A month into the legislative session, nobody has yet filed a formal complaint about lawmakers who deliberately disregard the Covid safety guidelines set up by the House and Senate to ensure the safety of lawmakers, staff and visitors.
But Senate Democrats say that after pleading with Republicans to follow the rules and lodging verbal complaints with Senate leadership, they’re ready to take the next step and file formal complaints.
A public records request for complaints against lawmakers for breaking Covid protocols netted no records of any complaints in either the Senate or House.
But while no formal records have been filed, Senate Democrats have informally approached human resources and Republican leaders several times. Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, said Senate President Karen Fann assured her she would intervene with lawmakers — but the time for polite requests is over.
“Clearly we are now in the second month of session, and we’re at the point where we’re going to start following up verbal complaints with written complaints,” Rios said. “It’s been a month, and that’s more than enough time to learn to wear a mask.”
Most recently, Sen. Sally Ann Gonzales, D-Tucson, on Monday complainedto human resources about Sen. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, not wearing a mask while wandering the hallways of the Senate — but that complaint came only after Townsend filed a complaint against Gonzales for harassment because Gonzales told her to wear a mask.
Human resources told Gonzales that Townsend was exempt from wearing a mask because of a medical issue, though Townsend has declined to disclose what that medical issue is or why it prevents her from wearing a mask.
But for now no one is actually speaking up and filing complaints against those purposefully not following the rules.
The rules differ between chambers, but are basic. In the Senate, – everyone must remain masked except while alone in an office. The House, which installed plexiglass barriers, makes exceptions for lawmakers at their desks on the floor.
Everyone at the Capitol is also expected to keep six feet apart whenever possible, and handshakes and any physical contact aren’t allowed during committee hearings. But some lawmakers have disregarded the protocol since day one, and House leadership has empowered those who refuse to wear masks.
Instead of a single swearing-in ceremony at the House of Representatives, there were two: one for those who wore masks and one for those who didn’t.
Since then, guidelines have been repeatedly violated. Representatives routinely wander the floor and speak without masks or while wearing their masks as chin straps or earrings while several Republican senators only cover their noses when Fann is watching. One of the most salient details of former legislative assistant Michael Polloni’s ethics complaint against Sen. Wendy Rogers — that she screamed in his face until her spittle hit him — was only made possible because Rogers wasn’t wearing a mask while in close quarters with staffers.
In the Senate, a Covid policy explicitly gives staff permission to leave the room if lawmakers aren’t following rules — but in practice, pages are still called over to assist senators who fail to comply with safety guidelines.
That gets to the heart of the power dynamics at the Capitol, where staffers can be fired for no reason, and have little to no room to complain about lawmakers.
Lobbyists are largely in the same position. Just as staffers are allowed to file complaints, but cannot do so in practice without compromising their relationships and endangering their jobs, lobbyists depend on personal relationships with lawmakers to do their jobs. Complaining about a lawmakers’ refusal to wear a mask would “be bad for business,” Tory Roberg, a lobbyist for Secular Coalition for Arizona, said.
“It would definitely cause tension if I said or did anything,” she said.
Before the start of the legislative session, Senate President Karen Fann said that failure to comply with the new guidelines could lead to an inability to conduct voting and a possible session shutdown. That hasn’t happened.
Instead, Fann gave senators masks with the Senate seal and has gently reminded the lawmakers to wear their masks correctly.
“We’re doing a pretty darn good job with the masks, I just need a little more fine-tuning here,” Fann said on the Senate floor on the second day of session. “It needs to be up over your nose, please, because there are things that come out of your nose as well as your mouth.”
Marilyn Rodriguez, a lobbyist with Creosote Partners said she doubts that House or Senate leadership would even take action against lawmakers who have disregarded the rules they set in place to keep staff, lawmakers, lobbyists and visitors safe.
“It doesn’t sound like it would do anything other than making you feel a little better about getting it off of your chest, but the thing you’re getting off of your chest is that they’re not taking the pandemic seriously,” she said.
House Democrats have criticized House Republicans for not wearing a mask when speaking during House committee meetings and not keeping their mask over their nose. But none of the Democrats have filed a formal complaint.
House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said he has seen some improvement from House Republicans in following guidelines, but there are still “bad actors who are putting others’ health and safety at risk.”
