion to do so failed, Mr. Irvis used a whimsical analogy to point out problems with the bill.
Mr. IRVIS: “If I send my little girl out the day before Easter to buy an Easter bunny and the little girl says we are going to eat the bunny, she pays no tax on it for it is a live animal and falls under the definition of food. But, on the other hand, if I send her out and say, buy yourself a furry Easter bunny as a pet, she must pay the tax…The amendments are too many, they are too complicated, and they have not been sufficiently studied.”
The blight of people in poverty greatly disturbed Rep. Irvis. On May 14, 1964, he spoke out against the lack of attention paid to the struggling poor. He argued unsuccessfully for an increase in public assistance.
Mr. IRVIS: “The Department of Public Welfare informs me that for a family of four in this Commonwealth, a modest, but adequate budget equals $441 a month. That is for an employed father, for the wife and two children. A bare subsistence level for a family of four, according to the Department, is $235 to $238 per month. That is a bare subsistence.
“What do we give to a family of four on public assistance in Pennsylvania? One hundred fifty-three dollars and ten cents on average-less than 60 percent of what we tell them is barely enough to keep them alive.
“Every single one of us is to blame for this situation and every single one of us should search his conscience about it…
“It is not only deceptive, deceitful, and dangerous for us to force a half-million people to live in this type of poverty, it is downright immoral and the House of Representatives can do something about it. There is the money. The money is available.”
Rep. Irvis demonstrated a strong sense that the legislative branches should be separate. He opposed Administrative intrusions into the legislative branch. On June 10, 1964, he warned of the dangers of increasing Executive powers.
Mr. IRVIS: “My philosophy of government would deny to the Lieutenant Governor the right to vote under any circumstances on any legislative matter at any time because I do not believe he is selected by the people for that purpose. He is not a legislative officer and should not be so designated by the constitution. That the constitution as presently composed does so designate, I do not deny. But that constitution is in error, I do affirm.
“I see an increase in the power in the Executive over the Legislative body, namely, the fact that the Executive will be able to secure the approval of members of his official family by a simple majority of the Senate rather than the required two-thirds vote. I feel this increase in power is a dangerous thing and ought not to be taken lightly by the legislative members in the hall of this House.”
During lengthy and heated budgetary debates on August 3, 1965, Rep. Irvis rose with his thoughts. He provided his fellow House members lessons on politics. In doing so, he gave us his ideas on what directions legislators should take.
Mr. IRVIS: “I am reminded of 1857, when the “Little Giant” Stephen Douglas debated with Abraham Lincoln, and he thrashed the air and he shouted and he stamped and he whispered and he orated and he was forgotten, and Mr. Lincoln was later elected President of the United States. I am also reminded to be brief by something that happened, also to Mr. Lincoln, at Gettysburg. There was a famous orator there who spoke for an hour and 37 minutes. Mr. Lincoln spoke for only a few minutes. The famous orator has been forgotten, and Mr. Lincoln has been remembered…
“I have met no one in this House of Representatives who is not charitable, who is not interested in the people of this Commonwealth, even though we may disagree as to the directions of this interest. But I point out to the members of this House that all administrations, from the days of the Pharoahs to the Ceasars, to the kings and the emperors and the Presidents and the Governors of states, have been interested in image-building. All administrations have had to take up arms against some things or some objects. You and I today are choosing sides. When we vote today on these matters, we are going to decide in which army we fight…
“The sides are clearly drawn. You must decide today whether you follow the banner of the Administration, which has chosen to wage war against the poor, the sick, the old, the blind, and the helpless, or whether you will go to the people who are pleading and fighting for these people.”
The House of Representatives, on April 12, 1966, surprised K. Leroy Irvis by congratulating him on being honored with the Democracy in Housing Award. Rep. Henry Cianfrani introduced the congratulatory resolution. It was unanimously adopted.
Education was an issue close of the heart of Rep. Irvis. On April 18, 1966, Rep. Irvis rose to give praise to another legislator, Rep. James Gallagher. Rep. Gallagher chaired the House Higher Education Committee.
Mr. IRVIS: “This man (Mr. Gallagher) has done more to change the face of higher education in this Commonwealth in one year and three months than any other man in the history of the Commonwealth. By making Temple a state-related University, after deep and concentrated study on the part of this committee, the General Assembly has benefited hundreds and thousands of families with children in eastern Pennsylvania. And now by moving to make the University of Pittsburgh a state-related university with reasonable tuition, the General Assembly again, following the leadership of (Mr. Gallagher), will benefit untold thousands of families and their children in western Pennsylvania.
Too long has the Commonwealth been nearly last in its efforts in the field of Education. But thanks to the leadership of men like the gentleman from Bucks, Mr. Gallagher, we have hopes that the Commonwealth will soon take its rightful place as a leader in the field of Education among the 50 states.”
The issue of scholarships for students to attend private colleges arose before the House of April 20, 1966. Rep. Irvis included personal perspectives into his arguments favoring scholarships. The measure increasing scholarships passed the House that day.
Mr. IRVIS. “Before I became an attorney and a Representative, I was a teacher both in the secondary schools and at the college level. I was educated partly in private schools and partly in public schools, so I know a little about both…
“In New York State, for example, they are spending $72 million a year on private scholarships. We are spending $4.5 million. This is a ridiculously low figure. This reflects again how far down the scale of educational awareness the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania stands…
The present bill which has been introduced will increase from $4.5 million to $11.5 million the state scholarship program. It is my hope that within the next five years we will have increased that state scholarship aid program up to approximately $45 million. If we can accomplish this, we will then be in a position of saying to one out of every six college students, you may have an award to place on your tuition costs for any college you select.”
The plight of people with mental illness deeply concerned Rep. Irvis. He visited a dozen mental health institutions during 1967. Rep Irvis provided the House chamber with a report on what he found. His report led to the formation of the Bipartisan Committee on Visiting State Institutions that was chaired by Rep. Irvis. This committee was noteworthy in that over half the House membership served as committee members. On February 28, 1967, Rep. Irvis informed the House chamber of his observations.
Mr. IRVIS: “I do not think we are making any real progress in the treatment of human beings. I do not think it is progress to say that we have torn down a building and put in therapy for some of the people who are mentally afflicted and find out that that therapy is working eight hours a day, six days a week, in a laundry room.
“I do not think we are making progress when I have seen human beings stacked so closely together in a ward that, if you wanted to put patient number three in his bed, you had to move the beds of patient number one and patient number two to get to patient number three.
“I do not think it is progress when I go down in the basement of one of the mental institutions and find people huddled under blankets, with the windows broken and a Siberian wind coming in those open windows. I do not think that is progress.’
“I do not think it is progress when I speak to a Superintendent and ask him how many people have you been able to return to society and he says, “I do not know.”
“I do not think it is progress when we take the people who are our sons and daughters, our aunts and uncles, our fathers and mothers, and stick them off in a corner and say forget them; do not even remind us of them; build an institution with 2,400 beds out in the country some place, put a wall around it, and let us ignore the fact that they were ever born. But that is what you and I are currently doing. We are acting as second-rate caretakers for human beings whom we are treating almost as poorly as we treat lower animals, and that is pretty poorly…
“I pray that you and I will have sufficient foresight and courage to begin to educate the general populace of this Commonwealth, so that mental illness can be faced the way physical illness has been faced for thousands of years; so that mental retardation can be, when possible, prevented and when it cannot be prevented, the mentally retarded will get sufficient training to live as human beings and so that those cases which must be caretaker cases are at least being taken care of in a humane fashion.”
