Reporter’s Notebook: Week Nine at the Capitol
I picked a very interesting time to return to my statehouse reporting roots. I could never have predicted the things and controversies that have happened this session.
For example, as I’ve written, a major controversy erupted over a table display with several posters and pamphlets that were anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-refugee.
This didn’t have to happen and would have never happened previously. You see, the organization that set up the borderline racist display was there at the behest of either the state Republican Party or at very least the Kanawha County Republican Executive Committee, which was set up right beside it.
It was WVGOP Day at the legislature. Both political parties typically host a day at the legislature. Usually this is simply a lobby day. They book the Governor’s Conference Room, have lunch, invite lawmakers to speak, and they often get honored when sitting in the House and Senate galleries.
This was the first year I can recall in my nine years associated with this gold-domed building that a party actually booked tables in front of one of the chambers with displays. The day before, I saw people carrying gigantic Donald Trump campaign signs and thought maybe there was going to be a Trump rally.
Those signs, as well as Trump cut-outs and other displays by various county Republican executive committees, were set up in front of the House chamber. Even when the Democrats had the majority at the legislature I never saw the state Democratic Party do that.
And in the middle of all of this was a table set up by ACT for America. The Southern Policy Law Center labels them a hate group. They certainly traffic in conspiracy theories on what immigrants and refugees are “really” up to in the U.S., as well as multiple tracts on why Islam, on the whole, is bad.
The local group is ran by Brenda Arthur, who appears to have no experience in national security and foreign policy, but has testified at legislative hearings regarding refugees. She’s frankly been a ticking time bomb for the state Republican Party for years and I’m surprised it just now blew up.
No doubt that Rep. Iihan Omar, a Somali Muslim and a Democratic congresswoman from Minnesota, has been controversial. Some say she’s even anti-Semitic. But to put her picture below a picture of the World Trade Center being struck on 9/11 is wildly inappropriate. Ever seen the movie “Black Hawk Down”? That’s what she was fleeing from as a young child when she and her family were granted refugee status to come to the U.S.
It was inflammatory. It was meant to be inflammatory. It was meant to grab people’s attention, and it did when she was confronted by several delegates who found the display insulting and distasteful.
I frankly hated writing the story and I hate writing about it now, because it’s getting Arthur and her group the attention they crave. But I won’t write any further about her for the moment or the rest of the day’s drama.
Instead, I want to focus attention on the West Virginia Republican Party and Chairwoman Melody Potter.
“The West Virginia Republican Party does not approve, condone, or support hate speech,” Potter said in a statement nearly 24 hours after the incidents took place. “One of the exhibitors at our West Virginia Republican Party Day at the Capitol displayed a sign that we did not approve, were not aware of before the day started, and we do not support. Upon learning about the sign, we immediately asked this exhibitor to remove the sign.”
There is a major problem with this statement. Before the House floor session Gov. Jim Justice came upstairs (a rarity) and walked around the displays to talk to people. I have no idea if he noticed the ACT display, but he posed for a picture with Potter directly in front of said display.
You mean to tell me you didn’t turn around once and see it? What about Drew Constable, the state party’s executive director? He was running all over the place from table to table. Everyone else saw this display. Yes, they took it down … the same time everyone else took their displays down, which usually happens around lunch.
I’m sure that there is immense pressure building for Potter to resign, including some high-profile Republicans I won’t name here. This incident was the straw that broken the camel’s back. From losing legislative seats, to using her position to foist her own uber-right morals on lawmakers, to basically saying that no one should primary Gov. Justice. It’s been one issue after another.
This incident has left a black mark on the state Republican Party that will take a while to be erased.