‘Passionate desire to participate’: What Idaho lawmakers, critics say about special session

The House Judiciary committee met in a room too small for the number of people who wanted to attend. Neither took it well. | BY KATHERINE JONES

BOISE (Idaho Statesman) – Anyone attending a session of the Idaho Legislature — whether as a spectator, lobbyist, journalist or someone testifying — usually must follow a certain set of rules.

Spectators in the audience are asked to listen quietly and respectfully. People testifying must adhere to time limits. Lobbyists and activists follow dress codes banning clothing with political slogans. Only journalists credentialed by the Idaho Press Club’s Capital Correspondents’ Association are allowed on the House and Senate floors with lawmakers or in areas reserved for the press.

So why was a crowd of spectators allowed to enter and participate in the first day of the Idaho State Legislature’s special session after protesting masks and social distancing guidelines, chanting loudly and struggling to enter a door with such force it shattered a glass window?

Idaho law enforcement officers and Republican legislative leadership spoke of the necessity to balance the rights of Idaho residents to participate in the legislative process and exercise their First Amendment rights with the safety of others and the rules that allow lawmakers to do their jobs.

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Eventually, Idaho State Police officers did arrest Emmett resident Ammon Bundy and others on Tuesday — and he was arrested again on Wednesday — for allegedly failing to follow committee meeting rules. Bundy is nationally known for being tried but not convicted in two federal standoffs, as well as more recently protesting Idaho’s coronavirus restrictions and demanding access to a Southwest District Health meeting in Caldwell that was closed to in-person participation from the public.

Idaho State Police arrested and physically rolled Bundy off the Statehouse grounds in an office chair and later a wheelchair after he failed to comply with Statehouse rules Tuesday and refused to leave the Statehouse Wednesday. He faces charges on accusations of trespassing, resisting and obstructing police, and is banned from the Capitol building and grounds for a year. In comparison to the chaotic first day and the incidents that ended in arrests, some hearings and meetings during the special session proceeded much more calmly.

Still, activists, lobbyists and other Idahoans decried what they saw as unequal treatment of protesters compared to demonstrations in years past, alleging a possible bias.

“The fact of the matter is no other communities — BIPOC, queer/trans, and other historically marginalized groups — would get away with this behavior that has been displayed from day 1 of this legislative session,” wrote Jennifer Martinez, a community activist who has held several positions in the Idaho Democratic Party, in a text to the Statesman after Bundy’s second arrest Wednesday. “If a BIPOC (acronym referring to someone who is Black, indigenous or a person of color) had resisted arrest, they would not have had the luck to be wheeled out in a chair.”

RELATED | Ammon Bundy removed from Idaho Capitol twice in less than 24 hours. He’s banned for a year

LOBBYIST GROUPS, OTHERS ALLEGE DISPARITY IN HANDLING OF PROTESTERS AND SPECTATORS

As videos of Bundy and other members of the groups People’s Rights and Health Freedom Idaho pushing through the door circulated on social media and in the news, many drew comparisons to the treatment of several groups of protesters affiliated with Add the Words, which advocates for LGBTQ rights. Those groups were arrested during peaceful demonstrations at the Idaho State Capitol in 2014 and 2015.

“It just brought back like a flood of memories and emotion about how unfairly other folks have been treated in these same scenarios,” said Mistie Tolman, the Idaho State Director of Planned Parenthood, who also participated in Add The Words demonstrations several years ago. “… To see a bunch of people storm the Statehouse (Monday) and not only not be arrested, or threatened to be arrested … but those rules were thrown out and they were allowed to go in anyway.”

Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley did not respond to a Statesman email requesting comment on the comparison of this week’s protests and past ones, although he later criticized the actions of the group in a Wednesday press conference.

But Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said legislative leadership was undoubtedly trying to manage an “unpredictable situation in difficult times” — although he said he couldn’t provide further insight into decision making that happened “across the rotunda” in the House of Representatives.

“Regarding past demonstrations, to my knowledge, the only people arrested during protests inside the Capitol were those who were physically blocking legislators from the legislative chambers and/or committee rooms,” Hill wrote in a Tuesday email sent before the second day of the special session began. “Thereby not only disrupting, but prohibiting the Legislature from functioning.”

But frustrated activists watching the events of the rowdy special session unfold also cited smaller rules that lawmakers were quick to enforce in previous years.

