INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — “Enough is enough.”
State Rep. Vernon Smith, a Democrat from Gary, said, “I’ve been here 31 years. I’m in my 31st year and I’ve never been booed on the floor, and we’ve had some challenging and difficult discussions.”
Those boos happened as two Democrat representatives, Smith and Rep. Greg Porter of Indianapolis, voiced concerns about racial inequality in House Bill 1367.
According to an online digest, the bill would establish a two-year pilot program in the John Glenn School Corp., based in Walkerton, to initiate a process to disannex certain territory from the existing school corporation boundaries and annex other territory. Walkerton is about 20 miles southwest of South Bend. The Associated Press reported that the bill would allow a rural, mostly white, St. Joseph County township to leave the South Bend Community Schools. Rep. Jake Tashka, a Republican from South Bend, authored the measure.
Some Democrats described the bill as discriminatory on Thursday.
Smith said, “I didn’t mind the booing because I can see the booing in some of their faces when I’m speaking all the time. What I was offended by is that one of my colleagues wanted to shut me up. I think I have a right to speak my opinions.”
Rep. Phil GiaQuinta is the House minority leader. The Democrat from Fort Wayne said Tuesday, “As I said to Speaker (of the House) Todd Huston, again, our members have a right to get up and speak from the microphone on bills, amendments, whatever they so choose. They deserve the respect of our fellow members on the floor.”
Tensions mounted as Smith spoke about his emotional, personal experience as a Black man in front of fellow House lawmakers. Rep. Vanessa Summers, a Democrat from Indianapolis, said there were catcalls and hollering from some people on the House floor as Smith spoke. After that, several people went into the hall, where News 8 heard yelling and came upon the tail end of a heated exchange between Summers and Rep. Sean Eberhart, a Republican from Shelbyville.
Rep. Robin Shackleford, a Democrat from Indianapolis who is chair of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, said, “Later that day, Rep. Smith was verbally accosted in the restroom by Rep. (Alan) Morrison (a Republican from Terre Haute). This behavior is aggressive, intimidating, and not becoming of a legislator.”
Morrison’s press secretary told News 8 that the lawmaker does not want to make any comments to the news media.
Shackleford made a list of what the caucus wants to happen next. “Today, we gather to truly say ‘enough is enough.’ This is our call to action. Our recommendations are as follows: The Indiana Black caucus expects swift reprimands to the individuals involved in the altercations. Two, mandatory racial equity and implicit bias training for all members to gain a better understanding of systematic racism and the role everyone plays. And, three, ensure the utmost safety precautions will be taken for all members during session.”
Shackleford said a reprimand does not have to be punitive.
As far as the training for legislators, Shackleford said, “We’re not thinking of something you can do in front of your computer and it be virtually. We’re looking for a more interactive training where we’re broken out in small groups, where people get to tell their stories and share their stories and actually learn.”
That training would be a first step in education. “As we were told, many of the members feel that any time we talk about legislation that may have a discriminatory impact, they personally feel like we’re calling them racist. They don’t understand the difference between arguing a policy and taking it personally. That’s where the education can come in,” Shackleford said.
Shackleford also said, “I still want to make sure that we move forward peacefully, but at the same time we have to acknowledge and also address what happened. We can’t just sweep it under the rug.”
“I sincerely appreciate my continued discussions with the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus. As I’ve made clear from the House floor and in many personal conversations with members from both sides of the aisle, I’m committed to upholding the integrity of this institution through focusing on decorum, civility and professionalism. My door will continue to be open to having productive discussions on the issues and ideas on how we, as a body, can better collaborate and build relationships.”Indiana Speaker of the House Todd Huston