Those lawmakers who repeatedly break the rules need to “step up to the responsibility, that, not only that the (Senate) president has asked, but the governor, the (House) speaker and every other health expert has asked,” he said.
“Those who are choosing not to wear it are doing it out of a sense of arrogance and I believe that is something they absolutely need to change moving forward,” he said.
Bolding has discussed raising points of order against lawmakers in violation of protocols and said “everything is on the table when it comes to health and safety and protecting staff and members.”
Bolding said it will be obvious when someone pushes him to raise a point of order, but he wouldn’t elaborate.
Several staff and lawmakers have contracted the virus since the session started. While lawmakers continue to argue about taking the pandemic seriously, Arizonans continue to get sick. According to the Arizona Department of Health Service’s COVID-19 dashboard, since the Legislature began on January 11th over 123,000 new cases of Covid have been confirmed in Arizona and more than 2,500 deaths.
Saying it just translates a Latin word already in the state motto, a House panel voted Monday to let schools literally put the word “God” into classrooms – as long as it’s connected to the word “enriches.”
Existing Arizona law says teachers and administrators may read or post a variety of things in any classroom. They range from the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem to published decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court and the writings and speeches of the “founding fathers” and presidents.
It also includes the national motto which is “In God we trust.”
SB 1289, which now needs approval of the full House, would add the state motto which is “Ditat Deus.”
But the proposal by Sen. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, also says that can be translated into its English version of “God enriches.” That got the attention — and objection — of Tory Roberg, lobbyist for the Secular Coalition for Arizona.
Roberg said it would be one thing if the state were simply going to post the motto, first used in 1863, in its Latin form. Nor does she object to posting the state seal in classrooms with its Latin version of the motto.
“The English translation of the motto is not the Arizona state motto,” Roberg told lawmakers. “We’re talking about allowing teachers to put a sign on the wall with the words ‘God enriches’ with no explanation.”
Roberg conceded that the national motto also contains the word “God.”
But she said courts have allowed it to remain in use, including on U.S. currency, not just because of its history but also “meaningless rote repetition” to the point where it is not seen as an endorsement of religion or even theism. That, Roberg said, is not the case with phrase “God enriches” which is derived from a passage in Genesis, saying it “actively promotes belief in God.”
Added to that, she said, is her claim that 13 percent of children younger than 18 — those in schools — identify as atheists.
But Roberg had no better luck Monday than she had when the measure cleared the Republican-controlled Senate last month on a 17-13 party-line vote. In fact, she actually did worse as Rep. Macario Saldate, D-Tucson, joined with Republicans on the Education Committee for an 8-2 vote to send the measure to the full House.
Rep. Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, said he doesn’t understand all the fuss, saying he doesn’t consider the words to be intolerant.
“All it would say to someone who believed is there might be some power, any power, as they wish to identify it,” he said.
“They could worship an alligator as a god, they could worship the sun as a god, they could worship a more acceptable, in a miracle sense, other beings as gods,” Bowers said. “But I don’t think it necessarily causes irreparable harm to anybody in an attitude of tolerance for all religion or lack of religion.”
And Rep. Paul Boyer, R-Phoenix, said too much was being made of allowing the English version of the motto being put into classrooms.
“It’s an accurate translation from the Latin,” he said.
Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said his vote against the legislation wasn’t based on Roberg’s objections. Bolding said he sees nothing in law now that precludes anyone from putting up the state motto now, in Latin or English.
In 2018, at the height of the Me Too movement, investigators for the House of Representatives dismissed a lobbyist’s allegations of harassment against a state representative because the lobbyist sent friendly text messages after the alleged incident occurred.
The mental calculations she described in a sworn deposition made public earlier this month are all too familiar: Looking past an offensive comment or off-color joke, because the fight wasn’t worth it. Pretending an unwanted romantic advance never happened. Marshalling colleagues and meeting in public places to avoid being alone.
At the Capitol, where relationships are everything and the caprice of a single lawmaker can derail months of policy work, lobbyists must balance representing clients and fighting for policy positions with the costs of not calling out bad behavior.
And as women at the Capitol and across the country grow more empowered to speak out about behavior that would have been ignored in years past, some male lawmakers have responded by doubling down on a boys’ club mentality, granting greater access to male lobbyists than their female counterparts out of a stated wish to avoid even a whiff of impropriety.
