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For some legislators, the coronavirus is raising questions about the environment where they work, from health precautions in Louisiana to armed protesters in Michigan.
When the Louisiana state legislators reconvened on Monday, they were noticeably short a few members. Among those not at the capitol building was state Rep. Ted James, who recently spent five days in the hospital recovering from coronavirus.
The decision not to return wasn’t an easy one to make, he said..
“I consider myself a survivor,” said James, a Democrat who represents part of East Baton Rouge Parish. “I don’t want to go back to the capitol. People have said I’m the safest one of all because I already had it. Well, eight weeks ago I was told as a 38-year-old black man with no health conditions that I was not at risk. I’m not 100% confident that I can’t get sick again—and I’m not mentally prepared to be in a room of 105 people where there is no way to properly do social distancing.”
James, like many state representatives and senators across the country, is worried about the safety of holding in-person legislative meetings during the coronavirus pandemic. As of May 4, 19 state legislatures had postponed sessions or gone on hiatus, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, while another 15 adjourned. Whether in states that scrambled to finish up their work or in those where legislators are still working or coming back, how they meet has changed. This has included gathering in larger venues, as well as limiting the number of staff and public viewers who can be present.
But just ten states have introduced or adopted measures that would allow members to remotely participate in meetings, hear testimony, or cast their votes. Vermont, one of the earliest state legislatures to adopt this practice, asked the bare minimum number of senators needed to hold a vote to return to the capitol building in early April so that they could pass an emergency rule change to allow voting over video conferencing. Passing that change was relatively simple—but in other places, the state constitution requires legislatures to meet in person, a requirement that is more difficult to circumvent.
Louisiana appears to be one of those states (although technically, the state constitution says legislators must meet in the state capital, spelled ‘al’ meaning the city, not the capitol, spelled ‘ol’ meaning the building, raising the possibility lawmakers could meet anywhere, perhaps virtually, as long as they were all physically present in Baton Rouge). Louisiana has one of the highest per-capita infection rates in the country and one state legislator died before the session started. A group of lawmakers from the Legislative Black Caucus and Democratic caucus begged leadership to further delay.
But leaders, including Senate President Page Cortez, a Republican from Lafayette, counter that the legislature must continue operating as normally as they can. “We have got to get back and start doing our business," he told The Advocate last week. Cortez, who had a mild case of coronavirus himself, said that the legislature is “just as essential as grocery stores and the Home Depots and Lowe's of the world" and is obligated to approve a state budget by June 30.
Some legislators have said that while they might not mind returning to debate budget bills or measures related to coronavirus, they take issue with the slew of other bills that will be considered, including “tort reform” measures and other issues that aren’t as time-sensitive. “The agenda illustrates this is about a lot more than a budget,” James said. “I think it’s irresponsible for legislators to return in the middle of a stay-at-home order. I don’t think it shows real leadership when they start rushing things. It doesn't give the public adequate time to weigh in.”
On Wednesday, a House committee did take up a measure related to the pandemic, passing a resolution aimed at stripping Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards' ability to enforce his order requiring most people to stay at home through May 15. Members of the Republican-led committee said they want to give local governments the ability to move ahead with reopening.
If members of the public do want to wade into the debate, they’ll face a host of new rules implemented for this session, including limits on access to the floor and strictly controlled speaking protocols. Other pandemic measures include plexiglass dividers between members’ desks—which in Louisiana’s House chamber are pushed together in pairs—and committee hearings split into separate rooms to allow members to spread apart. Despite the precautions, photos from the floor on Monday showed that many legislators weren’t wearing masks or social distancing. That was exactly what James feared—especially because he knew some legislators were recently involved in protests outside the governor’s mansion and could have caught the virus while standing in a crowd. “It’s purposefully putting people at risk,” he said.
Protests in other parts of the country have also raised questions about how to protect legislators’ safety while they work. In Michigan, protests at the state capitol made national news last week when a crowd, including some armed with guns, tried to force their way into legislative chambers while state lawmakers considered a measure to extend Michigan’s state of emergency. The capitol building has no metal detectors or weapons checks.
From her office window overlooking the state capitol, Sen. Dayna Polehanki watched the crowds form outside. She saw Confederate flags, nooses, swastikas, and signs like “Traitors will be hung” and “Trump that bitch,” apparently referring to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. She requested a sergeant-at-arms walk her to the chamber because she “didn’t feel safe at all.” Polehanki, who has only been in office since January of 2019, asked her colleagues if this was normal. “I know guns are allowed in the capitol, but this seems crazy,” she said. “My colleagues said these protests feel different. They’re more hate-filled. They’re dangerous.”
Polehanki snapped a picture of the gallery overlooking the House and Senate chambers, where armed protesters had assembled. From the other side of the chamber door, she could hear the thunder of people chanting “let us in.” She texted her staff, telling them she loved them and appreciated their work. She wasn’t “100% serious,” she clarified, but she “just didn’t know if this would be [her] last day.”
Directly above me, men with rifles yelling at us. Some of my colleagues who own bullet proof vests are wearing them. I have never appreciated our Sergeants-at-Arms more than today. #mileg pic.twitter.com/voOZpPYWOs— Senator Dayna Polehanki (@SenPolehanki) April 30, 2020
“We respect people’s First and Second Amendment rights in Michigan,” said Polehanki, a Democrat. “But when your Second Amendment right is used to intimidate me and I can’t vote without fear of being shot from a balcony … That is something I never want to accept as normal.”
The Michigan Capitol Commission is now considering banning guns inside legislative buildings as a result of the protest, but no decision has yet been made. In the meantime, President Trump encouraged Whitmer to “give a little and put out the fire” by meeting with protesters and coming to an agreement. “These are very good people, but they are angry,” he wrote on Twitter. “They want their lives back again, safely!”
Polehanki counters that the protest made her feel anything but safe. At one point, there was the possibility that 250 armed protesters would be allowed onto the balcony, and while that didn’t happen last week, she said that if such a scenario took place in the future, she might have to reconsider walking out onto the floor. “There could be a point where I say this isn't worth it,” she said. “The thought of being intimidated like that makes me upset. I want to work for my constituents. I’d like to say I wouldn't walk off the floor, but I'm a human being. I have a family.”
Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.