An African-American lawmaker in Kansas could be expelled from the statehouse for accusing supporters of legislation that eliminated tuition breaks for undocumented immigrants of being racist. State Rep. Valdenia Winn (D) of Kansas City will face a special investigative committee in a hearing June 26 that will weigh possible sanctions against the lawmaker for the remarks.
“What’s most disturbing is the purposeful chilling effect that this type of conduct has on legislators. It’s not right,” Winn’s lawyer, Pedro Irigonegaray, told TPM.
During a March committee meeting considering the legislation, which would have repealed in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants, Winn called the proposal “a racist, sexist, fear-mongering bill,” according to the Lawrence Journal-World.
“I want to apologize to the students and parents whose lives are being hijacked by the racist bigots who support this bill, because this bill is an act,” she said, before being interrupted by Rep. John Barker (R).
“She just referred to this committee as racist,” he objected.
She insisted she had said, “supporters,” and went on, “I am not saying anything, but you know what, you can do anything you want, but I am going to say what I have to say because if the shoe fits, if the shoe fits, it fits. But this is an example of institutional racism, not individual racist, institutional racism because it deals with societal structural changes.”
Nine representatives, all Republicans, signed a complaint that accused of Winn of using “inflammatory language.” Seven of the nine complainants are white, and two are black. An inquiry into the matter was postponed in April, and the state house turned its focus to the state budget crisis. But according to an agenda that went out to members of the investigative committee — which is made up of three Republicans and three Democrats — a public hearing will be held June 26. Private deliberations are expected to follow before the committee decides whether to recommend sanctions for a House vote.
Irigonegaray, Winn’s lawyer, said that the committee chair, Rep. Erin Davis (R), told him Wednesday that he would not be able to offer her counsel during the hearing. Democrats have also taken issue with the fact that two of the three Republicans on the committee are lawyers while no lawyers are represented among the Democrats, as selected by the House Speaker Ray Merrick (R).
“The Democratic Caucus fully supports Rep. Winn in this matter,” Minority Leader Rep. Tom Burrough said in statement. “This investigation is nothing but an attempt by the majority party to silence a minority voice that dared to speak up in opposition to discrimination. She has a constitutionally protected right to voice her opinion on this or any other issue, as do all Kansans.”
Burrough’s spokeswoman, Abbie Hodgson, said this was only the fourth time in state history a committee of this nature had been called.
The committee could recommend the censure, reprimand or expulsion of Winn — which would then be advanced to a House vote where a two-thirds majority is required to act — or do nothing. If the committee is deadlocked on party lines, the speaker could still bring the matter to the House floor, according to those involved in the process.
“I cannot imagine that the committee would make such a recommendation [of expulsion], but the degree of inconceivable actions by our Kansas legislature and governor have reached such a level,” Irigonegaray said. “It’s just gotten to a point where is there a fog of hate clouding the Capitol building, and I certainly do not understand the total dysfunction that exists.”
Irigonegaray points to past controversial comments made by Republicans in the statehouse that received no such response. In 2011, Rep. Virgil Peck (R) suggested undocumented immigrants should be shot from helicopters like feral pigs, and a 2012 email sent by then House Speaker Mike O’Neal (R) to fellow Republicans said they should use a Bible verse with the phrase “Let his days be few and brief” as a prayer for President Obama.
“Was there a special investigative committee to sanction him? No,” Irigonegaray said.
Rep. Tony Barton (R), one of the two signers of the complaint who is African American, objected to the comparison,
“The difference is this is slander,” Barton told TPM. “She slandered me personally. I am a sponsor of the bill and slander is far different than just making a controversial statement, and I take that personally.”
He said he will leave it up to the committee as to whether to recommend a punishment, but said, “It really concerns me that this happened and if something isn’t done, I guarantee you something like this will happen in the future.”
Rep. John Bradford (R), another one of the complaint signers who is white, said expelling Winn would be “too harsh,” preferring “maybe a reprimand.”
“After that it’s up to the voters, if they want to keep her,” he said.
“Valdenia has, I would say, she has a ‘get me’-type attitude. She is a very nice person when she is away from the Capitol, just to converse with,” Bradford said. “But when she comes into the Capitol she puts on this front like she is there to insult me. That day she flew off the handle like I had never seen her do before.”
He added that his 22 years in the Army, particularly in the 1970s, gave him experience in handling race issues.
“I taught race relations on numerous occasions, I understand race relations and bigotry totally,” he said. “I think I have a very good feel.”