CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Tempers boiled over in West Virginia’s House of Delegates about a display outside the chamber depicting anti-Muslim images and statements.
The display prompted an angry scene in which Delegate Mike Caputo forced open the door to the chamber during a prayer, a doorkeeper was reportedly injured as a result, the sergeant at arms resigned, and a series of emotional floor speeches unfolded, including one by the House speaker.
“I’ve bluntly struggled with what even to say,” Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said Friday evening during a floor session.
“Where are we as a House and what possible example are we setting for the people of this state? What possible example are we as a body setting for those who sit at home and watch our sessions?”
— Brad McElhinny (@BradMcElhinny) March 1, 2019
Claiming what unfolded at the Capitol reflects poorly on the state, Hanshaw said it felt more like what’s happening at the national level.
“We have allowed national level politics to become a cancer on our state, to become a cancer on our Legislature, to invade our chamber in a way that frankly makes me ashamed,” Hanshaw said.
The materials that set off the anger were on display this morning on a table right outside the House as part of a “Republicans Take the Rotunda” event. Not far away were cardboard cutouts of President Donald Trump, signs for “Trump Pence” and displays featuring West Virginia Republicans.
The state Republican Party, rather than the Republican-led House of Delegates, was the organizer of the full event, clarified Jared Hunt, spokesman for the House of Delegates. State party officials made no comment today, although Chairwoman Melody Potter attended today’s morning floor session.
The most prominent part of the display was an image of an airplane crashing into the Twin Towers on 9/11 juxtaposed with Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who is a native of Somalia. Pamphlets described “The Four Stages of Islamic Conquest” and “Readin’, Writin’ and Jihadin’.”
Hanshaw released a statement shortly after today’s morning floor session condemning the rhetoric and the surrounding incidents.
“The West Virginia House of Delegates unequivocally rejects hate in all of its forms. As we began today’s floor session, we had a series of incidents occur in and outside of our Chamber that absolutely do not reflect the character and civility the people of this state demand of their public servants,” Hanshaw stated.
“Leadership of the House of Delegates is currently working to investigate these incidents to learn firsthand the factual basis of what occurred, and will respond with appropriate action.”
The woman who had the display identified with “Act for America” said she is a South Charleston resident but otherwise did not identify herself. She declined to comment, saying members of the media usually misconstrue her positions. She later took down the big poster and replaced it with a different one but left the pamphlets out.
Prior to today’s floor session, some Democratic delegates took issue with the display. They then described what happened with emotional floor speeches.
“I find it distasteful. I said so. I went over and spoke with the people in that booth that I believe is sanctioned by a political party,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha. “It points out a hatred and distrust of somebody because of their religion.
Pushkin continued, “I’m disgusted by what I see out there. If the shoe was on the other foot, I would condemn that. It’s ugly, it’s hateful, and there’s no place for it in American politics.”
Delegate Dianna Graves, R-Kanawha, rose and spoke about freedom of speech.
“While I may not agree with everything out there, I do agree that freedom of speech is something we have to protect,” Graves said.
She then took issue with the angry reactions in the Rotunda.
“When you see something you disagree with, please don’t respond with something I unfortunately saw with my own eyes.
“We have to remember that our actions are supposed to be representing our districts back home, and that’s not how people want us to act.”
Delegate Michael Angelucci, D-Marion, said he witnessed what happened in the Rotunda right as he had concluded a respectful discussion with Speaker Hanshaw.
“I just got done speaking to the Speaker, and I wanted to talk to him before the session because I wanted to tell him how much I respect him,” Angelucci said.
“I walk out of the chambers and I see a discussion going on with Delegate Pushkin and a lady with a display, which was reprehensible.”
Angelucci went on to allege that the House sergeant at arms became inappropriately involved.
“The sergeant at arms had the nerve to say to us, ‘All Muslims are terrorists.’ That’s not freedom of speech. That’s hate speech, and it has no place in this House. I don’t want to see her representing the people of this state in this House again,” he said.
During the evening floor session, the House clerk read a letter of resignation from Sergeant at Arms Anne Lieberman.
The minority whip, Caputo, acknowledged getting so angry he kicked the door to the chamber open during the prayer that starts each day’s floor session.
“I’m the one who kicked the door open. That’s how angry I was. I went over to that poster and I said it was a racist poster,” said Caputo, D-Marion.
Caputo, a longtime delegate, said he advises newly-elected lawmakers not to let matters get personal.
“When it gets personal with me, it’s bad,” Caputo said. “There is no place in these halls for the crap is going on out there. Don’t let this happen in the House. It’s taken away from our work. It’s wrong. It’s just wrong. I apologize for my anger. I don’t like getting this way. I’m very angry today.”
During Hanshaw’s speech in the evening floor session, he made reference to a doorkeeper being examined for an injury. Delegates said the door hit the young doorkeeper as it was being forced open.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve allowed the proceedings in this House to reach a point at which we’ve allowed a staff member to be physically injured,” Hanshaw said.
The incident has been referred to the Capitol Police for investigation, stated the House’s spokesman, Jared Hunt. He declined to comment further, citing a personnel matter. No official has specifically characterized the extent of the injury.
Democrats met in caucus this evening after Hanshaw’s remarks and following the allegation about the doorkeeper’s injury. Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, was away today. Caputo is second in the line of authority.
So Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, spoke with reporters. He said Democrats do not believe Caputo was in the wrong.
“In regards to the whip going in, he was barred entry into the door, he shoves the door open, and one of the doorkeepers says he was injured as a result of going in the door,” Sponaugle said.
Sponaugle said Democrats will be united with Caputo if there is an attempt to punish him.
“I don’t know what they’re planning on doing,” Sponaugle said. “But I will tell you that will not go over very well with our minority caucus. We think the world of Mike Caputo; we believe he was totally right.”
Sponaugle also pointed to the broader picture of longstanding tension in the House.
Strain has run through the House of Delegates this session after ongoing remarks by freshman Delegate Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer, about gay rights organizations. “The LGBTQ is a modern day version of the Ku Klux Klan, without wearing hoods with their antics of hate,” Porterfield said in several instances.
“It should have been handled weeks ago. There was no reprimand, no nothing. So the Democratic Party right now is extremely frustrated,” Sponaugle said.
He added, “There’s a big concern that Delegate Porterfield brought hate into this body. It’s continued to fester.”
Porterfield has continued his committee assignments and was not publicly reprimanded by the House. The state Republican Party denounced Porterfield’s remarks in February:
“We may disagree on policy, politics, and the direction of our state, but we can disagree civilly and respectfully because intolerant and hateful views hold us back, divide us, and hurt our state,” Melody Potter, the Republican Party chairwoman, stated about Porterfield’s words.
She also said, “As West Virginians, we are taught to respect one another, love our neighbors, and when we disagree to seek understanding of our fellow Mountaineers.”
The state Democratic Party today denounced the anti-Muslim display, connecting its message to the Porterfield statements.
“This display of hatred has no place in the People’s House and this is just the latest display of hate from the Republican Majority this Legislative Session,” stated party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore.
“Chairwoman Melody Potter and the rest of Republican Leadership need to condemn these actions and this type of hate. We’ve been asking for weeks for action to be taken on Porterfield and there has been none.”
West Virginia’s regular legislative session has about a week remaining. The heaviest lifting is on the state’s $4.6 billion general revenue budget.
Inside the House of Delegates chamber, Delegate Tom Bibby, R-Berkeley, concluded Friday morning’s remarks about the anti-Muslim display.
“Freedom of speech is very near and dear to me,” Bibby said. “We have lots to do today. Let’s move on.”