After 30 regular legislative sessions, I can honestly say I’ve never come out of a session thinking, “Wow, that was tremendous.”
I’ve witnessed disappointing sessions, do-little sessions, sessions that dragged on into the summer, and on at least one occasion, beyond, on issues such as overweight coal trucks and the recent budget impasses.
I don’t recall a session as ugly as this one, though.
Unfortunately, each session of late has become more hyper-partisan than the one before, the ideology of some members increasingly more extreme, while the level of collegiality among all members continues to shrink.
I also don’t recall a session that used more procedural hocus-pocus to try to attempt to drive unpopular legislation: Committee of the Whole, questionable reconsideration motions, discharge motions approved with leadership votes, multiple acts of concurrence with further amendment, and most recently, an amendment conceived behind closed doors to complete work on the 2019-20 budget bill to avoid the not-100 percent transparent, but certainly preferable approach, of sending the bill to a House-Senate conference committee.
And, I’ve already vented at length over the preponderance of major bills that miraculously emerged, not as a result of requests from constituents or negotiations with stakeholders, but sprung whole cloth from the pages of the American Legislative Exchange Council website in order to appease special interests.
Let’s take a second to put the ugliest moment of this session, the imbroglio in the House of Delegates involving Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, and others, into perspective.To my knowledge, and to the knowledge of equally longtime statehouse observers, this was the first time in my tenure that a political party had a full-blown “day” at the Legislature.
Certainly, county executive committees of both parties, and perhaps state committees, have hosted receptions at the Capitol during legislative sessions since time immemorial. Generally, those have consisted of receptions and/or luncheons attended by legislators, usually held in the governor’s conference room, often with evening receptions at the Culture Center or off campus.
During the Democrats’ 78-year run as the majority in both houses, it would have been gauche for them to throw an in-your-face partisan display in legislative chambers touting their many years of numerical superiority.
Even without the display by the American Congress for Truth, a Southern Poverty Law Center-designated hate group, the GOP Day at the Legislature, with its gigantic Trump-Pence signs and life-size cutout of the president, was a provocation.
Granted, certain legislators shouldn’t have let themselves be provoked to the point of furious anger, but it is understandable that they could not stand idly by and allow the offensive ACT display to go unchallenged.
Leave it to Democrats to be handed a cause celebre on a silver platter to emphasize how the House majority has been either ignoring or tacitly endorsing hateful speech (the ACT display, the ongoing anti-LGBTQ commentary from Delegate Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer) and allowed a kicked-in chamber door and some F-bombs on the House floor to give House Republicans leverage to turn the debate 180 degrees from their failings into an indictment of the boorish behavior of some House Democrats.
What’s missing is a sound explanation of how local ACT representative Brenda Arthur, hardly an unknown character on the local political scene, was able to set up a display seemingly without the authorization of either the House leadership or the state Republican Party. Was she a squatter?
Clearly, the First Amendment protects unpopular speech and even hate speech. Arthur has the right to display her anti-Islamic poster on any street corner, on social media, or any other forum that suits her.
That being said, the issue is the venue, with the question being the propriety of displaying material inciting hate in the state Capitol, the people’s building, under the seemingly tacit approval of the House of Delegates and the state Republican Party.
So, instead of an open discussion of the party’s tolerance of extremists, the focus shifted into attempts to censure and/or expel Caputo for his clearly boneheaded act of kicking open a chamber door, when, in Caputo’s own words, “I let my emotions overload my good sense.”
Just exactly what happened two Fridays ago is still hazy. Protective Services Director Kevin Foreman said Friday there is no incident report on the incident, although the Capitol Police are “looking into it” — indicative that Capitol Police were not called in at the time the incident occurred.
A little background for those not familiar with the Legislature: the doorkeepers literally open the chamber doors for members, staff and credentialed media during floor sessions, but are directed not to admit anyone during the morning invocation or Pledge of Allegiance.
In my experience, during that time, doorkeepers hold the doors closed with one hand on the door handle, and will generally signal a “stop” sign through the door pane.
I’ve never heard of a doorkeeper physically bracing himself against a door to keep someone from entering, as some witnesses have said Logan Casterline did to try to keep Caputo from entering the chamber. Certainly seems beyond the call of duty for an $85-a-day job with no benefits.
Of course, from the other side of the door, Caputo could not have seen that Casterline was putting his body on the line, and anyone who knows Caputo knows with 100 percent certainty that he would not do anything that would even risk putting another in jeopardy of possible injury.
Unlike his failure to discipline Porterfield, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw’s punishment of Caputo, including a public apology from the House floor and removal from committee assignments — including the powerful Rules Committee — was measured and appropriate, and not an attempt at vindictiveness simply because he didn’t like Caputo’s politics or labor union ties.
Let’s hope the last two weeks in the House mark the nadir for the Legislature, and that members on both sides of the aisle will begin working in the offseason to restore credibility to the Legislature. To that end, there were some small signs of detente session — more on that momentarily.