Rep. Irvis knew how to incorporate wit and his scholarly knowledge into his debates. On June 29, 1967, Rep. Irvis took the House floor to criticize a speech the Governor had made.
Mr. IRVIS: “I will not comment on the Governor’s statement on the Republican Caucus, except that I am a little amused, as a former teacher of English, to find that the word “unanimity” is modified by the word “virtual” in this statement:” I must commend the House Republican leadership for working day and night to bring about virtual unanimity.” That is something like saying “a perfect circle which is slightly imperfect.””
Rep. Irvis demonstrated some more of his famous wit on November 26, 1967 when greeting Rep. William Allen on his first day in office after being elected in a special election. Rep. Allen was a Republican legislator from a rural area.
Mr. IRVIS: “We…welcome a new colleague to the floor of the House of Representatives, the gentleman from Warren and Forest Counties, where, I understand, they have a few more trees and deer and bears than they have people. It was suggested to me that we might possibly be able to elect a Democrat in the gentleman’s county next time if we were to nominate a Democratic bear instead of a Democratic human being.”
On July 28, 1967, Rep. Irvis introduced a package of legislative proposals to provide the Human Relations Commission with more powers to combat racial discrimination in housing and employment. Upon the introduction of the bills, Rep. Irvis explained the need for his bills.
Mr. IRVIS: “Can there be any doubt that the most serious problem we face in this country today is a problem which has always been the most serious problem which any country has ever faced, how can the human beings living in this country get along with each other? And yet to a large extent we have chosen to ignore the most serious problem of our time and of any time. We have chosen to ignore it until it has exploded in our faces in a violence unprecedented in the history of our country…
“There is a greater evil than a riot and that evil is ignorance, indifference, hostility, and stupidity on the part of the general community to the reasons of a riot. We shall have accomplished nothing in this country and in this Commonwealth if all we can do is put down riots. I cannot believe as I stand here, having been an American for 47 years, having been proud to be an American, having a heritage go back to 1696 in this country, I cannot believe that this, the greatest country ever created, the most powerful and the most wealthy and the most knowledgeable, cannot solve the social problems which lead inevitably to the explosive and incendiary riots we have seen across this land this year…
“Disabuse yourself of any belief that all is well; all is not well. Those of you who do not come from the crowded, infested, boiling, urban areas of the Commonwealth need to visit them if you never have. You need to listen to what the people who live under almost unbelievable conditions would tell you. You need to know why people are finally driven to the desperation of rebellion. People do not go lightly to their deaths; they do not lightly burn and destroy…
“One of the main causes for riot in this land is the denial of decent housing to the Negro people. Another cause, of course, is (the lack of) decent education facilities; another, the lack of job opportunity, the lack of training; but one of the major causes is our failure to provide decent homes for those who wish them, for those who must have them. It is a hurtful thing for a Negro man who has to work for a lower wage than his white counterpart must work but who works long and hard to support his family and who sees his children withering in the slums. It is a hurting thing for him to go out beyond the slums to try to purchase a decent home and to be told, no, you cannot have it because you are Black. And that in essence is what he is told time and time again. It is small wonder that such a man has a disregard for the society which breeds this sort of ruthless contempt for his rights as a human being.”
Issues of social justice remained close to the heart of Rep. Irvis. During a May 14, 1968 debate on providing employment incentives to employers who hire the unemployed, Rep. Irvis rose to defend the proposal.
Mr. IRVIS: “I have looked in the faces of thousands who are tired of words. I have myself seen the face of the mob, bitter and ugly in its anger. I have myself seen Pittsburgh burn and we have stood among its ashes. I caution that school will be out in a matter of weeks. If programs of this kind are not implemented, not talked about-implemented and implemented now-not next week or next month or next year. It is perhaps too late….
“The summer is upon us and the heat of conflict threatens. I urge you to prove to the suffering people, desperate in their ghettos, that the gap between words and your needs is not intentional.”
When the Pennsylvania legislature handled a bill, on July 9, 1968, on abolishing the registration of horses, stallions, and donkeys, few expected a legislator from an urban area to display much interest in an equine issue. Yet, Rep. Irvis used his quick wit to note this matter could be of interest to Allegheny County residents.
Mr. IRVIS: “I would like to make a statement on this most important piece of legislation. Those of us who live in Allegheny County would be delighted if the rest of you would take this step with us. This bill effectively removes the registration and, we hope, the existence of all jackasses in Allegheny County. The rest of the State is welcome to join.”
In 1969, Leroy Irvis became Majority Leader. In his January 7, 1969 inaugural floor speech as Majority Leader, Mr. Irvis provided his thoughts on the legislative system.
Mr. IRVIS: “Those of you who are newly elected here and those of us who now must bear the label of veteran legislators are living symbols of the fact that our people believe all wisdom, all strength, all leadership must not rest in one man. We are the counterbalance to the kings; we are the voice of the people who say, we were born free with the right to govern ourselves and to choose our own destinies.”
Leroy Irvis was quick to note political hypocrisy. On January 28, 1969, he observed a contradiction between the political statements and actual actions of Republican leaders. He responded with a proposal of his own.
Mr. IRVIS: “The Republican Administration has proposed a 25 percent increase in the budget. This is the same Republican Administration that promises cost reduction after cost reduction, and the net result of all these promises is a 25 percent increase in the budget. I recall that the Democrats, for years, were labeled by the Republicans as the “Tax and Spend Party”. I wonder who has to bear that label now…
“We are going to propose legislation this term to bring the system into being in Pennsylvania whereby the legislature participates fully in the preparation of budgets…We are the ones who ought to have the facts placed before us…
“We believe that the people of Pennsylvania will support a tax program if they are convinced that the money is spent and fairly raised. It is our responsibility to see that the money is well spent and that the taxes are fairly raised. We intend to carry out those responsibilities.””
Reforming the legislative process and making it more democratic was a long struggle for which Rep. Irvis fought. His dedication and hard work for such reform led to many beneficial changes. Mr. Irvis made note of some of these legislative reforms on February 4, 1969.
Mr. IRVIS: “For the first time in the history of this House of Representatives, the autocratic and complete control of committees formerly held by the chairmen, both Republican and Democrat alike, has been significantly reduced. I think the term “significant” is important. We have not yet reached what all of us agree is the ideal solution in the operation of the House of Representatives. But I am pleased to say, on this side at least, the chairmen we have appointed have agreed to this reduction in their authority. There has not been one chairman who has come to me and said, privately or publicly; “I oppose this; I want the same old autocratic authority to control as we formerly had.” I think this is significant.”
Rep. Irvis noted the struggles between the Legislative and Executive branches of government on the House floor on April 14, 1969. Relying on his skills as a legislative and educator, he offered the following comments.
Mr. IRVIS: “The only business I bring before the House is a brief statement. It relates to the brief statement which the gentleman from Lancaster just made. He quoted from “Alice in Wonderland”. That happens to be one of my favorites also, as a former teacher of English. It seems to me the only thing I can think of which is quite appropriate from “Alice in Wonderland”, after hearing a Lancaster Republican ask a Republican Governor to cease making a spectacle of himself, is to say what Alice said when she was confronted by the rabbit darting down the hole, and checking a gold watch, she said “curiouser and curiouser”. I think that is an apt description of what we have heard here this afternoon.”
The artwork of several children with mental retardation was placed on display in the Capitol. Rep. Irvis rose on the House floor on June 17, 1969 to commemorate these artists.
