A Republican legislator’s apology on March 15 for attempting to have a Democratic legislator thrown out of a committee underscores what Democrats and lobbyists describe as a pattern of bullying and sexism that permeate the Arizona House of Representatives.
The Democrat, Rep. Isela Blanc of Tempe, said on March 14 that Republican Rep. Bob Thorpe of Flagstaff threatened to call security to remove her from a hearing room.
“I’m being bullied… That’s exactly how I felt in that moment,” Blanc told the Arizona Capitol Times.
Democratic Minority Leader Rebecca Rios of Phoenix suggested that sexist undertones have marked repeated attempts to silence members of her caucus during debates on the House floor and in committee hearings.
“It’s a patriarchal institution,” she said, adding that she hopes to start broader conversations with GOP leadership about the issue.
But Rios noted that even if sexism isn’t the culprit behind some of the disrespect her members have felt from a handful of Republicans, that disrespect is still an issue that needs to be addressed.
“The problem, really, is this disrespect, cutting people off, scoffing, making faces when people stand up to speak. It’s existed throughout my whole tenure here, but this session is particularly noticeable,” she said.
But it’s not just Democratic women who say there’s a culture of sexist treatment in the House; some GOP women feel it, too.
House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, a Republican from Chandler, said he agreed to continue discussions with Democrats about their complaint that underlying the episode involving Thorpe and Blanc is a pattern of sexism and bullying from some Republicans toward some Democrats.
“What they’re suggesting is an underlying factor is a serious accusation, so I’m not going to dismiss it. We need to look at it,” Mesnard said.
For his part, a day after he attempted to kick Blanc out of committee, Thorpe started out the apology by asking for a “drum roll, please.”
“Yesterday, I exceeded my authority when I tried to have a colleague removed from my committee. I know that I was wrong. I now know that. I’m very sorry for any angst it might have caused,” Thorpe said.
The spat stemmed from a House Federalism Property Rights and Public Policy Committee hearing on March 7. During the hearing, Blanc and her fellow Democrats asked questions related to SCM1011, a memorial urging Congress to repeal or amend the Antiquities Act of 1906, which gives the U.S. president authority to create national monuments from federal land.
After about 30 minutes of testimony, Thorpe said he wanted to limit committee members to asking one question of people testifying on the legislation.
But Blanc asked Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr a multi-part question, which irked Thorpe.
Thorpe cut her off to ask that she limit herself to one question, but Blanc said it was her responsibility to take the time to address the memorial fully.
“Can you abide by the chairman’s wishes and just ask one more question?” Thorpe said during the hearing.
Blanc agreed to limit herself to one question, but Thorpe then repeatedly cut her off mid-sentence.
“You’re not allowing me to complete my sentence, sir,” she said.
Immediately before that exchange, Rep. Tony Navarrette, a Phoenix Democrat, had also asked a multi-part question, which didn’t draw any ire from Thorpe.
Thorpe, however, apologized specifically for what happened afterward.
Just before the committee’s next meeting on March 14, Blanc was sitting in the hearing room when Thorpe approached her and said he wanted to speak in the hallway, Blanc told the Arizona Capitol Times. When she responded that it would have to wait until after the committee, Thorpe threatened to call security to remove her from the hearing room.
Blanc agreed to talk outside of the hearing room, but only if House staff were present. According to Blanc, once staff had joined them, Thorpe said he would skip over Blanc during the committee hearing, which she understood to mean he wouldn’t allow her to ask questions, presumably because she wasn’t following decorum.
“My job, I thought, as an elected representative is to come and to ask questions and to be thorough and thoughtful about what I’m hearing to therefore make a decision, which is thoughtful and understanding of information,” Blanc said.
“But, apparently, it is best to keep your mouth quiet, be silenced, and not engaged. I think that would be the message I received. Stay quiet. Don’t ask questions, which I think is really inappropriate. That was apparent in how I was threatened with removal, which I found out can’t happen and is inappropriate.”
After that flare-up, the committee canceled its hearing.
Thorpe wouldn’t answer questions from the Capitol Times about what happened with Blanc, saying only that he didn’t think he was bullying her.
Democrat Rep. Reginald Bolding of Phoenix posted a message of support for Blanc on Facebook after Thorpe tried to remove her from the committee.
“Misogyny and bullying will not be tolerated,” Bolding wrote.
Mesnard said he doesn’t believe the House has a problem with “rampant sexism” but added that even an isolated incident warrants an investigation.
“The question will always be: Is this occurring because of the person’s sex or is it occurring because of something else?” he said.
Rios said she understands that argument as well, and every disagreement between a Republican male and Democratic female isn’t necessarily steeped in sexism.
“How much of it is majority-minority party, and just being treated poorly because you’re in the minority? How much of it is just being completely disrespectful to a handful of freshmen who are still trying to learn the rules?” Rios said. “I think at the crux of all of it, it’s about mutual respect. And some of those instances have just been rude and disrespectful regardless of gender, age, party,” she said.
Rios said she had hoped things had improved in the building since she was first elected roughly two decades ago. But it’s still a problem, she said.
“It’s not changed much in 20 years. I was 24 then and expected it. I’m older now, and I thought we would have progressed,” she said.
