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After a tense Friday, March 1, in and around the West Virginia House of Delegates, lawmakers from both parties spent Saturday grasping for resolution. Republicans, who hold a majority in both chambers, mulled the idea Saturday of punishing one of their Democratic counterparts, while the minority continued to express restlessness over hate-fueled speech that has been a recurring theme this legislative session.
Without taking any action Saturday, Republicans say they are leaving the door open for the public admonishment of a Democrat at the heart of the controversy. Democrats, though, say they hope Republicans will join them in pushing for a more inclusive environment.
Friday’s explosive events — centered around an anti-Muslim display in the rotunda — sparked comments and anger that led to the resignation of the sergeant at arms, a door kicked in and a reported injury to a doorkeeper.
West Virginia Republican Party chairwoman Melody Potter issued a statement Saturday condemning the display — insinuating that U.S Representative Ilhan Omar, D-Minn, supports terroristic acts like those from September 11, 2001 — that sparked the controversy.
“The West Virginia Republican Party does not approve, condone, or support hate speech,” Potter said in the statement. “One of the exhibitors at our West Virginia Republican Party Day at the Capitol displayed a sign that we did not approve, were not aware of before the day started, and we do not support. Upon learning about the sign we immediately asked this exhibitor to remove the sign.”
Asked about her association to the person at the display in question, who has been identified as Brenda Arthur, Potter referred to the statement the party offered Saturday.
The display sparked a heated interaction in the rotunda Friday. Del Mike Caputo, D-Marion, tried to enter the House chamber during the prayer and pledge of allegiance to have a word with the Speaker about the display. It was at that point where Caputo admits to kicking in the door, which was being blocked — as it normally is in those moments — by a staff member.
With attention focused on what might happen to Caputo, the House Rules Committee was set to meet at 8 a.m. Saturday — to discuss potential punitive actions.
In a show of support for their fellow caucus member, Democrats filled the House Judiciary Committee room — which was to be the meeting spot for the Rules Committee. House Speaker Roger Hanshaw announced after about 45 minutes of delay that the committee would meet following a floor session.
Shortly after, various groups representing Muslim, Jewish and interfaith organizations had gathered to show their support of people with diverse backgrounds. Those groups then lined the House galleries in anticipation of the floor session.
Republicans caucused for some time Saturday until Caputo and House Minority Leader Tim Miley were allowed in. Delegates from both parties made their way into the chamber for the floor session.
Almost immediately, Caputo took to the floor to apologize for possibly injuring the doorkeeper.
“I just feel as horrible about that as you could ever imagine. And I want to personally apologize to him for that. He was just doing his job,” Caputo said.
The extent of those injuries are unknown and Capitol Police are investigating the incident. A spokesman for the House said no additional comment would be made, declaring it a personnel matter.
Caputo also offered an apology to the Republicans, including Hanshaw and other ranking members of the majority party.
“I just hope that at the end of the day, we can do what we’re all here for — that’s represent the people in our districts in a diplomatic fashion and engage in a heated argument or debate,” Caputo said. “But at the end of the day, we should all — as the Speaker said yesterday — we should all remain friends. So I hope that you will give me an opportunity to rebuild my friendships with you.”
With that, the House continued on with its businesses — passing a budget and handling other legislation on their agenda. But by the end of the floor session, the situation with Caputo remained ambiguous.
No one from the majority party made mention of rescheduling the Rules Committee, which would be a starting point for formal action against a delegate. However, Republicans gathered again privately for another caucus ahead of a 4 p.m floor session. No discussion or business related to Friday’s incident was discussed during the floor session.
House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said he felt Caputo’s apology Saturday was sincere and also said he doesn’t believe Caputo intentionally injured the doorkeeper.
Still, Hanshaw left the door open for some kind of admonishment against Caputo.
“We’re still thinking about what the appropriate response on behalf of the House ought to be to that entire set of facts from yesterday,” Hanshaw said.
He said the members of his caucus have various positions on what, if anything, Caputo’s punishment should be.
“We have members who were involved in that exchange yesterday and took it very personally and, for obvious reasons, would like to see a greater degree of action on behalf of the House taken swiftly,” Hanshaw said.
Democrats, though, say they’re still grasping for resolution of their own. As they have pointed out, Friday’s incident wasn’t the first moment this session marred by hate speech.
Del. Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer, made inflammatory remarks about the LGBTQ community when he likened gay rights groups to terrorists.
The minority party has linked Porterfield’s comments earlier this session to Friday’s explosive events, saying that an undercurrent of hate speech and discrimination had finally boiled over.
Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, was the first to speak on the floor about the anti-Muslim display Friday. On Saturday, he said the situation continues to frustrate members of his party.
“I don’t think it’s completely been resolved. I think the galleries today were full of members of the Islamic community here in Charleston and Huntington and other parts of West Virginia — who just came down to let people know that they’re West Virginians, too,” Pushkin said. “These are our neighbors and friends and they also work very hard and pay taxes and make this state a better place — and I think they deserve to be treated better than they were treated.”
Delegates will return to the Capitol Monday morning. The House Rules Committee is scheduled to meet just before the 11 a.m. floor session.