Advocacy groups call on Toma to stop ‘bullying’ of GOP critics at the Capitol
A group of advocacy organizations that say they want more respect for their members who speak in front of Arizona legislative committees have asked Republican House Speaker Ben Toma to “address the bullying, angry, and intimidating behavior” of some legislators during committee meetings.
The letter from two dozen left-leaning and progressive organizations was sent March 15, a week after Ben Scheel, a lobbyist for the left-leaning organization Opportunity Arizona who regularly speaks at committee meetings, was told he couldn’t use the phrase “conspiracy theory” when speaking to the House Elections and Municipal Oversight Committee.
Committee Chair Jacqueline Parker, a Mesa Republican, later told Scheel he wasn’t welcome to speak in front of the committee again until he could be more respectful.
The letter specifically called out the behavior of Republican Rep. Alexander Kolodin, of Scottsdale, who blew up at Scheel on March 9 after Scheel said that one of the bills being heard by the committee seem to be formed on the idea of the “great replacement” theory, a false belief that non-white people are being brought into the U.S. to replace white voters that is sometimes espoused by white supremacists.
Kolodin, who is Jewish, accused Scheel of calling him a white supremacist. It was then that Parker told Scheel he wasn’t welcome to speak in front of the committee until he could be more respectful.
“Representative Kolodin went beyond disagreeing with people or merely being rude and disrespectful, which unfortunately is commonplace, and instead raised his voice and shouted down one of the speakers,” the groups wrote in the letter.
The advocacy groups went on to say that Kolodin’s behavior could have a chilling effect on others who want to speak in front of the committee, adding that certain groups were considering not asking their members to speak during committee meetings because they found this type of behavior intimidating.
“We respect and appreciate that there will be differences of opinion and differences on how to proceed with policies and which policies, but we must object to this conduct that has the impact of silencing people and preventing people from participating in our democratic processes by creating a hostile environment by bullying those testifying,” the groups wrote in the letter.
The groups, including the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, Living United for Change in Arizona and Fuerte Arts Movement, asked Toma to tell committee chairs to ensure that their members do not shout over public speakers and to shut down any hostility toward public speakers.
During a press conference the same day the letter was sent, Sandy Bahr, the chair of the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, said she’d been lobbying the legislature for more than 25 years.
“In the time I’ve been doing it, I have not seen the kind of behavior I’m seeing now,” she said.
Andrew Wilder, a spokesman for Toma and the GOP caucus, told the Arizona Mirror that Scheel was wrong and said Parker was correct in barring him from testifying.
“A speaker representing Opportunity Arizona, a left-wing political advocacy group, made repeated inflammatory remarks impugning the motives of the members,” Wilder said in the statement. “The speaker was rightly admonished and, when he continued to violate the decorum that must be observed by all, the committee chairwoman disallowed further testimony from him.”
He also criticized the Mirror for covering Scheel’s comments, which he said was “boosting the misinformation leveled by this activist group,” because Opportunity Arizona received $555,000 from the Hopewell Fund in 2019. During 2018 and part of 2019, Hopewell Fund served as the fiscal sponsor for States Newsroom, the public charity that publishes the Mirror and 31 other state capital news outlets. However, States Newsroom never received any money from the Hopewell Fund.
Kolodin, the vice chair of the House Municipal Oversight and Elections Committee, chaired the meeting on March 15 because Parker was on vacation.
Scheel attempted to speak about a bill during that meeting, but Kolodin told him he wasn’t welcome. Security later asked Scheel to leave the committee room, he told the Mirror.
There was no shouting from the committee members or the chair during that meeting, but Kolodin did repeatedly have to tell the members of the public in the packed room to be quiet, as they laughed and directed comments at the committee members.
Several members of the public who testified mentioned conspiracy theories, and were allowed to continue.
While he said he doesn’t speak for Parker, Kolodin previously told the Mirror that he’s OK with a speaker broadly mentioning conspiracy theories, but not with them directly accusing the committee members of basing bills upon those theories.
Scheel received the initial directive not to use the phrase “conspiracy theory” just two weeks after a hearing in which the House elections committee met jointly with its Senate counterpart and allowed Gilbert insurance agent Jacqueline Breger to spread wild and completely unfounded conspiracy theories about a multitude of state and local officials during one of its meetings.