A special panel called to potentially discipline an African-American Kansas lawmaker for calling her colleagues racist voted unanimously to dismiss the complaint, but not without things getting “wild,” according to local news reports.
State Rep. Valdenia Winn, a Democrat from Kansas City, faced possibly being censured or even expelled from the statehouse for what her fellow lawmakers said were inflammatory remarks. In the special hearing called Friday to weigh a possible punishment that the committee could have advanced to the House floor for a vote, the panel instead chose to dismiss the complaint.
The affair began in March when Winn described a Republican proposal to repeal in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants as “a racist, sexist, fear-mongering bill” and suggested its supporters were “racist bigots.” The bill’s sponsors objected to the characterization and when Winn refused to back down, nine Republicans — seven of them white and two of them black — signed a formal complaint against her for using “inflammatory language.”
Friday’s hearing — in front of a House committee of three Republicans and three Democrats — was said to be only the fourth of its kind in Kansas state history. The committee chair, Republican Rep. Erin Davis, barred Winn’s lawyer Pedro Irigonegaray from offering her counsel during the hearing. But that didn’t stop him from trying to speak on her behalf, prompting Davis to interrupt the hearing multiple times to express her disapproval, according an AP report.
The conference room holding the hearing was packed with more than 70 people, by The Wichita Eagle’s count, in addition to the 100 and 150 people standing outside of the door.
Winn refused to apologize for the remarks in question.
“I exercised my freedom of speech,” said she said, The Wichita Eagle reported. “Freedom of expression in the legislative process, by members of the legislative branch, is a critical component of the lawmaking process.”
Among the crowd were many of Winn’s supporters — some of them wearing duct tape on their mouths — who applauded at her entrance and twice drew the admonishment of Davis, the AP reported.
One of the complaint signers, Rep. Ron Highland (R), testified that he had “never been called the names” she called him and other members.
“I will be the first to stand beside anyone who wishes to practice free speech,” Highland said. “However, in this case, we are in the legislative environment where respect and decorum are the rules.”
Rep. Tony Barton (R), a complaint signer who is black, suggested if no action was taken against Winn, it could encourage more inflammatory language in the statehouse.
The panel ultimately voted unanimously to dismiss the complaint in a motion offered by one of the committee’s Republicans, Rep. Mark Kahrs.
“My view is we should support freedom of speech no matter how irresponsible, slanderous or hurtful that speech may be,” Kahrs said.