Indiana Democrats demand change after GOP lawmakers heckle Black members

Politics

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana lawmakers trying to find a path forward after tense moments on the house floor Thursday.

“Excuse me, I have a right,” said Black Democratic State Rep. Greg Porter after GOP lawmakers yelled “boo” as he discussed concerns over racism and discrimination in HB 1367.

He ended his speech early and left the floor visibly upset.

Moments later, Black Democratic State Rep. Vernon Smith took the microphone and expressed similar concerns.

“It’s racism,” said Smith.

He was met with more grumbles from some Republican House lawmakers on the floor.

“Boo if you want to,” Smith responded.

He went on about how the bill would result in discrimination and segregation and that’s when Republican State Rep. Jim Lucas asked House Speaker Todd Huston for a point of order.

Huston then said, “It’s contentious, alright? I understand and I respect it. Dr. Smith, focus on the bill.”

“I am focusing on the bill,” responded Smith.

“I know, but you are also talking about potential motives,” said Huston.

Rep. Lucas left the room and asked others to join.

State Rep. Vanessa Summers followed State Rep. Porter into the hall after members yelled “boo” at him.

When Rep. Lucas was outside the floor with those who joined him, Summers says she told Lucas, “You’re all racist.”

That’s when she said State Rep. Sean Eberhart thought she was talking to him and started lunging toward her.

State Rep. Bob Morris shoved Eberhart into the restroom to separate them.

No one was hurt but it left many asking, how did we get here?

House Democrats said this wasn’t the first time Republican lawmakers heckled them on the floor this session, but leadership said it needs to be the last.

“Our members deserve to be heard and they deserve the respect of all members on the floor,” said Minority Leader State Rep. Phil GiaQuinta.

“Certainly, I have to be better,” said Republican House Speaker Todd Huston. “And collectively, we have to be better and we are going to continue to work on it.”

Huston said the pandemic is playing a role in this tension. He claims COVID-19 precautions have made it difficult to build better relationships and some are quick to assume motives.

“it’s just a little hot and we need to take a break, but I have got to do a better job,” said Huston. “I have got to do a better job of helping facilitate those conversations.”

House democrats say merely bringing up concerns of racism and discrimination in a bill doesn’t mean lawmakers are assuming motives.

“I don’t think they were questioning their motives,” said Indiana Black Legislative Caucus Chair State Rep. Robin Shackleford. “They were trying to get their point across that this type of policy has been discriminatory in the past.”

Shackleford said she asked Huston for cultural competency or racial bias training in the summer for all lawmakers and is asking for that again now.

House democrats would also like to see repercussions for those involved in Thursday’s incident.

Huston hasn’t made a decision on either request.

“I’ve got to figure out what all the facts are,” explained Huston.

Republican State Representatives Jim Lucas, Sean Eberhart and Bob Morris did not respond to requests for comment on their involvement, but Democrat Rep. Summers shared her regrets.

“I should have stayed in my seat and not said anything,” said Summers.

As far as potential punishments for these actions, House Democrats said it could be similar to what has already been done in the past when lawmakers have been required to apologize for their actions on the floor. Or like we saw over the summer; Rep. Jim Lucas got some committee assignments taken away from him after posting what many considered to be a racist meme online.

We will continue asking leadership about potential responses to Thursday’s events and monitoring any future tensions at the Statehouse.

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