Racial slur at center of lengthy House floor debate

Paulina Pineda//April 25, 2018

Racial slur at center of lengthy House floor debate

Paulina Pineda//April 25, 2018


With little work to do on the Arizona House floor, members spent more than 90 minutes debating the offensiveness of rap lyrics.

The often heated discussion unfolded after Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Phoenix, said Rep. Maria Syms, R-Paradise Valley, impugned the #RedForEd leaders in an op-ed she wrote that was published in the Arizona Republic on April 24. He also accused her of using the N-word.

In the op-ed, Syms excoriated Noah Karvelis and “comrade” Derek Harris, the two leading members of the teacher movement. Syms said Karvelis “prides himself” on teaching the hip hop music of Kendrick Lamar, whose lyrics, she wrote, include “we hate Popo (police), wanna kill us dead in the street for sure, (N-word).”

The Republic appeared to have edited Syms’ op-ed on April 25 to remove the offensive term as members debated the term on the floor.

Syms also said that, in his online rants, Karvelis “takes inspiration from virulently anti-American sources,” including the 1960s “radical Angela Davis, but neglects to mention her leadership of Communist Party USA.”

In his floor speech, Bolding said he was disappointed by Syms’ effort to discredit Karvelis by pointing out that he used lyrics in the classroom written by a black entertainer, that he “‘takes inspiration’ from a black civil rights activist,” and that he “‘admires’ a professor that taught at a historically black college for women.”

He said he was also “deeply offended by the language used” in the op-ed.

“The more I read, the more I was disappointed that it appears to be OK to use a racial slur about black people in the article. Let me be crystal clear: It’s not acceptable to us a racial slur even if that slur is used as a quote,” he said. “No one in this chamber would think it’s okay to use a racial slur in print or aloud about Jewish, Latino, Asian, Native, LGBTQ, Anglo or any other group of people. I want to make it clear today, that it’s not acceptable to use these words in print or aloud about African Americans, especially not by elected official.”

However, Bolding was unable to finish reading his prepared statement after Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, accused him of impugning Syms by complaining that she used a racial slur when quoting the rap lyrics in the op-ed.

According to House Rule 18, which deals with decorum and debate, “no member shall impeach or impugn motives of any other member’s argument or vote.” Under Rule 19, members are prohibited from “[arraigning] motives of members.” If a member is called to order for something he or she said during debate, the person who called the point of order must repeat the words the member said. If the speaker or chair finds that the member did, in fact, impugn a member’s motives, the accused member must immediately sit down.

After reviewing a tape recording of Bolding’s speech, Speaker Pro Tem TJ Shope, R-Coolidge, ruled in favor of Finchem’s point of order. However, Finchem nor Shope ever repeated verbatim what Bolding allegedly said that violated the House rule.

Bolding made a substitute motion to overturn the ruling.

In explaining their votes, some GOP members argued that it was Syms’ First Amendment right to write the op-ed and use the racial slur, even if it was offensive to others.

“Whether or not you read something that is offensive to you … it’s still a member’s right to have their opinion,” said Majority Whip Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa.

Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, said Syms was only quoting lyrics from the song and didn’t use the slur herself.

Still, Rep. Gerae Peten, D-Goodyear, said the content of the op-ed was offensive.

“It had a thematic threat that impugned the African American people,” she said.

Her explanation prompted Majority Leader John Allen, R-Scottsdale, to also accuse her of impugning Syms’ motives by using the phrases “thematic threat” and “racial theme” in her comments.

Shope ruled in favor of Allen’s point of order. Peten, like Bolding, tried to overturn the ruling.

Both motions failed.

Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, said it was “reprehensible” the “lengths this body went to to silence two African American members.”

“This body chose instead to rally around, defend and protect the person who used the term as opposed to allowing the two members that were offended to express themselves,” she said.