“All ... will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect and to violate would be oppression.”
– President Thomas Jefferson, in his first inaugural address, 1801
The angry eruption in the Indiana House last week shouldn't surprise regular observers of the General Assembly. Frustrated Democrats clashed with a handful of GOP caucus members who increasingly have shown disdain for long-accepted norms of civil debate and deliberation.
The spark was House Bill 1367, legislation that would allow a township in the South Bend Community Schools district to join the neighboring John Glenn School Corp. South Bend schools closed the township's Greene Intermediate Center in June 2018 and moved students to other schools in the urban district, which is about 73% Black, Hispanic and multi-racial. John Glenn Schools are 90% white.
Rep. Greg Porter, D-Indianapolis, speaking against the bill, suggested the legislation was discriminatory, prompting shouts of “no” and “stop” from some Republican lawmakers. Visibly frustrated, Porter cut his testimony short. Tension escalated when Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary, went to the microphone.
“I don't care how you twist it, how you paint it ... it's racism,” he said, prompting more boos. “I'm telling you, it's discrimination.”
At that point, Republican Jim Lucas of Seymour stood up and called on his colleagues to walk out. Several joined him, prompting House Speaker Todd Huston to call for order. He told Smith to focus on the bill, not on motive.
The disruption moved to the hallway, where one male Republican House member had to be forcibly pulled away from a female Democratic member. Smith later said he was verbally accosted in a restroom by the assistant majority floor leader.
While partisan tension is an enduring presence at the Statehouse, it is magnified this year, nurtured by divisive rhetoric at the national level and aggravated by supermajority status that seems to have given some Republicans license to ignore and belittle their Democratic colleagues.
That's not to suggest the same dynamic wouldn't exist if Democrats ruled the General Assembly, but the GOP's supermajority lock on the Senate since 2011 and on the House since 2013 has strained what should be a collaborative and civil process. Some Republican members have never served except as a part of a supermajority caucus. They've never had to cultivate the trust and respect of Democratic colleagues to pass a bill.
Leadership is the key and it has been missing. The House speaker finally intervened last Thursday, even apologizing at one point for failing to keep order. On Monday, he pledged to do better.
“I'm committed today to increase focus on maintaining decorum, civility and professionalism in this institution,” Huston said.
But the outburst last week followed a long period of looking away when members behaved badly. Lucas, in particular, has been a constant source of dissension. While Huston sanctioned him for sharing a racist post of Black children on social media last year, he allowed Lucas to remain on the key Public Policy committee.
House and Senate leaders have ways to keep their members in line. Members have been permanently banished to the back row of the chamber for misbehavior. Huston's predecessor, Brian Bosma, publicly ridiculed Fort Wayne Republican Bob Morris for outlandish claims about the Girl Scouts. Former Senate President Pro Tem David Long was known to leave the podium and stroll down the aisle to deliver a warning glance to an errant member of his caucus.
“The blatant disrespect shown by Republicans today is appalling,” the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus said in a statement last week. “All legislators, no matter their party, have the right to represent their communities in a professional, non-threatening chamber. The Speaker of the House has an obligation to ensure that legislators maintain decorum and while we appreciate his attempts during session, we must point out it was not enough.”
The implicit bias training minority members have called for would be a good start for both chambers. Communities across Indiana, including Fort Wayne, are participating in such efforts; to ignore the need in the General Assembly is disrespectful of Hoosiers statewide. Huston must put his House in order.