House leadership, public, respond to censure of Rep. Zooey Zephyr

By: , and - April 26, 2023 7:09 pm

Minority Leader Kim Abbott speaks as the legislature discusses a motion to bar Montana State Representative Zooey Zephyr from the house chamber in Helena, Montana on Wednesday, April 26, 2023. (Photo by Mike Clark for the Daily Montanan)

After the vote to discipline Rep. Zooey Zephyr, Republicans said the outcome was fair and preserved order, but Democrats said banning the Missoula Democrat was a sad symbol for democracy — and unprecedented.

Members of the public were quiet compared to the rally to support Zephyr and subsequent protest that erupted in the gallery on Monday and led to the censure, but some said they were disappointed the gallery was closed.

In a press conference following the vote, House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, said Zephyr had urged chanting protesters in the gallery earlier this week, and the censure vote was a fair reaction.

“One representative did not want to operate within the rules that the House voted on,” Regier said following the party line vote. “We’re not going to treat one representative different than the other 99.”

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said she hopes the caucus will regroup for the final eight days of the session, saying it was “unacceptable” that Zephyr would no longer be able to engage in debate on bills that matter to her constituents.

She, like Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder on the floor, said in all her years in the legislature either as an activist or lawmaker, she had “never seen anything like this.”

“It’s undercutting our ability to do our work, and it’s undercutting democratic representation for a lot of people in the state,” she said.

The House voted 68-32 along party lines to censure Zephyr. Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, said in her motion on the floor this meant Zephyr cannot enter or speak on the House Floor, but can vote remotely.

Regier said with Zephyr being able to vote she can still represent her constituents, “but this way, we’re still protecting the safety of the house that we’re responsible for.”

The vote to censure follows protests that erupted in the gallery Monday after Zephyr was not recognized to speak for the third time.

The Speaker would not recognize Zephyr after she made comments that legislators would have blood on their hands if they voted on a bill that would ban access to gender-affirming care for minors in the state. She was referencing high suicide rates among people who are transgender and has said she has lost friends herself.

Police in helmets and batons cleared the gallery and made seven arrests during the protest, which Regier cited as a first. At the press conference, he commended law enforcement.

“They didn’t overreact, they got the job done,” Regier said.

Several law enforcement officers stood right outside the House floor after the vote Wednesday, and the sergeant of arms said they had been there just in case.

Regier said his job was to protect the safety and integrity in the House, “and I’m gonna do that, whatever that takes.”

Zephyr said in an interview with the Daily Montanan that Montanans showed up to tell Regier that he was taking away their voice on the floor by denying her ability to speak on the floor.

“It was his choice to gavel them down and take away their voice,” she said. “And when they refused to be silent when they stood for democracy in that gallery, and I stood alongside them, it was the Speaker’s choice to bring in police to try to silence them.”

Abbott said Republicans had alternatives to the penalty as well. She said the majority leadership did not accept any of her suggestions on how to handle the matter and instead made a “uniform decision to just silence that representative.”

Lawmakers still have to consider bills like the controversial drag show ban and numerous others, and for the rest of the session, Abbott said Democrats might consider changing their approach to how they engage on the floor. She said they may be on the lookout for any possible rules or decorum violations as well.

“Maybe we need to not let as many things slide and really make a point,” she said.

Abbott also said Democrats could find no other precedent for a lawmaker being banned from the floor – something echoed by several other lawmakers who have been around the Capitol for even longer.

Rep. Tom France, another Missoula Democrat, said it has been a hard week. He said legislators had many other ways to handle the situation, including ones that don’t involve harsh penalties, and he echoed Abbott’s characterization of the vote.

“Representative Zephyr has been singled out for an unprecedented punishment,” France said. “I think the Speaker has made up the rules as he’s gone along.”

Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman, said the rules are flexible and can be bent “for any purpose that you want to bend them when you have a supermajority.”

“The first person in how many decades, if not a century, to be disciplined by the House just happens, in quotes, to be the first trans person elected,” he said.

But Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, said the events have been a big distraction.

“Somebody is here on an ego trip, trying to disrupt the process, [incite] a riot at the Capitol here and put law enforcement legislators at risk by people throwing stuff down at legislators, by people fighting back against officers and this could have been prevented with a simple apology,” Mitchell said.

