Multiple witnesses claim they saw state Rep. Anastasia Williams push and bully a cosmetology school director who testified Tuesday against a bill that would exempt hair-braiding from state licensing requirements.
The purported fracas happened after a House Corporations Committee hearing on the legislation, which Williams is sponsoring. Witnesses allege Williams made a motion sliding her hand across her throat and said, “You’re done,” to at least one person inside the hearing room and another in the hallway.
Debra Bjorklund, an East Providence cosmetology instructor, said she witnessed what she called bullying, and saw Williams “push” a woman who had testified against the bill.
Williams, a long-serving Providence Democrat who serves on the committee, denied the claims.
“What?” she asked in response to an email from Target 12. “You got to be kidding. Not true.”
Williams has yet to respond to requests for more details about the hearing, and what happened afterwards.
Larry Berman, spokesperson for House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, said he is “looking into” the alleged incident.
Both Bjorklund and Jackie Pace, also a licensed cosmetology instructor, said they called Mattiello about what transpired.
Bjorklund and Pace said they saw Williams make contact with Mindy Mosca, who had just testified against Williams’ bill. Mosca said she did not want to comment at this time.
Bjorklund and one other witness who asked not to be identified called the contact “a push” to a shoulder, while Pace called the contact “an aggressive nudge.”
Both Bjorklund, Pace and another witness also said they saw the hand across the throat motion by Williams and heard her say, “You’re done.” But neither one is sure who Williams was talking to, or what exactly she was talking about.
“[Williams] was rude and bullying during the hearing and after,” Bjorklund said. “I just don’t expect a representative to behave that way.”
Mike Stenhouse testified in favor of the bill during the hearing and acknowledged what he called a “heated” discussion in the hallway, but he said “there was no contact.”
“As people started moving towards each other, as the words got louder, that’s when I stepped in and put my hands between the two sides,” said Stenhouse, who leads the limited-government group the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity. “If Rep. Williams made a gesture, I didn’t see it.”
Stenhouse added that Williams did not bully the women who testified.
Williams denied the entire account, saying in her email, “I would have been carried out of the state house to jail or at the minimum police would have been called, not the media.”
Bjorklund, Pace and two others who did not want their names used credited Corporations Committee Chair Robert Jacquard for trying to bring civility to the hearing.
“People were talking over each other, both Representative Williams and the witnesses,” Jacquard said. “I said several times, let the other person finish.”
After the hair-braiding debate, the hearing continued with testimony about a bill on net neutrality. Jacquard said he did remember Williams getting up and walking toward the back of the room before testimony began on the second measure.
But Jacquard said the large crowd in the room blocked him from seeing if anything happened at the back of the room or in the hallway.
The hair-braiding measure passed the House last year by a unanimous vote, but died in the Senate.
A hearing on the 2018 Senate version is scheduled for Thursday, and Bjorklund and Pace said they plan on testifying.
“I want to go there knowing that I’m not going to be threatened by [Representative Williams],” Pace said. “She tried to badger me. It’s not about my job. It’s about the cosmetology industry and how I worked to keep it professional.”
Williams championed the measure last year as a way to help low-income residents make a living without “the overburdening regulations and licensing fees.”