In some instances, lobbyist Tory Roberg said, lobbying for issues she cares about means putting up with a lot in the hopes that it will someday get a bill across the finish line.
“In order to serve our clients, we have to build up relationships,” Roberg said. “I have to weigh whether keeping this relationship is worth it to pass a bill.”
Not only lobbyists but also female lawmakers have to manage balancing acts.
Other representatives often don’t listen to Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, when she speaks on the floor of the House. On the evening of February 26, a few of her Republican colleagues went further than simply ignoring her, instead joking and guffawing over a sexual innuendo they perceived in her remarks.
Blanc ignored them and continued speaking. She said later that it was another example of an uneven power dynamic she can’t stop thinking about.
“I’m continuously reminded that it’s a power dynamic, and my colleagues across the aisle have all the power,” she said. “If I feel this way and I’m an equal, I cannot imagine what it would be like to be a lobbyist — a female or a male lobbyist — in this power dynamic.”
Marilyn Rodriguez, a lobbyist at the progressive firm Creosote Partners, said she thinks often of a piece of advice Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg shared: It helps sometimes to be a little deaf.
Ginsburg’s mother-in-law advised her on her wedding day to tune out small thoughtless or unkind words, and it’s a strategy she used in the workplace as well. Tuning out offensive jokes and comments helps at the Capitol, Rodriguez said.
“There are definitely things that I don’t laugh off, but that I have to pretend not to hear,” she said.
For lobbyists representing clients whose issues don’t align with the prevailing view at the Capitol, finding votes often means putting up with unacceptable behavior, Roberg said. Roberg represents the Secular Coalition of Arizona and often advocates for issues unpopular with the GOP majority.
“It’s just really hard when you’re already the underdog in a fight,” she said. “If you have an opportunity to get into someone’s office, you have to take it.”
“I’ve never crossed any lines,” she quickly added.
High-profile scandals involving lawmakers and lobbyists — from the seemingly consensual relationship between Rep. David Cook and an agricultural industry lobbyist who supported his bills, to accusations of harassment levied against Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita and former Rep. Don Shooter — draw attention to the uneven power dynamic between lobbyists who push for bills and the lawmakers who control their fate.
Barry Aarons, the de facto dean of the Arizona lobbying corps, said those incidents are the exception, not the rule.
“Every year or couple of years, there’s an incident or two that pops up unfortunately and all of us [lobbyists] tend to take the spatter on it,” he said. “Basically, the ethical level of the Arizona Legislature and all of us involved in it is relatively high, with the exception of a couple of lapses that have occurred over time.”
Aarons said he teaches his staff to be “extremely cautious when socializing” with lawmakers and their staff, and prohibits romantic relationships between his employees and lawmakers. The employees also aren’t allowed to drink with lawmakers “on company time,” he said, but he rejected a suggestion that lobbyists stop buying drinks for lawmakers.
“I think it’s unfortunate that we think that we can’t have a casual meal and refreshments,” Aarons said. “If you want to ban [drinking], ban it. It’s not a lobbying technique.”
Complicating matters is a lack of clear, industrywide ethical standards for lobbyists, paired with the Legislature’s lack of a formal code of conduct.
The American League of Lobbyists has a code of ethics it urges members to comply with, but the code doesn’t get into murky matters like relationships between lawmakers and lobbyists. Other states, including Colorado, have their own professional lobbyist associations that regulate lobbying ethics and seek to prevent harassment at state capitols.
Matt Benson, a former Arizona Republic reporter who now lobbies for Veridus, said lobbyists and reporters have similar difficulties navigating ethical boundaries with lawmakers. Both reporters and lobbyists operate more casually than people in most jobs, he said.
Reporters have relationships with sources they talk to during regular business hours and after hours over dinner or drinks, he said.
“Being a lobbyist isn’t so much different,” Benson said. “Lobbyists interact with other lobbyists, with staff members, and with legislators during the day and sometimes off hours, and there’s nothing inappropriate about that, provided that you stay between the bright lines.”
Veridus follows a code of common sense, Benson said, adding that formal enforced ethical guidelines regulating lawmaker-lobbyist relationships are hard to imagine. And trying to craft rules will only muddy waters, he said.
