Meltdown in RI House over Black History Month speech

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PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — An extemporaneous speech Tuesday afternoon about Black History Month devolved into a tense shouting match on the Rhode Island House floor involving the deputy speaker and multiple lawmakers of color.

Each day the House adjourns in memory of deceased individuals highlighted by lawmakers. On Tuesday, Rep. Joe Almeida, D-Providence, rose to recall Bass Reeves, who inspired the Lone Ranger, and put him in the context of Black History Month. Almeida then began to widen his comments, praising the accomplishments of fellow Reps. Anastasia Williams, D-Providence, and Marvin Abney, D-Newport.

Deputy Speaker Charlene Lima, D-Cranston, was presiding from the rostrum in the absence of Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, who was out of the chamber at the time. After Almeida had spoken for a few minutes, Lima cut in to question whether he was still discussing his adjournment tribute to Reeves, and Almeida said he was.

A minute later Lima tried to cut in again, but at that point Rep. Ray Hull, D-Providence, began shouting from the floor that she should let Almeida finish. Lima tried to regain control, slamming the gavel and telling Hull he was out of order.

“Sit down!” she said. “Representative Hull, I will not allow you to disrupt this floor. Sit down.” She then asked staffers to shut Hull’s microphone off, while continuing to urge Almeida to end his remarks. Hull continued shouting from the floor.

“Representative Hull, if you keep disrupting this House I will ask the sheriff to take you off the floor until you can comport yourself,” Lima said. “Sit down!” (John Marion, head of Common Cause Rhode Island, later tweeted that he had never seen a representative threatened with removal from the floor before.)

Lima’s comments to Hull drew the ire of Williams, who asked to be recognized.

“Representative Williams, what is your point of order?” Lima asked.

“It’s Madam Chairwoman Williams,” coldly replied the Providence representative, who was appointed head of the House Labor Committee earlier this month by Mattiello.

Williams, one of the chamber’s most effective orators, then lectured Lima directly.

“I am going to respectfully say to you and my colleagues in this chamber, what just took place was absolutely not necessary and it was not handled in the proper manner for which you as the acting speaker — someone that is taking the lead — should have behaved,” she began.

She continued to upbraid Lima, arguing that while Almeida may have been speaking beyond what is typically allowed at adjournment, the history he was sharing was important and should have been respected.

“And for the people of color who are celebrating Black History Month — the shortest month of the year — please, please,” Williams said, adding, “Please do not disrespect the community of color in Black History Month.”

Lima tried to defend herself, arguing that she agreed Almeida should give his Black History Month speech, but it “has to be done in the proper forum or we’ll have total chaos.”

At that point Rep. Teresa Tanzi, a Narragansett Democrat, rose to challenge Lima’s ruling and demanded a vote on the issue, drawing in House Majority Leader Joe Shekarchi, D-Warwick, who acquiesced.

“Clerk, unlock the machine,” Lima said. “All those in favor of the ruling of the chair, vote green.”

Suddenly, however, Mattiello reemerged while Hull shouted from the floor again.

“Hold on, hold on, hold on!” the speaker said, moving to replace Lima at the podium. “I’m taking over.”

Taking the gavel, Mattiello said, “Representative Hull, you are out of order.”

“You’re out of order, Mr. Speaker!” Hull shouted back.

Mattiello promised to get to Hull, urging him to “act respectfully” in the meantime. The speaker then asked Almeida to finish his speech, and after a bit more back-and-forth, order was restored.

“I don’t know what went wrong,” Almeida said finally, remarking that he had made other speeches on the topic during February.

“I’m reaching around to all the white members here, on this House floor, that black history was not done just by black people. It was in fact done with and included white people.” He noted that Jewish individuals helped found the NAACP and Marlon Brando marched with Martin Luther King Jr.

A House spokesperson declined Tuesday night to comment on what had transpired. Lima tweeted, “We have rules of decorum they must be followed and enforced if the people’s business is to be conducted in an orderly fashion.”

It’s the latest sign of tension in the House this year after nearly two dozen Democrats rebelled against Mattiello and formed a new Reform Caucus that is challenging his leadership. Almeida, Hull and Tanzi are all members of the group, though Williams is not.

It’s not the first time Reform Caucus members have pushed back on the floor: Almeida expressed frustration when he was not allowed to speak on the first day of session during the election for speaker, and Tanzi recently battled with Mattiello over her treatment in the House Journal.

Nor is it the first blowup in the House in recent years.

In 2013, then-Speaker Gordon Fox infamously told a rebellious lawmaker to “eat your cake,” referencing slices that were being handed out during a long floor debate. And in 2016, then-Finance Committee Chairman Ray Gallison threatened to shut off the microphone of former Republican Rep. Patricia Morgan for asking too many questions about the truck-toll bill.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook

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