Zephyr working from bench outside House floor; while her committee meetings cancelled
Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, works on a bench outside the House floor on April 27, 2023 after being censured by House Republicans on Wednesday. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)
Censured and removed from the Montana House floor, Rep. Zooey Zephyr arrived for work on Thursday morning and made a makeshift “Desk 31,” her desk number assigned by the Legislature, down the hallway just feet away from where 99 other representatives were seated.
Zephyr said House Speaker Matt Regier, R-Kalispell, told her she’d have to move.
“The Speaker came and told me ‘You can’t be here, this needs to be for the public,’” Zephyr said. “And I said I want to be as close as I’m allowed to be. Am I allowed to be here?”
After that, Minority Leader Kim Abbott, D-Helena, said she spoke with the Speaker so that Zephyr would be allowed to be in the hallway on a bench, which is usually occupied by lobbyists and visitors.
Regier said he was worried about the hall being blocked, but said after it was determined there would be no issue there, Zephyr was in the clear.
Armed with a pile of bills, messages from constituents, a laptop and cup of coffee, Zephyr conducted business barely remotely while Republican leadership announced that the committees on which Zephyr serves will no longer be meeting for the remainder of the legislative session.
That move drew the attention and rebuke from Democrats in the House.
Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, on the House floor, said it was a move to keep Zephyr out of the process. Bishop served alongside Zephyr on the House Judiciary committee. House Human Services will also not be meeting for the remainder of the session.
Bills that were scheduled to be heard in the House Judiciary committee were “blasted” to the floor on Thursday and bills that would have typically been heard in those committees were re-referred to other still-active committees.
Zephyr told the Daily Montanan it appeared to her that “they’re making sure that the committees I am a part of no longer meet.”
“This is an additional undemocratic step taken by the leadership of the Republican Party for the disenfranchised voters who elected me to represent them in the people’s House,” Zephyr said.
Chairwoman of House Judiciary Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, said that she didn’t have anything left to schedule so she did not have any plans. She is Speaker Regier’s sister.
Zephyr is the first openly transgender woman elected to the Montana Legislature. Zephyr was censured by House Republicans Wednesday after a protest broke out on Monday after Regier for a third time did not recognize Zephyr’s request to speak on the floor.
During the motion to censure, Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, said Zephyr would be barred from the House floor, gallery and anteroom, which legislators walk through to get to the floor.
“This is above and beyond the actions the body has taken,” Zephyr said.
Bishop said that other committees have been able to figure out how to meet during the final days of the session.
“The conclusion that I’m coming to is that we were kept from that committee and the work assigned to that committee and waiting for us to do in that committee because of the member from House District 100 and trying to keep her from the process we do there,” she said.
Zephyr said just as Republicans used the decorum process to censure her, they are using the referral process to further cut her out of the process.
“It’s inherently undemocratic. It shouldn’t be,” she said.
Rep. Casey Knudsen, R-Malta, said on the House floor that he could see how Bishop could come to the conclusion she did, but that veterans of the legislature know that things move quickly towards the end of the session and that this is just part of the process.
“Balls get dropped, we try to pick them up as best we can, and sometimes that means doing things a little bit differently than they’re done a lot of the rest of the time,” Knudsen said. “I don’t think there was anything incorrect done, just trying to get the business of the people taken care of.”
Rep. Kelly Kortum, D-Bozeman, tweeted that the Business and Labor committee heard an abortion pill study bill, “despite it being more suited for Judiciary or Health and Human Services committees.”
“Disrupting the process for petty revenge?”
Republicans argued the censure was a proper response to the protest and to the “blood on your hands” comment Zephyr made during a debate on a bill to ban gender-affirming care for minors. Democrats have said the reaction from Republicans has been extreme and undemocratic.
“I showed up this morning, head held high, ready to do the work,” Zephyr said. “I have been talking to legislators that come in and out of the body to make sure that they understand my positions.
“Every time a bill is heard on the House floor, there’s 11,000 Montanans who don’t get to have their representative participate in that debate and discussion.”
There are seven legislative days left in the 2023 legislative session.
“We have a lot of legislation alive considering our numbers, and we want to make sure that we’re paying attention and focusing on delivering on those priorities: housing, childcare, property tax relief, provider rates,” Abbott said.
Zephyr has received national and international attention after being censured on the floor.
“What you’re seeing at the national level is communities who are impacted by legislation rising up and saying these bills harm us, these bills get us killed,” she said. “It’s not enough for them to get their bills through. They want us to be silent.”
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