HELENA — As lawmakers prepared to leave Helena this week for the 2021 Legislature’s mid-session break, it’s not without some lingering partisan rancor in the Montana House.
Leaders of the Democratic minority said they’ve seen a “pattern of disregard” for their members, with some Republicans abusing their power to mistreat Democrats and breach decorum, in committees and on the floor.
They pointed to a hearing last week where Rep. Mary Ann Dunwell of Helena, when presenting her bill, was muted by the committee chair, lectured about allegedly violating protocol, and denied a chance to close.
That “disrespectful and malicious” treatment was “not an isolated incident,” said House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, noting that Democrats were not allowed to vote during a committee hearing on Saturday and have sometimes been gaveled down during floor debate, told they’re not addressing the bill.
Republican House Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, addressed the Saturday committee incident in comments on the floor Monday morning, saying Republicans would “redouble our efforts” to conduct proceedings with “respect and civility.”
Later Monday, the chair of that committee – Rep. Derek Skees, R-Kalispell – reconvened the panel and held a new vote on the bill, allowing Democrats to vote, and apologized for his earlier actions.
The full committee vote Monday led to a reversal of Saturday’s vote, killing the bill that would have regulated Internet pornography.
But Vinton also wrote a letter Monday blasting Dunwell, saying it was she who had violated protocol and decorum and who had impugned the “reputation and character of our caucus.”
The letter said Republicans might even be prepared to request that Dunwell be censured.
Dunwell told MTN News she was mystified by the letter, and saw it more as an attempt to divert attention from the way she’d been treated in the House Judiciary Committee last week.
“They can try to censure me, but they will never silence me,” she said.
Dunwell brought the issue to the full House Saturday afternoon, saying she had felt “harassed, intimidated and bullied” at a Feb. 23 Judiciary Committee hearing on her resolution asking that Montana declare white-supremacist, neo-Nazi violence as “domestic terrorism.”
At the evening hearing, Republican committee members peppered her with questions, including one that asked why she didn’t include the groups Black Lives Matter or Antifa under the umbrella of domestic terrorism.
Committee members also refused to allow her to “redirect” questions to witnesses who are experts on white-supremacist groups.
When she asked to make a “personal point of privilege,” the chair, Rep. Barry Usher, R-Billings, cut her off and muted her microphone on Zoom.
“Now you’re muted and I will speak,” he said. “And if you continue, I’ll just drop you off the call. It’s your choice. As the sponsor, you do not have any point of privilege. It’s not appropriate in this committee. It’s not appropriate as you, the sponsor. Are we clear?”
The combative hearing continued for another 20 minutes, before Usher asked a pair of questions and cut off Dunwell in mid-answer and ended the hearing, without allowing her to close. Republicans on the panel then voted immediately along party lines to kill the bill.
After Democratic Rep. Rob Farris-Olsen of Helena objected to how Dunwell was treated, Usher said she had been “disrespectful to us, as a committee,” by not answering questions directly and continuing to talk when she was asked to stop.
“I gave her many chances,” Usher said. “Respect is earned, and she has definitely not earned mine in any of the hearings that I’ve been in, in our committee. I apologize for that, but that’s the way I feel.”
Abbott, the House Democratic leader, said Democrats realize they’re in the minority – the GOP has a 67-33 advantage in the body – but said that doesn’t mean Democrats should be prevented from speaking on issues, voting on bills, or fully presenting their bills in committee.
Abbott and other Democratic members pointed to incidents on the House floor, when a Republican chair has halted their comments during debate.
In one instance last month, Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, a Chippewa-Cree Native American from Box Elder, was told he couldn’t talk about racism during a debate on a bill banning sanctuary cities in Montana.
“Hold on, let me finish -- let me finish,” he retorted to the chair, Rep. Skees. “I’m not going to be censored, I told you, and I’m not going to sit down and shut up.”
Ten days ago, Rep. Mary Caferro, D-Helena, rose on the House floor to defend fellow Democratic Rep. Jim Keane of Butte, saying people on the floor had shouted responses when he spoke on a bill on federal land.
“People were shouting out, and saying things to the point where it sounded like heckling,” she said. “So, I would ask that we stop and think – what’s more important? In our own minds, to be right, or to be kind? This man deserves respect, as does everyone in this body.”
Dunwell and Abbott said that individual Republicans in the House had privately apologized to both of them, for what they saw as mistreatment of minority members.
On Saturday, after raising the issue of her treatment before the Judiciary Committee, she also said that she hopes lawmakers reconsider their differences and try to work together.
“If you don’t love me, or one another, that’s OK – I can’t control what you do,” she said. “I can control what I do, and, frankly, I do love you. … The bottom line is first about respect for the office. So I’m speaking up right now for my fellow legislators and for future generations of legislators.”