“What would that look like? One drink is OK, but three and you cross the line?” he said.
If anyone on his team feels uncomfortable with a specific lawmaker they have to meet, another employee will tag along, Benson said.
“Clearly there have been some incidents that have come to light – not just this session, but in past sessions. I don’t know that that necessarily means the system is broken. What it speaks to is the fact that we’re dealing with human beings and they make mistakes and I don’t know that you eliminate that by putting a set of rules on paper.”
Former Republican lawmaker Maria Syms acknowledges people are flawed and said doing nothing about it at all won’t solve the problem. When Syms was in the House, she was one of the most outspoken members calling for a formal code of conduct in the wake of Shooter’s expulsion and asking to “get the frat house out of the state House.”
Syms said she even provided examples from another state legislature that could be used as a starting point, but nothing ever happened.
Syms said the longer the rules governing relationships, which need to be as objective and ethical as possible, continue to be vague or non-existent, the worse the problem could get.
“Lawmakers and lobbyists are saying we can self-regulate, but that’s not enough,” Syms said. “It’s a lot easier to not have a code of conduct for that when these things come up because you can pick and choose whose actions and what actions are appropriate or inappropriate depending on the political climate at the time. These scandals keep coming up and we have some work to do.”
The Pence policy
Longshot Mississippi gubernatorial candidate Robert Foster found an Arizona fan in Sen. Vince Leach last summer, when Foster told a female reporter she couldn’t accompany him on a day of campaign events unless she brought along a male colleague.
“I’m not going to ever put myself in a position where a female could come back and say that I made advances on her, I tried to assault her and there’s no witness there to say that did not happen,” Foster told NPR.
Leach shared a version of the story on his campaign Facebook page, adding that he agreed totally with Foster’s position.
“This has been my policy going back probably 20 years,” Leach said via text. “Have forgotten the mentor that gave me this advice. Same policy for constituents and lobbyists and others I meet with. It seems to have worked well so far and see no reason to change.”
Foster and Leach follow the “Billy Graham rule,” named for the late evangelical preacher, which prohibits spending time alone with anyone of the opposite gender other than a spouse. Another notable adherent is Vice President Mike Pence, who refuses to dine alone with a woman or attend events with alcohol unless his wife is with him.
Leach’s announcement last summer surprised some of his female colleagues and lobbyists, who couldn’t recall if they had met alone with him. And knowing that a male lawmaker treats women differently because of their gender is really uncomfortable, Rodriguez said.
“Now every time I see him I wonder, ‘how do you view me?’” Rodriguez said.
Leach is far from alone in refusing to meet alone with female lobbyists, Senate President Karen Fann said. She even had a male representative, who she declined to name, who turned down a woman who asked to catch a ride with him to Tucson but told Fann he would have readily agreed if a man had asked him.
Other male lawmakers make sure to have an assistant come in to meetings with female lobbyists, or keep the door open during those conversations out of “self-preservation,” Fann said.
“It is sad that we have gone so far with trying to be careful about not being perceived as anything that, yes I do believe that some of the female lobbyists are unfortunately not getting the same equal (treatment) as a male because of the fact they are female,” she said.
Discussions of sexual harassment at the Legislature, as in the nation at large, reveal generational differences between the Baby Boomers and older Gen-Xers who entered a male-dominated arena and the younger women who expected a more equal playing field. Fann, who also owns a highway construction business, noted that she has been dealing in a male-dominated world her entire life.
“You just get in and you roll up your sleeves and you do it,” Fann said. “Those of us in our generation, our whole lives we’ve had to work a little harder just to show that women can do as good a job — if not better — than men in some areas.”
When Stacey Morley started working as an intern at the Senate in the mid-90s, there was an unwritten rule that female interns shouldn’t go into certain male members’ offices alone.
“We all knew what happened, but no one ever really said anything,” she said. “And there were a lot more affairs between lobbyists and members. All that kind of stuff used to be a lot more common and accepted, whereas now it’s very hush hush.”
Morley, now the government affairs director for Stand for Children, said she has never been put in a position where she felt harassed — something she attributes in large part to her own brash personality and inappropriate sense of humor. For instance, Morley said, she loved Shooter, the former lawmaker who was ejected from office.