People also have protested against Mitchell’s bill to ban drag performances in public spaces. The bill was amended again in conference committee Wednesday to include definitions that had previously been amended out.

Republican leadership previously said that if Zephyr apologized, she would be permitted to speak on the floor again. When asked if the option to apologize was still on the table, Regier said it would be a good first step, but she would have to rebuild trust.

“When you have police in riot gear coming into the Montana House — that really burned a lot of bridges,” Regier said.

Republicans commented on the floor that the protest was a distraction from the work of the legislature. When asked about the decision to delay the floor session Tuesday and to not hear bills on second reading, and whether that response was disruptive, Regier said, “I wouldn’t blame the response, I would blame the disrupter.”

As to how the two parties will get through the rest of the session, and if any of the bipartisan work done on bills from both parties nearing the finish line might be in jeopardy, Abbott said Democrats were still willing to get the work done.

“I think that question is for Republicans on whether they still want to work with us,” she said.

“But my hope is that we can move forward on priorities that Montanans really care about. But I don’t want to diminish the fact that standing up for democratic representation and the Constitution today was important, and we had to.”

The minority leader added that there are likely to be long days ahead after Tuesday’s floor session was canceled and the House only did third readings before the discipline motion. She also quipped that the Senate continues moving transmittal deadlines ahead of the final Day 90 – “so maybe we’ll just never leave,” she said.

House leadership said in the notice the gallery would be closed for the hearing on the motion, and House Sergeant of Arms Brad Murphitt said that the gallery could remain closed moving forward.

He said there would be a day-by-day assessment, and he said the decision came from him and cited limited staff to handle larger crowds.

Because of the closure, legislative staff opened a conference room to the public Wednesday, and and an estimated 30 people sat in the committee room set up with a video feed to watch the vote to discipline Zephyr.

A couple of people gasped when Vinton read the punishment against Zephyr would be banishment from the floor and gallery and remote access only for the rest of the session.

Some members of the public and legislators said the prohibition from the gallery was a disappointment.

Adyn Beard, of Big Sky High School of Missoula, was visiting the Capitol with with other juniors and seniors. He said other people have been able to view events from the gallery, and he had hoped to do so as well as part of an educational experience.

“It kind of felt a little bit insulting,” said Beard, a junior.

Melissa Boys, a social studies educator from Big Sky High School, said the field trip had been scheduled much earlier.

She said 16 juniors and seniors had signed up to see how Montana government works, and the trip ended up coinciding with the historic event at the Capitol.

“It was disappointing to not be able to view the process live from the gallery,” Boys said.

However, Boys said she appreciated the conference room being available for members of the public to view in a remote way instead.

For students, she said the lesson of the day ended up being different than what the high schoolers might have anticipated. It became about controlling access, and about how what they see firsthand does or doesn’t match what they see in news coverage.

A couple of Missoula lawmakers, Rep. Jonathan Karlen and Rep. Bob Carter, spoke with the students after the vote.

“The sad point about today is nothing was accomplished,” Carter said.

Karlen said the action the students witnessed was historic, but he said it was a shame the gallery had been closed to them.

“I think the closing of the gallery is a really sad symbol,” Karlen said. “To me, it furthers the undemocratic nature of everything that’s happening.

“I welcome the public to fill the gallery. I trust Montanans to be able to watch our House floor proceedings … and I’m sorry that the speaker doesn’t.”

He also said he comes to the Capitol early and ready to work and leaves late, but the House floor sessions have been canceled so he can’t do his job.

Instead, he said they voted to ban someone from her workplace.

“They did nothing but make political points by doing what they did today, and nothing was actually accomplished for Montana,” Karlen said.

After the vote, Missoula County Commissioners issued the following statement in support of Zephyr.

“In banning Rep. Zephyr from the House floor, lawmakers have silenced the voice of 11,000 of Missoula County’s constituents,” Commissioners said. “We are proud to follow Rep. Zephyr’s lead in being courageous and having clarity of purpose in the face of devastating decisions that cause real harm to our constituents.

“We join her in standing up and fighting for members of our community who will face more difficulty, adversity and harm because of the policies this Legislature has passed. We see you and we support you.”

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Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Blair Miller
Blair Miller

Blair Miller is a reporter based in Helena who primarily covers government, climate and courts. He's been a journalist for more than 12 years, previously based in Denver, Albuquerque and mid-Missouri.

Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.