Thorpe’s apology came after the regularly-scheduled House floor was delayed for more than an hour while Thorpe was called back to Majority Leader John Allen’s office to discuss how to proceed. Allen, who mediated between Thorpe and Blanc, suggested the apology should happen in the committee where the offense took place, but said he believed an apology was merited.
He said the argument was spurred because of “poor choices” by both sides, but said it was started by “our guy.”
Ironically, the claims of sexism came on the day the House of Representatives hosted former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the high court and the first female to serve as Arizona’s Senate majority leader. The House also adopted a resolution honoring Latina business owners the same day.
Bahr, who was testifying at the podium during the March 7 incident, said it reflected a broader trend of some Republican men attempting to shut down “uppity women.”
“I’ve certainly been patted on the head plenty of times myself. But it does seem like it’s going over the top,” she said. “And here’s the thing. They’re trying to shut people down from speaking. It’s gone beyond just saying, ‘Hey, pretty lady’ or whatever crazy thing, to trying to stifle people’s ability to express themselves. And that’s just wrong,” she said.
There have been other incidents lawmakers and onlookers said smelled of sexism.
During a debate on the House floor in February, Republican Rep. Anthony Kern of Peoria referred to Blanc as a “young lady,” which led Democrat Rep. Kirsten Engel of Tucson to call him out.
“I have a lot of respect for Representative Kern. But I also think that he needs to address others with respect. Representative Blanc is Representative Blanc. She is not a ‘young lady,’” Engel said to a round of applause from the chamber.
And the use of the chamber’s Rule 19, which governs impermissible speech, has raised eyebrows from Bahr and other female lobbyists, who say it is seemingly invoked more often against a handful of Democratic women than others.
Another floor debate last month led Republican Rep. Mark Finchem of Oro Valley to say Blanc had overstepped her bounds and violated Rule 19 by calling the chamber “irresponsible.” His point of order, however, was denied, since speaking ill of the chamber at large, rather than a specific lawmaker, is not banned.
And during another debate, Democrat Rep. Pamela Powers-Hannley of Tucson called a bill that would require fingerprint background checks for gubernatorial appointees a “blatant attempt” to discourage people from public service.
The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Eddie Farnsworth of Gilbert said she crossed the line.
“I’m sorry. I thought I had freedom of speech,” Powers-Hannley shot back.
That got Farnsworth riled up, and he noted that, while she has freedom of speech, she also agreed to the House rules when she became a member. He said he had been “kind and gentle” in his admonishment of her, but if she continued, he would call a violation of Rule 19 on her and force her to sit down.
But it’s not just Democrats arguing that sexism is a problem at the Capitol.
Republican Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita of Scottsdale said she, too, has experienced her share of sexist behavior from male colleagues. She didn’t want to get into details of who or when, and said the current House leadership is very responsive to any complaints on the issue, but it’s still a problem for women at the Arizona Capitol.
“It’s still a good old boys club,” she said.
And she said that speaking out against sexism can invite retaliation. Many women choose to ignore it, but sometimes the only way to make it stop is to address it head-on, she added.
“You want to be treated the same way, so, you think the way to show that is to have tough skin and tolerate a lot. But there are some things you shouldn’t have to tolerate to do your job,” Ugenti-Rita said.
She said not every instance of a man being rude to a woman is related to sexism and sometimes people just disagree disagreeably.
“Being inappropriate doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being sexist,” she added.
Rep. T.J. Shope, a Republican from Coolidge, the chamber’s speaker pro tem, acknowledged that some of his fellow Republicans have been “overzealous” in their invocation of the rule. But he said the rule is there to keep discussions from getting too personal, and he doesn’t think it has been inappropriately used to silence anyone.
He noted that the Democratic women who have had the rule invoked against them are some of the most prolific debaters in the chamber and are also first-termers who may not know the protocol. Sometimes they butt up against, or cross a line of what’s acceptable debate, he said.
Bahr said even when sexism isn’t at play, when lawmakers act like bullies, whether to each other or to the public, it makes the bullied person hesitant to speak up again.
Bahr noted that she has brought citizens to the Capitol to get more involved in the political process, but when lawmakers repeatedly dress them down during their testimony, they get scared to speak.
“It’s more than one incident and it is a bigger issue,” Bahr said. “I know the speaker has been trying to set a different tone this year, and I think he has some work to do.”
Blanc said she has experienced an undercurrent of sexism on the federalism committee, where she’s the only female member. For her, such treatment stands out compared to her past jobs, where she said she was always treated with respect and professionalism.
She said she sees the way she’s been treated as a “really passive-aggressive way” of trying to shut her down and control her.
“Is it because I’m a woman? What I do know is that my male colleagues are not treated the same. What I do know is that my male colleagues are addressed courteously,” Blanc said.
Blanc said she is happy with Thorpe’s apology, but hopes it’s a first step in “continuing to improve this institution.” And it remains to be seen how she will be treated in next week’s committee hearing, she said.
She said she doesn’t carry any ill will toward her colleagues across the aisle when she leaves the hearing room, despite disagreements during a hearing.
“We’re impacting people’s lives every day with what we do. I thought I was doing my job,” she said.