Mr. IRVIS: “The students in this class are, as you know, handicapped through retardation in some degree. Yet it is true that those whom society calls retarded or deprived can sometimes have the divine spark in them, the jewel of creativity, the shine of imagination, and it is equally true that each child in Pennsylvania, be he retarded, normal, or brilliant, is entitled to an education to his fullest capacity.”
Landlords who take advantage of tenants earned the animosity of Rep. Irvis. Mr. Irvis saw especially how tenants with low incomes lacked the resources to combat unscrupulous landlords. Rep. Irvis fought against actions that would weaken his work on June 4, 1969.
Mr. IRVIS: “I would like to point out that the rent withholding law, which was one of the primary bills in the portfolio which I brought with me to this House of Representatives, has turned out to be one of the most successful acts which we have put on the books for the protection of the poor who must frequently rent buildings which are dilapidated and not fit for human habitation. They are only now just beginning to learn of the existence of the law, and any amendment which would tend to weaken the law…tends to weaken the grasp and the responsibility of the law on the problems of the poor…
“If, by any amendment…the poor are forced to go into court practically every time they wish to withhold the rent, they will soon realize that the law is ineffective and ineffectual.”
Rep. Irvis was unafraid to state his feelings. On February 19, 1970, a budgetary proposal was particularly irksome to Mr. Irvis. He left his fellow legislators know how he felt.
Mr. IRVIS: “The taxpayers are not going to be fooled by this verbiage, and sometimes garbage, that we toss around on this floor. At the siege of Acre, which Richard Coeur de Leon, led in the first crusade, the army marched, led by a jester, and the king followed him. Armies have been led by jesters before and since, but never successfully, and never if the rest of the army decides to put on the bells and the cap of the jester. I am quite sure that the Republican army differs in no way from the others down their history.”
The 1970 legislative session contained some bitter legislative struggles. Rep. Irvis was not always satisfied with the progression of actions. On February 28, 1970, he let his feelings be known.
Mr. IRVIS: “We have not moved on these problems the way I would have wished we could move. We have not moved in the way which we ought to in years past. It may well be that we are locked in the bitter partisan battle of Republicans against Democrats that like two goats meeting on a mountaintop, we may lock horns and each one die and leave his bleached bones there to be inspected. It may well be that we cannot resolve these problems as reasonable men and women ought to resolve them. It may well be that we shall have to give way to demagoguery, to speechmaking, to posturing, to clowning, to giving vapid and vacant promises to the people of this Commonwealth. I hope not, because I am devoted to the House of Representatives. I respect it too much to hope that we dissolve in that sort of mess.”
State employees gained the ability to engage in collective bargaining. Mr. Irvis defended the rights of state employees to seek more favorable employment circumstances. On July 20, 1970, Mr. Irvis spoke in favor of state employee collective bargaining, including a right to strike under some circumstances, and against legislative inactive that was denying this.
Mr. IRVIS: “This measure would have lifted the stigma of second-class citizenship from those who work for us…
“Philosophically, I oppose any ban on strikes, except those affecting public health and safety…because any such law is an extension of slavery. It is a system of forced employment, and I am opposed to that…
“Since 1947, we have had a law on the books that prohibits strikes, which the courts found impossible to enforce….
“By permitting strikes in limited cases, we know that collective bargaining will be carried on in a responsible manner. We know that that this is true from our experience with collective bargaining in other fields---whenever both labor and management come to the table mutually respecting the rights and the powers of the other side, there has been no need to resort to strike.”
Mr. Irvis effectively employed the use of analogies. In arguing on July 28, 1970 against a proposed amendment that a supporter has described as “non-controversial”, Mr. Irvis found a different description of the supposedly innocuous proposal that he believed would kill the proposal:
Mr. IRVIS: “It is something like having a surgeon operating on you and saying, I am going to remove heart. I don’t have a replacement for it, but it is a very elementary operation. If we happen to find an extra heart, we will put one back….It might be very interesting to speculate as to whether or not a live bill will emerge from such a conflict.”
After decades of Executive power that advanced the will of the Governors and their Administrations, sometimes abusively, the legislature at the urging of Rep. Irvis and others began demanding the rightful oversight powers of the Legislative branch over government operations. The legislature, previously a part-time body with little staff, was becoming more professional and began undertaking its oversight functions more seriously. Mr. Irvis noted this is his arguments in seeking to override a Governor’s veto of legislation on July 29, 1970.
Mr. IRVIS: “It is time now that the House of Representatives exercise its constitutional privilege to override the veto of the Chief Executive. Men cry “reform, reform, reform”, but if true legislative reform is to be accomplished, it will be because the General Assembly has decided to become a coequal body to the Executive, ready to listen to the Executive’s advice, but not ready for his dictation.”
It is argued that a society can be judged on how they treat their least fortunate. Rep. Irvis had a deep concern for how we treat prisoners. He realized that poorly treated inmates become poor citizens, both after their release from prison and during their incarcerations. Mr. Irvis gave a stirring address concerning prison reform on September 14, 1970.
Mr. IRVIS: “It is unfortunate that our governmental and social institutions do not respond to the need for reform until the cry that reaches our ears is one of desperation and violence. We preach the rational, the legal, and the democratic process of orderly reform, but, in reality, only fear lights the cannon of change.
“In this most critical area of prison reform, we must act now. If we do not act, we can expect only further disorders and riots in our institutions of correction, nationwide, and if we do not act now, even more injurious to the body of society in the long run will be the continuing of the steady, awful, eroding violence of day-to-day apathy and neglect in a system outdated and overburdened, a system which sends back thousands of men every year into the streets unequipped to live a normal life—bitter, hardened men, men who will continue to inflect gaping wounds of society again and again.”
An effort to repeal an insurance premiums tax reached the House on March 11, 1970. Mr. Irvis rose to comment. He not only presented his opinion on the proposal, he also provided his insights on the legislature itself. He relied upon analogies of legislators to various kinds of bird to express some disappointment. He then became among the very first political leaders to endorse the creation of a personal income tax; a tax that Pennsylvania was among the last of states to adopt.
Mr. IRVIS: “There are thousands of species of birds; there are sparrows, chickadees, hawks, eagles, doves, and there are chickens. Each has its own purpose in the great plan and there are times when those of us who are elected to represent the people of the United States of America reflect the fierce, aggressive pride of the great wing beats of the eagle. There are times when those of us who represent the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania would be better to stay out of the chicken yard for fear we might be confused with the inhabitants thereof…
“The insurance industry spent millions of dollars on advertising. I guess the newspapers and the television and radio stations would hope we would pass a bill like this very week. They did it very cleverly. They stirred up the indignation. They misinformed the public of certain issues and did not inform them on others. It would not be the first time the insurance agents did that. They scared the pants off all of us and that is why we are running. We are not being motivated by this noble business of being afraid that the business will be driven from the Commonwealth; we are being motivated by the ignoble drive—a perfectly understandable one—that unless we repeal this tax, we might lose an election. Does that put it plainly enough?…
“If you want some noble phraseology: it is true—the people of the Commonwealth own the Commonwealth; the legislature does not. Even though the people may be misinformed, it is still their right to decide how they shall be governed, what taxes they should pay…
“I think the difference between the Republican Caucus and the Democratic Caucus—and there is not too much difference when you look at the birds in flight, but I think that the difference is that we have been able to get ours back on the ground to gather around and look. We have been able to gets back on the ground to see whether or not the shadow which passed over us was a shadow of a hawk. We have been able to slow the panic: our members are no longer running…
“We are prepared to offer a solution of how we return to the Governor’s budget the money we are about to rip away from him…The only real way we are going to solve the current problem and the oncoming fiscal problems of this Commonwealth is through the passage of an equitable, personal income tax. I pledge you publicly, as I have said it publicly before, I will be the first to sign it if the Republican leadership are willing to sign with me. I am even going to sign it without them.”
