As the nation stood slack-jawed last week at images of a pro-Trump mob storming the Congress, members of a handful of state legislators around the country had a different reaction: Déjà vu.
“We saw this coming,” said state Sen. Sylvia Santana (D), a member of the Michigan legislature and one of several state lawmakers TPM spoke with Tuesday who watched in horror as the episodes that played out in their states months earlier were amplified on the national stage.
In Michigan, extremists carrying rifles shoved police and peered down at lawmakers from the Senate gallery during a demonstration against COVID-19 public health restrictions in April. In Idaho, a crew of anti-public health protesters led by Ammon Bundy stormed into the House of Representatives in August, breaking a glass door in the process. In Oregon last month, far-right demonstrators assaulted a reporter, shattered glass doors and used bear spray on police.
The lawmakers TPM spoke to had a simple message: Violence and intimidation won’t simply fade away. Left unchecked, they will eat away at the democratic process.
“Now I’m like, ‘Well gosh, does it really make sense to get up and make a big speech about why I’m making this vote, or is that just going to land 50 armed guys terrorizing my family outside my House?’” said state Rep. Ilana Rubel, a Democrat and minority leader in the Idaho House of Representatives.
Rubel said she’d seen qualified candidates pass on opportunities to serve on local health boards or redistricting commissions due to fear they’d be terrorized in their homes by the same group that stormed the Capitol in August.
“It’s a real impediment to a free and open democracy,” she said.
State Rep. Donna Lasinski (D), minority leader in the Michigan House of Representatives, recalled sitting mere feet from the swinging doors that separated the House “and the men who were screaming and armed right outside our chamber” in April.
She said the rage on display in Washington, D.C. last week recalled what she’d seen at her own workplace — “when you hear someone scream, and you hear the change in their voice that has moved them to a point where you feel like there’s no return, where you feel like violence is imminent.”
‘Do I Run Away From My Work?’
Last Thursday, one day after the U.S. Capitol siege, as Lasinski reached into her bag for her security badge just outside Michigan’s legislature, her phone alerted her to a bomb threat inside the building.
“I had shown up to work to go into the Capitol to do the people’s work,” she said. “And I’m now standing at the base of the Capitol, trying to personally understand: Do I move forward? Do I run away from my work?”
Lasinski connected the fraught situation, and the sense of fear it inspired, to the actions of her own colleagues, several of whom joined lawsuits or letters sowing doubt about the integrity of the 2020 elections.
“That is an unacceptable way to make laws in the people’s house, when you are harassed, when there is ongoing political intimidation, and when you’re sitting on the House floor with 18 members who are fomenting that type of rhetoric that led directly to an insurrection in Washington,” she said. “That is not an acceptable way to do the people’s work.”
Santana, the Michigan senator, said the intimidation in Michigan and Washington, D.C. “sends the wrong message to the broader American public.”
“It’s sad that they have to call their loved ones and tell them, ‘If I’m not to make it out of this situation, my will is in this drawer, and I want you all to know I love you,’” she said of legislators in the nation’s capital.
“That’s a sad state of affairs, because they signed up to serve their constituencies, to serve the public.”
‘I’m Going To Have To Protect Myself’
To “move on” and “unify” after last week, as several Republicans on the state and national stages have urged, state legislators told TPM that the country needs to come to terms with what’s happened — both the violent disruptions of the democratic process, and the legitimate results of the 2020 election.
“Until they speak, until they admit the truth — that ‘the election wasn’t stolen, we lost’ — nothing is going to be repaired,” said Michigan state Sen. Dayna Polehanki (D).
Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them. I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today. #mileg pic.twitter.com/voOZpPYWOs
— Senator Dayna Polehanki (@SenPolehanki) April 30, 2020
“They have to speak up, they know the truth,” Polehanki said.
But, she added, “they have money to make. They don’t want to be primaried. They don’t want Don Jr. coming to town and supporting their primary opponent. They want to be reelected. They know that 70% of Republicans still back President Trump.”
For now, legislators have taken to relying upon law enforcement. Some have stocked up on safety gear like bulletproof vests, helmets, gasmasks and mace.
As new legislative sessions kick off across the country, “the atmosphere is, ‘I’m going to show up, I’m going to vote, I’m going to speak on behalf of the 259,000 people who I represent,’” Polehanki said.
“However,” she added, “I’m also going to have to protect myself with all of this protective gear because the threat of violence to us is real.”
Rubel, the minority leader from Idaho, said she’d keep fighting for her values, even as part of a legislative minority with relatively little power.
“I don’t want to give them the satisfaction of being censored,” she said. “But on the other hand, you have to at some point ask how much you’re willing to endanger your family.”