“He was like a dirty old man,” Morley said. “He never made me feel uncomfortable, but that’s probably because my standards are way lower than most people.”
She said she could see where younger or more sheltered lobbyists, who come from a different background than she did, could feel very uncomfortable at the Legislature.
“Not to say that I haven’t flirted with members to get my bills passed, but I never felt like anything was expected of me,” she said. “I’ve just had a different experience about it.”
Sen. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, said she’s dismayed that the Legislature hasn’t yet solved the problem of sexual harassment. Everyone at the Capitol should be able to do their jobs without fear, she said.
“Whether you’re a lobbyist or a reporter or you’re a page or you’re a staffer, you should be able to pursue your careers free from any kind of that expectation and you should have no concerns about members’ behavior,” Alston said. “I’m particularly offended if young women are compromised in their ability to do their jobs, perfect their professional skills, be able to rise to their highest level of potential in their chosen career. That should not be hampered by gender.”
After the AzScam scandal in 1991, the Legislature brought a nationally recognized expert on ethics to train lawmakers on ethical behavior. It might be time to do that again, Alston said, or at least adopt and enforce a code of conduct.
“We’re not a court of law by any stretch of the imagination, but we do have the ability to say what should and should not go on in our own little realm right here,” Alston said. “And we should all have the expectation that those rules of conduct should be maintained, that there’s no wink-wink, nod-nod going on, that we have these rules but we don’t really mean it.”
The way Rep. John Fillmore sees it, young children need to hear and say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning at school.
So he convinced Republican members of the House Government and Elections Committee on February 17 to mandate it for anyone in kindergarten through fourth grade.
The Apache Junction Republican said its components are important, ranging from the “I” declaration, which makes it personal, to pledging to “the United States, that’s all of the states.”
“And I think that it’s important that we have the kids learn what these words mean and drummed into their heads,” he said. “America is a country where people are still dying to come to and they put their lives at risk to come here.”
For older kids, those in grades 5 through 12, there would be no pledge requirement. Instead, Fillmore’s HB2060 would require at least a minute a day for students to “engage and quiet reflection and moral reasoning.”
Fillmore said he wants that language rather than simply a moment of silence.
“Sometimes the moment of silence is ‘shut up and keep quiet’ versus ‘think about what is good for society or yourself or your family, and for your parents and for your country and community,’ ” he said. “Even if they only think about what they’re facing that day or the trials and tribulations in their little lives, I think (for) them to have that ability to have some kind of reasoning is a good thing.”
The idea of a daily pledge, weaved into state law, troubled Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton, D-Tucson. She pointed out that among some religious groups the only pledge they are allowed to make is to God.
Fillmore pointed out his measure does permit parents to excuse their children from the requirement. But that didn’t satisfy Rep. Athena Salman, D-Tempe. She said sometimes children don’t have the same religious beliefs as their parents.
“The student as an individual has rights,” Salman said. “And to force a student to have to rely on their parents in order for them to have their constitutional rights protected I think is a big loophole that could potentially violate the individual student’s religious beliefs that might digress from what the parents believe.”
Tory Roberg, lobbyist for the Secular Coalition of Arizona, went a step farther. She suggested anything that pressures students to recite the pledge, with its language about the country being “one nation under God,” could amount to illegal religious coercion.
Rep. Kevin Payne, R-Peoria, said he was “amazed” at how many people had registered at the legislative website as being opposed to the measure.
“We’re not talking about a prayer,” he said. “We’re talking about a pledge of allegiance to the flag.”
Payne pointed out that lawmakers begin each session with the same pledge.
“I just don’t get it,” he said. “I thought we were in America.”
Salman countered that’s exactly the point.
“What we’re talking about here is the Constitution of the United States of America,” she said. “What we’re talking about is the First Amendment.”
And she contends the measure violates that document.
The law, however, is less than clear.
In the only case addressing this, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that an Alabama law mandating a moment of silence was unconstitutional. But much of that was based on the admission by the measure’s sponsor that it was designed to “return voluntary prayer to our public schools.”
But Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in a concurring opinion, said she would have upheld the requirement if lawmakers had shown a true secular purpose in approving it. She said that school-led moments of silence can be legal because, unlike school-led prayers, they are not inherently religious and do not coerce students into participating.
The 7-6 vote sends the measure to the full House.
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