On the first day of a new legislative session, held on January 5 1971, Speaker Herbert Fineman introduced Mr. Irvis to the new legislature as ‘unofficially, the official raconteur of historical tales bearing a moral message for this House.” Mr. Irvis provided the legislators with the following tale that explained their mission as legislators.
Mr. IRVIS: “When I was on my way out of the office on the first floor, a young boy asked me a question which I think goes to the basic issue. He asked in his own way why there was a House of Representatives. It occurred to me that over 2,000 years ago, a Roman soldier who had been standing in the dusty streets of Jerusalem…had been watching and listening to the learned me, the teachers, the rabbis, discuss in great detail what is the law. They had been discussing whether or not it was correct to eat an egg that had been laid by a chicken on the Sabbath Day and they had been discussing whether or not it was correct for people to enter the gates through which seep also entered.
“The Roman soldier had been listening to this all day long and he turned to a tall, broad shouldered, old man who had been quiet most of the day…he was the teacher, Hillel. He said to Hillel, “could you tell me what is the law, and could you tell me in the length of time that it would take me to stand on one foot without getting tired?”
“The old man looked at his fellows and he looked at the Roman soldier and he said, “Do not do unto others that which you would not have them do unto you. That is the law; all else is explanation.”
“There are times when you will find that those of us who serve in the House of Representatives argue such learned questions as whether or not sheep and men should enter the gates of the city at the same time. When we get so involved, when we get so enmired in those details, it would be wise for all of use to remember the real reason we are here; the reason which Hillel said 2,000 years ago: We are here to make certain, as certain that we can, that no one shall do unto any one else that which he would not have that person do unto him. That is the law, and the rest is explanation.”
While debating a bill concerning the operations of the Public Welfare Department on January 25, 1971, Leroy Irvis made the following plea on behalf of those who benefited from the Department’s programs.
Mr. IRVIS: “We may as well face, in Pennsylvania, the necessity for reassessing our entire attitude towards those human beings who are not fortunate enough to be able to take care of themselves. We need to reassess our entire attitude towards the four year old child who does not know he is getting welfare milk from an unwilling public. We need to reassess our entire attitude toward the 70 year old who does not know that he has outlived his usefulness and that we may begrudge him the crumbs we toss his way. ”
Rep. Irvis proposed requiring that legislators be provided information on how much proposed legislation would cost the Commonwealth. This had not been previously required. On February 12, 1971, Irvis argued for, and later won, the requirement that bills’ fiscal information be given.
Mr. IRVIS: “Often called “fiscal notes”, these attachments will outline not only the cost for the first year but also for several years thereafter of any bill or any amendment that costs money. Too often in the past, we have considered bills without knowing how much they will cost and where the money is to come from. The use of “fiscal notes” will go a long way, we hope, toward restoring public confidence in representative government.”
A mock offer of bipartisan cooperation from Republican legislators earned them a chastisement from Mr. Irvis on July 12, 1971:
Mr. IRVIS: “I have grave doubts if ever the Republican Party was serious about being bipartisan. Far be it for me to imply anything like that, but I might be forgiven a bit of suspicion when I invite men into my home to discuss policy matters with me and, when they take their coats off, I find that they are carrying two .45s, a sawed-off shotgun, brass knuckles, and a Bible on which they are going to swear their truthfulness, which contains no pages whatsoever.
“I am not saying that this is true of the Republican Party. I am merely saying that I might be forgiven a bit of suspicion if that were to happen. I am certain that the Minority Leader’s most generous offer will be accepted by this party in precisely the mood in which he offered it.”
The House debated prison training programs on October 6, 1971. Mr. Irvis offered his observations.
Mr. IRVIS: “The gentleman who founded Pennsylvania was a convict, William Penn…We have to make up our minds whether we consider the men and women whom we put behind bars as animals or human beings…
“If we assume that these people are men and women, then we have a moral obligation to do those things which are within our power to bring about to see that they are treated as human beings and less as animals than presently is happening….
“The prisoners who are the experts train those who are inexpert so that the inexperts come out better prepared to prey on society with greater hostilities than when they went in, and there is no prison expert who will deny that. They are trained; they do not come out untrained. The question is, who does the training, and what kind of training is given…
“Should we not now be concerned with training programs which have some hope of preventing the return to crime? Is it not so that what we are trying to do here today is a very simple thing, to ease the pain which is so very important for all human beings…
“Do not all human beings have to be given hope? …There is one thing we ripped away from all prisoners under the present system, and that is hope.”
Debates over providing schools with racially integrated student bodies arose on the House floor on May 23, 1972. Leroy Irvis rose to provide historical perspectives on the issue.
Mr. IRVIS: “140 years ago there signs were up all over the Commonwealth saying that the Irish were not wanted on certain jobs, housing could not be sod to them…
“By 1890 to 1900 there was a different whipping boy. The Italians had started to move into this land of freedom...
“The Black people who have been here over 400 years and have been ignored all that time because they were afraid to make strong motions for freedom after the Civil War. It was then that suddenly the white people of the North and the South decided to suppress the Black people.
“Before the Civil War, White people and Black people rode on trains together. After the Civil War, the trains were segregated. Before the Civil War, White people and Black people lived in the same neighborhoods. After the Civil War, neighborhoods became increasingly segregated.
“There is an infection among of all us adults. That infection is racism. It eats away at the Black as well as the White in this country. There is not a single one of us seated on the floor of this House who has not been infected with this disease, and I do not know a single acquaintance of mine, White or Black, who has not been infected with that disease. If anything destroys this country internally, it will be that infection…
“It is beneath the intelligence level of this body to argue that the 1,300,000 pupils who are daily bused in this Commonwealth right now are being harmed by climbing aboard a bus and going to school and climbing aboard a bus and going home…What you are voting on today is this question: Shall Black kids and White kids go to school together? It is that simple. All the rest is rhetoric.”
The issue of school desegregation continued to be debated on June 13, 1972. This time, Mr. Irvis added a personal historical perspective on the issue.
Mr. IRVIS: “When I was a young man about 14 years of age, I started out making speeches about the terrible things which are happening in the South. Some of you may know that I was born and raised in the North, that my people had been there since the 1600’s. I had never been in the South when I made those speeches, but I read a lot, and in those days, Black people were being lynched at the rate of about two every week.
“I made hell-fire speeches to adults and to young people about the terrible conditions in the South until a wise woman came to me one day and said “Son, you live in Albany, New York.” I said, “Yes, mam.” She said, “Why do you not go out and do something about Albany.”…
“The first real problem arose in the school situation when a Northern city was told it must desegregate. That city was Chicago. Up until that time the courts had been dealing with the South, and anything that the court said against segregation the North cheered, because we like to hide behind legal terms.
“We like to talk about de facto segregation as opposed to de jure segregation, de jure, by law, and de facto, in fact. I really do not care about the differentiation and neither should you. It does not make any difference to me whether I am denied food de jure or de facto. If I am denied food for a sufficiently long period, I will die. And it does not make much difference whether I die de jure; I die de facto…
“We are discussing a matter of hypocrisy…You remember the story of the ancient king who found sea encroaching upon his kingdom. Every year a few more feet of the ocean were washed away, and he stood on the shores of the ocean and ordered it to stop. That is what we are about to do today. We are about to stand on the shores on an ocean and order it to cease washing the shores away. And when the ocean did not stop, he made a broom of twigs and tried to sweep back the waves. A foolish king? A foolish legislature? You judge for yourselves.”
