INDIANAPOLIS – Tensions flared at the Indiana Statehouse Thursday when Republican lawmakers shouted down and booed Black lawmakers during floor debate on a bill that some see as discriminatory.
Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, walked off the House floor after several Republican lawmakers loudly objected to his warnings of discrimination in House Bill 1367. Porter, a member of the Black caucus, said the bill would allow students in a St. Joseph County township to leave the South Bend Community Schools, which are racially diverse, to join a nearby school district that’s smaller, more rural and made up primarily of white students.
Republicans deny the bill is discriminatory. The bill’s author, Rep. Jake Teshka, R-South Bend, said it’s about transportation issues.
Teshka said many students in Greene Township are already attending John Glenn Schools and allowing the area to disannex from South Bend schools could resolve some issues around transportation.
After Porter walked off the House floor overcome with emotion, Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, reiterated concerns about discrimination and spoke about his own experiences facing discrimination as a Black man, being pulled over for “driving while Black” and being denied access to certain places because of the color of his skin. He was met with “boos” from several other GOP lawmakers.
Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, then walked out over his objections to Smith’s testimony.
Lucas declined to answer questions about what happened, other than to criticize media reports as inaccurate without saying specifically why.
Lucas was sanctioned by the GOP Speaker of the House, Todd Huston, over the summer for sharing a racist meme. The chairwoman of the Black caucus, Robin Shackleford, had released a scathing call for Lucas’s removal from several committees, saying he was unremorseful. She also called for the House to have bias training, saying “his thinking and his behavior is enabled by the complacency of some of our colleagues.”
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Shackleford said Thursday that leadership of the Black caucus and House Democrats met with Huston after the incident on the floor and, again, asked for the training.
“If they’re feeling that we’re constantly attacking them and they’re taking it personal, then they’re going to be on the defense and we’re never going to go anywhere,” Shackleford said.
Huston would not say Thursday if the training would occur.
“We’ll continue to have those conversations,” he said. “We all want to be better.”
While some Republican lawmakers seemed to take personally the comments on discrimination Thursday, Teshka said he did not. The South Bend Republican said he heard the concerns, even if he didn’t agree with them.
“I’m not taking any of this personally so please don’t feel like you have to come to my defense,” he told his colleagues while closing debate on his bill.
The bill passed, 52-43.
Confrontation follows the House vote
The heated exchange between lawmakers on the floor spilled over into the hallway outside the chamber after several members walked out in frustration.
At one point, a confrontation erupted between Reps. Sean Eberhart, R-Shelbyville, and Vanessa Summers, D-Indianapolis, who is another member of the Black caucus.
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Eberhart said he was called a racist and verbally attacked by Summers and that she used derogatory words against him.
“I was confronted by Vanessa (Summers) and accused of being discriminatory and racist toward people in general,” Eberhart said. “That’s totally not factual. I don’t have a racist bone in my body.”
Summers said she doesn’t remember what was said in the heat of the moment but said she may have used strong language. She said she was calling out Lucas, though, when Eberhart thought she was talking to him. Summers said Eberhart came after her then.
“He just went off and got mad and tried to hit me,” she said. “I felt in danger for my life.”
Several other lawmakers, including Porter, were involved in trying to separate the two but Summers followed Eberhart into the hallway of the government center where the House is meeting this session due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The exchange ended when Rep. Bob Morris, R-Fort Wayne, dragged Eberhart into a men’s restroom and Summers was escorted down the hall by members of the Democratic caucus.
Eberhart said he’s always considered Summers a friend. He said he was in the hallway because he was tired of the debate on the bill and found it offensive. He said he doesn’t believe any members of the House GOP are racist.
Summers said she’d never considered Eberhart racist before, but relationships between the GOP supermajority and Democrats feel different this session, fueled by debates over racism that kicked into high gear after the death of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people at the hands of police over the summer.
“Everybody over there is racist and discriminatory,” Summers said, of House Republicans. “Those that aren’t and are not standing up for what’s right, they’ve got white privilege and they’re racist too.”
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This occurred on a day that members of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus were celebrating their heritage and dressing in traditional African garb.
House Speaker Todd Huston had urged members “show proper respect” and address issues in an “appropriate dialogue.”
He addressed the conflict further when the House reconvened later Thursday after a break, taking partial responsibility.
“This session is different. It’s been challenging keeping decorum in this room. It’s a conference room, we don’t have the guests, the stature, the things that kind of reinforce the privilege that it is to serve,” Huston said. “And I think we’ve had moments that I haven’t done a good job.”
For example, people should not be clapping after floor speeches, he said. Likewise, he added that lawmakers should not impugn motives, and focus discussion on the bill itself, not other lawmakers.
“We’re going to disagree. That’s part of the process,” Huston said. “But we’re going to do it in a respectful way. I’m going to enforce our rules in a more strident manner.”
Speaking to media Thursday afternoon, Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, said he was “saddened” by the incident in the House.
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“Our debate, even though we can be passionate, needs to be civil and substantive,” Bray said.
Republicans have a supermajority in both legislative chambers and do not need to take any feedback from Democrats into consideration in order to get a bill across the finish line. But Andy Downs, a political science professor at Purdue University Fort Wayne, said this type of conflict should not be happening regardless of the make up of the General Assembly.
“I think there is a significant issue with civility in the country right now, unfortunately,” Downs said. “I also think that there are a lot of tensions that are boiling over in into places where that we would not normally find them.”
Follow Arika Herron on Twitter: @ArikaHerron.