Anti-Muslim display at Capitol upsets lawmakers

Photo courtesy of WV Legislative photography Delegate Michael Angelucci, D-Marion, speaks on the floor of the West Virginia House of Delegates on Friday.

CHARLESTON — A lawmaker shouts down a House of Delegates staffer. Another pushes past doorkeepers in a fit of anger. Other delegates exchange words on the House floor.

No, it wasn’t over a piece of legislation or a difference of opinion or public policy. Instead, the anger was over a display showing anti-Muslim imagery and handouts that greeted delegates in the upper rotunda at the entrance of the House Chamber at the state Capitol Friday.

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, left his podium and addressed the House Friday evening from his desk after a series of events resulted in an injured doorkeeper and the resignation of the house sergeant-at-arms.

“I bluntly struggle with what even to say,” Hanshaw said. “I have spent the last four hours thinking to myself where are we as a House and what possible example are we setting for the people of this state.”

It was WVGOP Day at the Legislature Friday, with the West Virginia Republican Party and several county Republican Executive Committees setting up displays, including gigantic campaign signs promoting President Donald Trump.

Setting up alongside the Republican tables was the Greater Charleston chapter of ACT for America. ACT calls itself the nation’s largest grassroots national security organization, with positions against fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, as well as pro-immigration reform and controls on the numbers of refugees. However, the Southern Poverty Law Center lists ACT as an anti-Muslim hate group that pushes conspiracy theories and lumps mainstream Islam with fundamentalist Islam.

The ACT table included provocative pamphlets against allowing refugees into the United States and the dangers of the Islamic faith. One poster showed a mass of refugees and stated they were “demanding charity.” Another poster put a picture of the World Trade Center being struck by airplanes on 9/11 above a photo of Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Democrat and a Muslim refugee from Somalia representing Minnesota’s 5th Congressional District.

“I find it distasteful,” said Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, during a floor speech. “I believe it is sanctioned by a political party. They’re out there with them… Personally, I’m proud to live in a country where someone can come into this country with absolutely nothing and wind up in the halls of Congress representing the State of Minnesota.”

The ACT display upset several delegates who saw it on their way to the House Chamber for the Friday morning floor session. Delegates Pushkin and Michael Angelucci, D-Marion, confronted ACT representative Brenda Arthur about the posters.

“I walked out of the chambers and see a discussion going on with Delegate Pushkin and a lady with a display that was reprehensible,” Angelucci said.

During the heated exchange, House Sergeant-at-Arms Ann Lieberman allegedly told Angelucci that all Muslims are terrorists, causing Angelucci to yell at Lieberman.

“The sergeant-of-arms of this body had enough nerve to say to us ‘all Muslims are terrorists,'” Angelucci said. “That’s beyond shameful and that’s not freedom of speech. That’s hate speech and it has no place in this House, the people’s house, and I am furious.”

House Minority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, was so upset by the ACT display that when prevented from entering the House Chamber by doorkeepers while the prayer and Pledge of Allegiance were going on, he pushed his way into the chamber anyway, injuring the unnamed doorkeeper. The incident was witnessed by Delegate Diana Graves, R-Kanawha.

“When you see something you disagree with, please don’t respond in the way I unfortunately saw with my own eyes where you call people things I won’t repeat in here, where you barge through the door and hit the doorkeeper, which I also saw with my own eyes, while the pledge is going on because you are understandably upset,” Graves said.

“Yeah, I’m the one who kicked the door open, that’s how angry I was,” Caputo said. “I said that was a racist poster and that it was hateful. I’ll own that because that’s how I believe. I tried to get in here between the prayer and the pledge. I’m a member of this House, and no one is going to keep me from opening that door.”

By the Friday evening floor session, the ACT display was gone, and Lieberman had resigned effective immediately. Earlier Friday, Hanshaw released a statement.

“The West Virginia House of Delegates unequivocally rejects hate in all of its forms. As we began today’s floor session, we had a series of incidents occur in and outside of our Chamber that absolutely do not reflect the character and civility the people of this state demand of their public servants.”

The state Republican Party issued no statement in regard to the ACT display or the day’s incidents. The state Democratic Party had something to say, however.

“Chairwoman Melody Potter and the rest of Republican leadership need to condemn these actions and this type of hate,” said Democratic Party Chairwoman Belinda Biafore. “The people of West Virginia expect better from their leadership, but the Republican Party is showing their true colors and obviously that includes discrimination and hate.”

Hanshaw had much more to say about the day’s incidents when scolding the House for behavior during floor debates and committee meetings throughout the session. These include one delegate who made derogatory remarks against gay, lesbian and transgendered people; another delegate who was removed from a committee for treatment of fellow members, witness and guests; and the tenor of a debate this week on a bill to allow college students with concealed carry permits to have handguns on campus.

“Over the course of these now 52 days we have allowed national-level politics to become a cancer upon our state,” Hanshaw said. “We’ve now had a staff member physically injured.”

Hanshaw implored his fellow delegates to be better and do better for those watching the House proceedings on the live video feeds.

“I want to pledge to you tonight that on behalf of the 100 members of this Legislature, we owe it to you to do better,” Hanshaw said. “I, for one, intend to spend the next eight days in this Legislature doing so…I hope that all of us collectively do. Friends, we can’t have this. We’re supposed to be a model of democracy.”

Turning to the controversial display, Hanshaw channeled the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when he said light can chase out darkness.

“It was four weeks ago that I look out and see a number of us who were down in front of this building along with the governor and pulled a rope to honor Doctor King,” Hanshaw said. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that. I wish I was smart enough to have said that, but that’s Dr. King. Friends, we can do better.”