Leroy Irvis delivered a stirring lesson on the costs of ignorance on the House floor on August 17, 1972:
Mr. IRVIS: “There is no greater threat today to our form of line than ignorance, whether it be ignorance on the floor, ignorance in the press, or ignorance among our constituency. That is the battle we are fighting tonight. There are very few people in this Commonwealth who would refuse, if they knew, to grant 15 cents a year for this bill which we are about to vote on. But there are very few people who have been informed what it will cost. There are a few people who knew it but have deliberately withheld that information from the public.”
Democratic legislators were the minority party in the House in 1972. Leroy Irvis was elected Minority Whip. During debates on January 23, 1973 over what the House rules should be, Rep. Irvis rose to present his perspective.
Mr. IRVIS: “We are now caught in the same as the designers of the early automobiles who sometimes had carved the figure of a horse’s head and put it on the front of the car to sell it, because people were used to seeing a horse’s head, and other parts, going before them. We are now, I am assuming, trying to eliminate not only the horse’s head but the other part.”
When former President Lyndon Johnson passed away, Rep. Irvis stood on the House floor on January 23, 1973 and read a tribute to him. Part of the remembrances he provided included the following:
Mr. IRVIS: “Lyndon Johnson was a big man; with a big heart and big dreams. He identified the goals of his Administration as a Great Society. Toward the achievement of these goals, he sponsored and had enacted into law the most comprehensive measures to attack this Nation’s social ills since the era of Franklin Roosevelt…
“These goals of the Great Society were a reaffirmation of this Nation’s concern for the poor, the weak, the oppressed, and the human dignity of each of us. The tragedy of Vietnam cast a shadow upon these accomplishments and goals, but cannot diminish them. These accomplishments will stand as a lasting tribute to the memory and worth of Lyndon Baines Johnson.”
During debates on July 25, 1973 on whether the Pittsburgh School Board would be elected by voters, Mr. Irvis provided this historical reference:
Mr. IRVIS: “Those Americans who talk about majority rule do not know their history. That is not the reason why the Colonies fought, and it is not the reason for the establishment of this democracy.
“The philosophical base on which this democracy was established is a just and reasonable concern for the rights of minorities…Even when we established this country, when we declared that all men are created equal in 1776, and later when we established a Constitution for this country, we did not believe in what we said. Some of the men who signed that Constitution owned slaves and during the time that Constitution was established out of a total population of this country of less than four million men and women, over 697,000 were Black.
“How do I reach the conclusion that we did not believe what we said about all men being created equal? Read Article I of the United States Constitution, wherein it states that the population of the state was to be counted in order to apportion the House of Representatives in Washington, Indians were not to be included in the count at all and all Blacks were to be counted at three-fifths of a man.”
Democratic legislators were in the majority in 1975. Leroy Irvis was elected Majority Leader. During March 18, 1975 debate concerning the Senate’s advice and consent role towards the Governor’s appointment of a Consumer Advocate, Mr. Irvis provided his perspective.
Mr. IRVIS: “I do not particularly like kings and I do not particularly like Governors and I do not care whether they are Republican or Democrat…But I am not going to sit here and hear somebody say on the floor of the House that a man, whether he be Republican or Democrat, who runs 11 ½ million citizens of this Commonwealth cannot represent the voice of the people, as opposed to a Senator who runs to districts of perhaps 250,000…I will tell you what happens in the wheeling and dealing on advice and consent, and it is not anything like the civic textbook that you read in junior high school.”
During June 11, 1975 debate on an amendment that would cut public assistance benefits, Mr. Irvis rose to express his outrage against the proposal:
Mr. IRVIS: “I have a 16 year old daughter sitting on the floor of the House as a page today and I have tried to raise her following my concepts of humanity. And what I am going to say today I want her to hear because I have some hope of influencing her…
“We are the most contradictory of all God’s creatures. We crawl like the snake when necessary and attack like the wolf against those who cannot fund off such an attack. We deal with the concepts of angels and we live with the devils of our world. We are capable of incredible acts of injustice to other human beings and equally incredible sacrifices, therefore.
“So anything that happens on the floor of this House I want my daughter to recognize as reflective of what she is going to find for the rest of her life wherever she meets human beings. But I ask her to notice what sort of banter has been raised here today by this amendment, by the bloodless words of this amendment…I want her to know what the blood and flesh which lie behind those words. I want her to know that this banner raised by this amendment says, in effect, join with me while I attack an 89 year old woman living on social security and welfare old age benefits in a high rise apartment in Pittsburgh, stumbling half-blind through that apartment, going with food two days a week. That is the banner which this amendment raises. It says, she is incapable of defending herself, therefore let us attack her…That the way to balance this budget is to strike out from it all the moneys which we are allocating to those people who cannot produce for themselves…
I want my daughter to watch very carefully the vote on the floor today…Do we as a creature, as a society, consider that we owe an obligation to take care of our brothers and sisters, or do we destroy those who are least care to care for themselves?”
The rights of consumers were considered by the House on July 16, 1975. Rep. Irvis provided the following thoughts:
Mr. IRVIS: “We are about to undertake here on the floor of the House of Representatives a task that is long overdue—the passage of several measures that can be packaged together under the title of “Consumer Protection.”…
“I believe that in this complicated age, the consumer needs protection against unethical bill collectors; against interest changes that are too high and not clearly stated; against such practices as “dragging the body” and “balloon payments” and such practices…
“At the same time, we all recognize the fact that most of our businessmen are honest, have integrity, and are ethical. Only a small percentage attempts to cheat their customers in any way. In formulating this package of bills, we have attempted to follow the advice of Benjamin Franklin, who once wrote to the British Parliament: “If you gentlemen must be making laws, do not turn natural and useful actions into crimes by your prohibitions.”
“By following the advice of Dr. Franklin, and by attempting to look at each part of these measures from the viewpoint of the consumer, we believe that we have put together a package of bills that deserves the support of every member here. These bills protect our consumers while at the same time they do not unduly restrict or burden honest businessmen.”
Judge Homer Brown was honored on the House floor on September 29, 1975. Mr. Irvis included the following in his tribute to Judge Brown:
Mr. IRVIS: “When I was a very young man moving from Albany, New York, to the city of Pittsburgh, promising that I would stay there just one year…the one man I met who convinced me that I had met a very important man, a very gracious and a very bright human being, was Judge Homer S. Brown, at that time being the only Black representative from Western Pennsylvania. I had no idea that the time would come when, having finished law school, I would be selected eventually to sit when he sat. I would indeed be honored if I could believe that I have in one-tenth of a percent measured up to the standards which he set for all of us in Pennsylvania.”
The House honored Benjamin Franklin on May 19, 1976. Mr. Irvis told the House why he admired, and offered a resolution commending, Mr. Franklin. Mr. Irvis mentioned the following about Benjamin Franklin.
Mr. IRVIS: “He was intent on building an enlightened society conscious of the natural rights of every man and every woman, a society that would thrive on fairness, reason, equality, and justice…Franklin’s dignity, his intelligence, and his ability to reason toward practical and just solutions to difficult problems made him one of the most respected Americans both at home and abroad…
“Benjamin Franklin is the only American to have signed the four basic documents on which our Nation is founded—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the treaty of alliance with France, and the Treating Ending the War with England. In other words, he was a man who was respected by our friends as well as our enemies…
“He sought, as a peacemaker, peace at home and abroad. He sought a formula for peace and freedom for all people. He did not live to see the final results of these efforts, and this is perhaps because this is one experiment that has no peace—peace cannot be switched off and on like an electrical current, but it does grow brighter with constant effort.”
