After a heated debate in a jam-packed room at the Capitol, a Kansas House committee Friday unanimously dismissed a complaint against a black female lawmaker who had called an anti-immigrant bill and its supporters racist and bigoted.
Facing a misconduct allegation that could have brought censure, Rep. Valdenia Winn of Kansas City, Kan., defiantly defended the comments she made during a March education committee hearing that offended at least nine Republican lawmakers.
“I exercised my freedom of speech,” said an unapologetic Winn, a Democrat and college professor. “Freedom of expression in the legislative process, by members of the legislative branch, is a critical component of the lawmaking process. I chose to tell the truth as I saw it, and I will continue to do so as long as I am given the great privilege of representing the people of the 34th District.”
The motion to dismiss the complaint came from Rep. Mark Kahrs, a Wichita Republican who said it was protected speech even though he thought it was slanderous and irresponsible.
Two Republican lawmakers, Ron Highland of Wamego and Tony Barton of Leavenworth, testified against Winn.
“Rep. Winn did say that the supporters of this bill are racists, sexists and bigots,” said Barton, who is also black. “I signed as a supporter of the bill and I’m not.”
Highland called Winn’s comments “personal attacks without basis” and said he and other representatives took them personally.
“I will be the first to stand beside anyone who wishes to practice free speech,” Highland said. “However, in this case, we are in the legislative environment where respect and decorum are the rules.”
The hearing was a wild affair, with more than 70 people packed shoulder to shoulder in a small conference room and between 100 and 150 standing outside the door. They were overwhelmingly in favor of Winn and treated her to standing ovations every time she entered the room.
Rep. Erin Davis, an Olathe Republican, threatened several times to have Capitol police clear the room when members of the crowd indicated their support for Winn or opposition to the Republican members who brought the complaint against her.
The select committee that ruled on the complaint against Winn is made up of six House members, three Republicans and three Democrats.
The complaint spun off an impassioned speech she made during a House Education Committee meeting on March 19.
The bill at issue would have repealed a 2004 law that allows undocumented students to attend state universities and pay resident tuition, a lower rate than that paid by out-of-state and foreign students.
Current Kansas law authorizes resident tuition for students who have lived in the United States for three years and graduated from a Kansas high school, regardless of their immigration status.
Winn railed against the measure to repeal that, calling it a “racist, sexist, fear-mongering bill.”
She also said, “I want to apologize to the students and their parents whose lives are being hijacked by the racist bigots who support this bill.”
Highland, the committee chairman, and eight other Republicans on the committee who supported the bill took offense at Winn’s remarks, which they interpreted as calling them racists.
Two of the nine who signed the complaint against Winn are black, as is she.
“Representative Winn proceeded to use inflammatory language and inferences toward the committee or anyone who would support such a bill,” the complaint said. “After objection was raised, the representative stated her remarks were not personal in nature but also said if the ‘shoe fits.’”
In her testimony Friday, Winn said such speech is basic to the legislative process, even if it upsets some people.
“Our democratic process has as one of its cornerstones the principle of free speech,” she said.
Highland, however, said Winn went beyond criticism of the bill and violated a House rule against personal attacks on other legislators when she criticized supporters.
“During the working of a bill, all comments are directed to other members of the committee; the audience is not part of those proceedings,” he said.
He said as committee chairman he could have stopped Winn, but opted not to because reporters were recording the proceedings and he didn’t want to make a bigger scene.
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