The scene Sen. Victoria Steele encountered when she walked out of the Senate last week was like nothing she has seen in nearly a decade at the Capitol.
Steele, D-Tucson, knew demonstrators stood outside. She had seen some on her way into the Senate that morning, but, at the time, they kept their distance, heckling and promising to recall every lawmaker who voted to end the session — never mind that they all face elections in a few months anyway.
But after the Senate voted 24-6 to adjourn sine die, the group of about 20 people – none wore a mask – in a parking lot reserved for lawmakers shifted from yelling at a distance to surrounding senators’ cars, banging on windows and screaming into the vehicles.
Steele walked out to see a fellow senator who voted for the sine die motion, Phoenix Republican Kate Brophy McGee, trying to back her car out as demonstrators swarmed around her and uniformed Department of Public Safety officers stood watching. Steele grabbed her phone and started recording as she walked to her own car.
“They could have stood six feet away and yelled to me and talked to me, and I would have listened,” Steele said. “But when I got out there and I saw them screaming and I saw Kate Brophy McGee honking her horn to try to make them move, I knew they didn’t want to talk.”
The demonstrations on May 8 — as well as a previous rally at the Capitol during which a man threatened to shoot legislative Democrats — shook lawmakers.
Steele said the parking lot demonstration and “Reopen Arizona” rallies remind her of the atmosphere in southern Arizona a decade ago shortly before then-U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot. Giffords, a Democrat who represented a district that voted for Sen. John McCain for president in 2008, was in a swing district that’s a top electoral target of the then-nascent Tea Party. McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, put crosshairs over Giffords’ district in a map depicting the 20 districts Republicans wanted to reclaim.
Giffords retained her seat, and investigators found no evidence that her shooter had clear political views or that the shooting was politically motivated. But that shooting at a congressional event followed months of Tea Party activists denouncing Giffords as a traitor to the Constitution, broken windows in her Tucson office and an incident in which a protester who attended one of her constituent meetings dropped a gun on the floor.
All of that, Steele said, reminds her of what’s happened over the past several weeks.
“Are they just being loud and obnoxious and saying stupid things or are they dangerous?” she asked. “I live about a mile away from where Gabby was shot, and I saw how nasty things were getting before that.”
Fellow Tucson Democrat David Bradley, the Senate minority leader, said he hasn’t seen the tactics used by lockdown protesters at any point during his 16 years at the Capitol, including when the Tea Party was at its strongest. The Red for Ed movement crowded the Capitol grounds and the Tea Party was angry, he said, but neither major protest movement made people feel unsafe.
“I don’t remember them ever accosting people in the parking lot or following people into the building,” Bradley said.
One huge distinction between the current protests and the ones before is the importance of personal space, Bradley said. In pre-pandemic times, someone yelling in a lawmaker’s face could just be part of the job. But now, getting closer than 6 feet is threatening.
The videos Steele took of her encounter with protesters show a man identified as Bryan Masche follow her to her car and loom over her as she unlocked it. Masche was at one time the star of a reality television show about raising sextuplets. The show went off the air around the time Masche was arrested for domestic violence. He pled guilty to misdemeanor counts of threatening and intimidating and disorderly conduct, according to media reports at the time.
Steele asked the man to give her some distance, but he said he didn’t have to go anywhere and ordered her to get in her car.
“This guy is like 2 to 3 feet away from my face, and he is spewing his droplets into my face,” Steele said. “I don’t know if this guy was exposing me to COVID-19, and I take care of my elderly parents.”
Brophy McGee has encountered similar demonstrations. Her work with the Department of Child Safety earned her the ire of a cadre of parents who have lost custody of their children, and in some cases she’s had to seek security escorts from meetings because those parents followed her.
Despite being a practiced hand at dealing with angry people, Brophy McGee said she found the protesters “very scary.”
“Security got me into my car and I appreciated that, but then all hell broke loose,” she said. “They ran up to my car. They pounded on the windows. They got in my face. I’m used to being confronted. Shoot, I was on a school board. I’ve worked with angry people and angry constituents a fair amount, and I get it, but I think they went beyond the pale.”
Senate President Karen Fann planned to meet May 13 with Democratic leaders to discuss security concerns related to last week’s protests.
Fann encountered the demonstrators when she arrived around 8:30 a.m. on May 8, and one handed her a two-page paper explaining that they would immediately try to recall any senators who voted to adjourn sine die. But by the time she left late that afternoon, the parking lot was clear, and Fann said she saw encounters other senators had solely through videos posted on Facebook.