Rep. Irvis was reelected House Majority Leader on January 4, 1977. On that day, Mr. Irvis offered the following observations:
Mr, IRVIS: “We are not the most efficient form of government. A democracy is not the most efficient philosophy of government. A republic is not the most efficient form of government. A dictatorship is far more effective, far more efficient, moves with greater rapidity than any other form of government known to man, whether the dictator be called dictator, emperor, king, or simply colonel. But a republic in a democratic philosophy is the best form of government for man, for out of all of the chaos…this interaction of ideas, ideals, philosophies, hopes, aspirations, fears, mistakes, achievements, desires—there emerges, or I hope there emerges, the strongest, the best form of government to protect the rule of reason and the rule of justice anywhere in this world…
“You and I…have every right to be proud of the fact that right here in Pennsylvania the seed of the Nation was sown. It was here in this Commonwealth that men and women decided—because although the women did not vote, if you will reread the history of this country, you will find that they spoke, that they wrote letters, and they influenced the men who voted, our ancestors decided that we would experiment to see if men and women, free of the restraints of monarchy, could govern themselves, and we have done so.”
K. Leroy Irvis was elected Speaker of the House on May 23, 1977. He filled a vacancy left by the resignation of the previous Speaker who had been convicted of criminal charges. His assent to the Speakership during a time of political turmoil was reflected in his first address as Speaker:
Mr. IRVIS: “You and I face troublesome times. This is not the way I had hoped to come to this position. But no matter what happens to you or me as an individual, the people continue to exist and to have needs and their government must continue to serve them
“I have come to this office…to heal some of the wounds and mend some of the breaks and aid just a little bit in moving forward to do the job the people who sent us here expect of us. I have an enormous respect for the wisdom and the capabilities of the people. I know eventually that the people will succeed and I know it as surely as I know I live. They may be betrayed and they may be misled and they may be lied to and cheated, but those who betray and mislead and lie and cheat disappear and the people remain. It is our strength in this land that all of us…have a duty to perform in tending to the needs of our brothers and sisters.
“It is sometimes amusing that we come upon great historical moments the way we do…I said to my wife Cathy this morning “Do you realize, sweetheart, we are about to make history?” And she looked up from the dresser drawer where she was rummaging around and said “All I realize is that you’ve run out of blue socks.” You need a wife like that. It’s like having my mother say, “Don’t let it go to your head.”…
“I pledge to you this: As long as I stand here, I will stand here to honor this position and not to deface it. As long as I stand here, I will do my best to deal justly with each one of you with each problem as it arises…
“I again thank you for the honor, but I suggest now that we get on with the business of this day for there is important business for us to do before this session canc lose this year and I intend that we shall be about that business.”
As Speaker, Leroy Irvis was a consistent advocate that the proper decorum be maintained. On March 24, 1977, he provided his reasoning why he so insisted:
Mr. IRVIS: “The Chair does not intend to preside over chaos. There are school children in the audience who may never again in their lifetimes view a legislative body. This is not the only time that that this will happen. It will happen frequently. The impression those children take from one visit may well be the impression they have as adults of how a legislative body is conducted, how it behaves itself… The Chair does not intent to let any member or group of members, by his, her, or their conduct on the floor of this House, to further diminish the credibility of this House. “
1979 found Democrats as the minority party in the House. Leroy Irvis continued to lead his caucus, though as Minority Leader. With a Republican Governor, Irvis and House Democrats presented an alternative budget proposal to what the Governor offered. In defending the Democratic budget plan, Rep. Irvis noted on the House floor on April 23, 1979 how some past legislative reforms on which he had worked were benefiting the legislative process.
Mr. IRVIS: “The amount of basic financial data available to us as a result of our Budget Reform Code of 1978 enables us finally to write our own budget with the same information used by the Executive branch. Every number in our proposal was built up from data on our legislative computer rather than derived by using the Governor’s request as a starting point to cut from. We have matured beyond that approach, and the majority has the same capabilities as we do. We should ignore the age-old pressure points used by the Executive branch to have us rubberstamp their demands and face our constitutional responsibilities independently of the Governor.”
On May 2, 1979, Rep. Irvis offered the following political advice based on his experience as Speaker:
Mr. IRVIS: “In matter of fact no Speaker has any power to appoint a chairman who is either so incompetent or unpopular that he could not sustain a majority vote within his own caucus. From a practical point, although it looks as if the Speaker has almost unlimited powers of selection, it does not work that way at all. When the time comes when one of you young women or young men becomes Speaker of the House, I hope you will remember what I have said to you. You are going to find out the same way as the President of the United States has found out—it is one thing being elected, it is another thing to govern.”
Later that day Rep. Irvis spoke in favor of creating a legislative committee on issues affecting the elderly. Leroy Irvis understood there were separate concerns facing the aging that policy makers needed to recognize as he gave his arguments in favor of establishing this committee:
Mr. IRVIS: “As many of you know, I was intimately involved in the background study for the creation of the new Department of the Aging. As some of you may not know, the most rapidly growing group in our Commonwealth right now and certainly in Allegheny County are those people who are 60 years of age and older. It seems to me most benefiting, now that we have a separate Department of the Aging, that we create a separate committee on the aging to handle the numerous bills and problems which are certain to evolve as we progress in the structuring of this new department and monitoring its functions.”
Abortion was and remains a divisive political issue. On September 24, 1980, Rep. Irvis explained his position on abortion to the House floor:
Mr. IRVIS: “My vote today is based on this simple premise: If poor women are going to get pregnant—and they will be—if poor women are determined to have an abortion, then at least I want that abortion under conditions which give those women the best opportunity to survive…They will still abort, but they will do it in the back alleys; it will be done by the amateurs; it will be done…frequently at the life of the bearer of the fetus...Regardless of what Leroy Irvis says or believes, they are going to exist, and as long as they are going to exist, I want to protect that would-be mother as best I can.”
Rep. Irvis paid tribute to Speaker Matthew Ryan on November 19, 1980 with remarks that included the following:
Mr. IRVIS: “You and I, I think exemplify the very best in the political environment of this country, not necessarily in our performance, but in our beliefs that the people of this country and this Commonwealth are best served by honest disagreement in the political process. And the greatness of this country has been measured many times over, not by the individual performance of politicians, but by the intensity of their beliefs and the rightness of things for the people whom they are sworn to serve.”
In 1981, Democratic legislators remained the minority political party in the Pennsylvania House and Leroy Irvis was elected Minority Leader. Leader Irvis had the following advice on the first day of the new legislature on January 6, 1981:
Mr. IRVIS: “The greatness of our people in this land is measured by the degree to which they rise to the test of self-governance, and they have chosen you as their representatives of that self-governance. The road will be rocky for you; there will be little thanks and less gratitude and much less understanding of your problems, but you have been chosen and you have accepted the choice, and it is your responsibility and mine to lead our people closer to the goal of freedom than we are now. Let there be a time when all men are free throughout the world, but that time is not yet. Your duty and mine is to bring it closer.”
Following the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan, Rep. Irvis provided his thoughts on the shooting and of gun violence on the House floor on March 31, 1981:
Mr. IRVIS: “I think this society has to finally deal with the problem it has neglected since the death of Abraham Lincoln, even since the death of McKinley, ever since the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, ever since the attacks on President Ford. I think we must finally address ourselves to the question of whether or not we so value the right to bear arms that we will give it to those maniacs, those madmen, those terrorists, those burglars, those robbers, those thieves who victimize not only the President of the United States, who symbolizes all of us, but every single one of us who wish to live in peace with his and her neighbors.”
The legislature debated public assistance on April 7, 1981. Rep. Irvis related some observations from his personal life in defending people in need:
Mr. IRVIS: ‘I came from a very, very poor family. I saw my father working at $12 a week, for seven days a week, and my mother joining him in order to feed us. I know what it means to be truly needy, and I know what pride there is in those of us who are Americans who insist on taking care of ourselves. I get very irritated when I hear anyone, whether it is on this side of the other side, whether it is in this Chamber or out, who talks about the people on welfare as if they are unwilling to work.
“I want to submit this to the record…In a survey that was taken by the Los Angeles Times, the first of its kind in this country, it was found that an overwhelming 75 percent of the people who were unemployed in this country said they would take menial jobs. 75% of them said that. They also said that they would work on any job which paid them the minimum wage, which is all we can ask of them. This is contrary to what the American public believes. The perception of the American people is that unemployed people do not want to work, that people on welfare do not want to work, they want to stay on welfare. I tell you that is not so. And that is the reason I get upset when I see people opposing a training program for people who are on welfare and who ought to be at work.”
Debate on job programs continued into the next day. At one point during debates, Rep. Irvis rose to comment on the tone of the discussions:
Mr. IRVIS: “I want to congratulate the gentleman who last spoke for being against slave labor. At least I have got him to 1865. Now if I can get him the rest of the way into the 20th century, I may succeed in my vote on the floor.”
The House debated residency requirements for school teachers on June 16, 1981. Rep. Irvis related his personal experiences as a school teacher in giving the House members his perspective on the issue.
Mr. IRVIS: “I started my career as a teacher, and I taught in the Baltimore, Maryland school system, and I lived in Baltimore, Maryland at a time when living in Baltimore was not the most pleasant place. It never occurred to me that I should not live where my students were. It has not occurred to me since I have served in this House of Representatives that I ought to live in an area other than the area where I represent. I am assuming it had not occurred to any of you either because it would be against the Constitution of this state to do so. There was a very good reason why that was written into the Constitution, and the reason is that the Founding Fathers believed, as I believe, that if you are going to represent the people, you ought to live close enough to them to know about them.
“I think a teacher is a particular peculiar individual who is not simply a robot to be turned off and on when he or she walks into a classroom. I think ideally teachers ought to live around the corner from their students…I therefore see nothing wrong with saying to a teacher, if you are going to teach in the school of Baltimore or the schools of New York or the schools of Philadelphia or the schools of Allentown or the schools of Pittsburgh or any other place, you ought to live there. I am not talking about the economic impact…I am talking about the psychological impact of the teacher who walks into the classroom at 8 o’clock in the morning and walks out and says “Thank God I am getting rid of them; I do not have to bother with them”, gets in their car and drives out into the suburbs, and I am thinking of the psychological impact of the child who knows that is what the teacher does and that is what the teacher is thinking…Maybe one of the problems that we have in the lack of respect for teachers in the classroom is the fact that the child does not believe the teacher is his friend and is a neighbor and is concerned.”
A welfare proposal was presented to the House on March 24, 1982. Although it was certain the Republican legislative majority had the votes to pass it, the proposal was one that Rep. Irvis and others felt did not sufficiently support necessary programs. Rep. Irvis provided the House with his thoughts on that bill and the process that developed it:
Mr. IRVIS: “I do not know any of you who if you were faced with a stranger who was hungry would not feed him; and I do not know any of you who if faced with a hungry child would not feed that child; and I do not know any of you who if you were asked by a neighbor for help wound not give it. But I tell you that although you are not individually mean spirited, this is a mean-spirited bill. This is the sort of bill that a heartless bureaucracy draws up; not drafted by a single man or woman but drafted by committees, those anomalous entities without heart, without face, without soul, interested not in people but in statistics. If we could before you in the hall of House those people, White and Black, young and old, employed now and unemployed, who will be affected adversely by this bill, you would not turn your backs on them. But this bill does…
“We isolate ourselves in marble halls, where the people whom we are making decisions for are excluded, except in the balcony, and we deal with statistics, not human beings…It is easy for any political party bidding for power to attach itself to some acceptable, simplistic idea…that will get that party reelected….
“I am not angry. I love the House of Representatives. The day comes when I leave it, I will leave it with regret. The best friends I have ever had are on this floor, some now and some have passed, and I have never known any whom I have disliked—many I have disagreed with—but not any. But I say to you that this thing which you are driven to do now for political purposes…but because the front office has said we have got to have it…
“I hope to God I am never driven to vote against the poor and the helpless, those who cannot defend themselves or feed themselves, as this bill would attack them. I do not ask you to defeat it, because I know you cannot, but I am asking you in your secret heart, during the next month, to consider if you have acted nobly and well. If you believe you have, congratulations. I do not think many of you will congratulate yourselves.”
Rep. Irvis continued his criticism of what was the legislative process when he argued against a budget proposal on the House floor on May 4, 1982:
Mr. IRVIS: “A democracy is a clumsy and incompetent form of government, but it is the best form of government that man has evolved in 25,000 years. There are smart ways to do things and there are right ways to do things, and this is the wrong way. I do not care whether Republicans do it or Democrats do it; it is wrong to produce on the floor of this House a 143 page budget bill with approximately $10 billion in it to be spent without either the Senate or the House having had an opportunity to debate or amend that bill. I believe this is the first time that that situation has obtained…There has never been a situation where the general appropriations bill has not been debated with a chance of amendment by either the Senate or the House of Representatives…
“I saw this bill in print for the first time at approximately 1 o’clock this afternoon, and in five hours’ time there is no way for me to understand everything that is in this bill, and yet I am going to be asked to vote for it. I cannot do that, and I cannot see how any other responsible member of this House can do it…
“I know that our constituents are not concerned with the machinery of the House of Representatives, with the methodology of the House of Representatives, and perhaps my member was right when he said it is a smart way to do it, meaning clever, but clever is not always right…It is wrong, patently wrong, to say to these members, you will vote for ten billion dollars worth of expenditures: for what, you will not be told, and what impact, you do not know.”
Democratic legislators emerged as the majority party in 1983. Leroy Irvis was returned to the Speakership. After his election as Speaker on January 4, 1983, Speaker Irvis welcomed the new legislature in part with the following:
Mr. IRVIS: “I cannot help but think as we gather here this January about that great, gaunt man with the big ears and the lovely, homely face, who stood not far from this spot in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 119 years ago. It was on an afternoon very much like this. The man who was the main speaker was a man named Everett, and he was a famous orator…He was called upon to tame the major address, and he spoke for two hours, brilliantly, memorized the entire speech, and it has been entirely forgotten. Mr. Lincoln, speaking into a moderately high wind, whose voice did not carry too well, spoke for two minutes, and the words have been burned into the soul of this country. He said in part that this was a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. And he stood on a great battlefield of that Civil War, and he did not talk about blue uniforms or gray uniforms, and he did not talk about White and Black, and he did not talk about North and South, and he did not talk about good and evil. He said something which all of us ought to remember all of our lives. He said that he was on the battlefield of a great war which was testing whether or not that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated could long endure.
“I submit to you that those are not just historical words. I submit that that is why you and I have been sworn in here today 119 years later, that this nation is still being tested to see whether or not it shall long endure, that we are still on the battlefield of that war, not fighting with armed might but fighting for a philosophy which has not yet swept this world.
“We are the only nation in the history of mankind, the only one, which deliberately set upon a course of inviting everyone who wished to come, no matter what color, what race, what place of origin, what philosophical belief, what religion, to come here to live in peace with his or her neighbor and to live in freedom.
“Men and women have not always been free, and men and women are not free in many places in this world today. Those things which you and I take so much for granted that we do not even bother to think about them are beneficences which are not granted to millions and millions and millions of people around this Earth.
“In this Commonwealth of ours we have a microcosm of this country. We come from all corners of the Earth. We are all sizes and colors and all races and creeds and all different philosophies, but we come together for one special purpose, that we and our children shall be forevermore free. But that freedom is never guaranteed to any generation until it earns it, and the place for it to earn it is here, for unique among the animals of this Earth, mankind has created a parliament, a place where each one of us can speak or be so represented and be spoken for. No other group does that. Other groups have kings of leaders of the pack or chief wolf or lion in charge of the pride, but no other group permits each member of the group to think, speak, and to ac tin freedom. That is why you and I are here, to push forward that frontier of freedom…
“We are here to further guarantee that the people of this Commonwealth shall remain free, and that this Nation under God shall long endure, and that government by the people and of the people shall not perish from the Earth.”
There was a bloody terrorist attack on October 23, 1983 that killed 241 Marines, sailors, and soldiers. The next day Speaker Irvis opened the House session with a speech that included the following:
Mr. IRVIS: “We fight over our individual differences, philosophies, commitments, but we sometimes forget that we have a common cord which binds us together, that we are a people who believe fiercely in our own independent abilities to rule ourselves, and we sometimes forget that we are so unique in the world that when we send our young men abroad to help other people be free, we do not anticipate the ferocious, unprovoked, and outrageous attack which took place in Beirut yesterday.
“The Speaker was particularly upset, because 41 years ago, when the Speaker was a young man, he volunteered to join the Marines and was told that he could not be accepted because of color. Yesterday, Marines of one color, red blood in their veins, spilled it on the sands of Beirut. It was a stroke, not against just Marines, but against freedom of thought, freedom to assemble, freedom to speak, and freedom to be.”
Speaker Irvis was surprised on the House floor on November 29, 1983 with his portrait. Speaker Irvis unveiled the portrait with the following words>
Mr. IRVIS: “The chair again repeats that this is all done without the approval of the Chair, but I am very grateful for the painting. It is beautifully done, but if my mother were here, she would tell you there is something wrong with it. The mouth is closed, and my mouth is seldom closed.”
Leroy Irvis was reelected Speaker in 1985. After being sworn in again as Speaker on January 1, 1985, he included the following in his address to the new legislature:
Mr. IRVIS: “I never dreamed when I was being raised in Albany, New York that I would ever be a Pennsylvanian, though I am proud and distinctly pleased with that. I never dreamed when I read about Benjamin Franklin and the role he played in the construction of these United States that I would one day place my hand on his Bible which he produced for this General Assembly. But this huge Bible which rests here under my left hand was the original Bible that Benjamin Franklin brought to the General Assembly at the end of the 18th century…
“Abraham Lincoln was asked the question, what is government? And typical of Abraham Lincoln, who never wasted a lot of words in long speeches and long letters, Lincoln said, after giving it a few minutes thought: “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people that which must be done but which they themselves cannot do at all or cannot so well do for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.” And then he added a caveat, which all of us ought to remember, and which was the most important part of the whole statement. He said, “but in all, where the people individually can do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.”
“That is the fulcrum of the argument which we will have over and over again on this floor, what Mr. Lincoln said 130 years ago, There will be violent disagreements of principle, but the chief disagreement on this floor will always be, where and when should government interfere? There will be those who will argue that government ought to stay as much distant from the people as it can, and there will be those who will just as vehemently argue that it needs to get closer to the people. But on each side of the argument the final decision always has to be made: Can the people do this better for themselves than we can do it for them? If the answer is “yes’, then I stand with Abraham Lincoln and say government ought not to interfere. If the answer is “no:, I stand with Abraham Lincoln and say, at that point, we must step in. Where that point will be will depend upon your own background, your own education, your own upbringing, and your own view of the individual prowess of individual people. But we are here gathered in this Assembly, you and I, for precisely for that debate. If that debate never occurred, as Mr. Lincoln foresaw it, there would be no need for this General Assembly. If everyone could agree on where government should interfere and where it should not, there would be no need for a General Assembly. What Mr. Lincoln foresaw was the dire need always of dispute, debate, and then final compromise, for you will find as new members—the old ones already know this—that compromise is an art not easily achieved but without which you cannot be a successful legislator…
“You and I do not vote for the present; you and I do not vote for the past. You and I must always govern for the future, for it is only in the future that the people of our Commonwealth truly live. It is only in tomorrow that the promises of today can be realized. To the degree that you and I recognize, over the months that we will be together, that our government must interfere only when and only if it is determined on this floor that the individuals in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania cannot themselves do it better than we can, only then will you and I govern truly, as indeed we must.”
Speakers seldom give speeches on the House floor. Only serving as the arbitrator of debate and arranger of votes kept Leroy Irvis from entering debates. Yet, upon his reelection as Speaker on January 6, 1987, Leroy Irvis looked at his family and wondered about our future:
Mr. IRVIS: “I look at the young lady to my right, Lesley. She is 15 years old now. When she was five and six, she used to sit on my lap down at the Majority Leader’s desk. She is now in high school. I wondered when I looked at her today what her world is going to look like in the 21st century, for she will live in that 21st century, as will our other children.
“You and I, unfortunately, are burdened by the past. Those in my generation remember Stalin, Hitler, F.D.R., Hoover. In her generation they will simply be names; most of them will quickly forgotten.
“It is your obligation and mine, even though our ears be tuned to the songs of the past and even though we witness the mausoleums of fate crumble into dust under the impact of the future, we must learn to being to sing the songs of freedom and peace and to begin to build the tabernacles of faith and courage which the 21st century will demand of all of your people…
“My sister and I were raised in a family where we were forbidden by our mother and father to discuss color of human beings. My father many times has said to his friends, it you cannot describe the person by his physique or his occupation or his philosophy, then I do not want to hear about his color. He said all human beings are colored one way or another. My sister, Marian, and I learned that lesson, thank God, and thank my father and mother, and she I have insisted all our lifetimes that we be judged on the basis of our own competence and we have insisted that we judge all other human beings on the same basis.
“It is the only safe way to build this country. This is a marvelous country; nothing like it has ever been erected…Yet you and I in this part of the 20th century, now just a few years from the 21st, have the privilege and the obligation of forming this country in a better image than the past. If you and I fail, this whole Commonwealth fails, and if this Commonwealth fails, then the whole Nation may fail. And, God forbid, if this Nation fails, where else in the world of mankind is there a nation to carry such a banner as ours?...
“Even though we may differ as to the vehicle to take us, all of us, men and women alike, Republicans and Democrats, agree that the goals must be a Commonwealth where people can live in peace with their neighbors, can work at their level of training, can live where they wish, and without crime striking fear into their hearts. That is your job and mine. I hope to God we will live up to His expectations.”
K November 30, 1988 was Leroy Irvis’s last day as a legislator and as Speaker. He concluded that day by noting:
Mr. IRVIS: “I have rejoiced in the position that you have elected me to, now for more times than anyone in the history of the Commonwealth, and I have come to love the members of this House for their honesty, their forthrightness, their commitment to the people of this Commonwealth. But there is one duty I wished I had never had placed upon my shoulders, and that is the duty of the Speaker to be at the funerals of those who have left.”
Speaker Irvis paid tribute to the six House members who died during that session. What that, Speaker Irvis retired to his home in Pittsburgh.