For example, Tolman said previous activists were prohibited from placing sticky notes with Idahoans’ stories on the glass doors of the House and Senate chambers, and her volunteers are not allowed to walk into the House or Senate galleries without turning their pink “I Stand With Planned Parenthood” shirts inside out. A Monday tweet from the Reclaim Idaho twitter account claimed their volunteers were not allowed to wear green shirts and were accused of incivility while in the Statehouse.

Ruby Mendez-Mota, a legislative advocacy fellow for the ACLU of Idaho, also spoke of the hours of training they require for volunteers and others they help testify at the Legislature. While many spectators during the special session quickly claimed a right to be in the “people’s house,” she said it can also be hard to convince Idahoans who are immigrants, people of color, or from other historically marginalized groups to feel comfortable stepping into the Statehouse at all.

“It really just goes to show how we need to prepare our people and say, ‘Look, use respect, but also continue to uplift our voices and try to fight for what we’re trying to do at a state level,” Mendez-Mota said. “There’s a borderline that we kind of have to walk through.”

Rep. Greg Chaney, a Caldwell Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee meeting, said he wasn’t sure allegations of different treatment for spectators during the special session was a “fair assessment” of the choices lawmakers made.

“From the information that was probably most apparent to those folks, I don’t think that their feelings are unjustified,” Chaney said. “I just think that there’s additional concerns beneath the surface that color how things turned out.”

When Bundy and others sat in an area intended for properly credentialed media members only during Tuesday hearings on a bill that would provide immunity from coronavirus legislation, Chaney instructed them to leave. Several spectators, including Bundy, were arrested after refusing to leave the auditorium after Bedke ordered it cleared.

Chaney, who said he could only speak for how he handled his own committee, compared his handling of spectators and enforcement of the decorum rules during the special session to what he characterized as similarly emotional testimony on HB 465, a bill that would have outlawed gender reassignment surgery for minors, also in a packed hearing room.

“While I was not privy to how those decisions were made on Monday, I can’t help but imagine that the reputation of that group’s most high profile member didn’t factor into calculations on how volatile the situation might become,” Chaney said. “I will qualify that by saying that is my own speculation.”

LAWMAKERS, POLICE BALANCE SAFETY AND ‘PASSIONATE DESIRE TO PARTICIPATE’

It’s still unclear how much it will cost to repair the shattered glass window at the entrance to the gallery of the Idaho House of Representatives. A representative from Idaho’s Department of Administration told the Statesman she was expecting a quote from a glazer by next week.

ISP was still investigating the incident as of Friday. When asked if the presence of Bundy or that some of the spectators demanding access to the House gallery on Monday were armed played a role in any security decisions, Col. Kedrick Wills, the director of the ISP, would only say that troopers are used to dealing with armed spectators and a “wide variety” of protesters at the Idaho State Capitol.

“Every protest is different and because every protest looks a little different in the way protesters are acting or the decisions they’re making, we have to treat those differently,” Wills told the Statesman on Friday. “But the decision that no arrests were made Monday morning certainly doesn’t mean that no charges are coming.”

In June, Idaho State Police arrested an 18-year-old protester who spray painted the facade of the Idaho State Capitol.

Speaker Bedke told members of the media Wednesday evening that he was “disappointed” with Monday’s events and how those spectators treated the Idaho Statehouse. He said no one had offered to pay for the destruction they had allegedly caused, saying that went against the way he was taught to treat community property that belongs to all Idahoans.

“We try to balance the desire of groups to participate in the process and yet maintain decorum and civility so that their passionate desire to participate doesn’t outweigh the concern of other groups that want to come and participate,” he said in the press conference Wednesday. “So with the violence that happened on Monday and the backdrop of the pandemic, people who were concerned stayed away. And that’s not as it should be, let’s put it that way.”

The decision of many spectators to ignore social distancing guidelines and not wear masks once inside Monday and the rest of week did have that effect on some. For example, Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, chose to briefly leave one committee meeting because of the perceived coronavirus risk from such a large group.

Many worried about the feasibility and safety that a similar type of protester presence might have on groups who would normally want to testify during a meeting.

In a letter signed by Bedke, Majority Leader Mike Moyle of Star, Assistant Majority Leader Jason Monks of Nampa and Majority Caucus Chairwoman Megan Blanksma of Hammett, the Idaho House Republican Caucus thanked Idaho State Police for removing a “small group of agitators” that “repeatedly tried to derail the recent Special Session” and looked forward to the regular session in January — which might also take place during a pandemic.

“As we look to the Regular Session, we hope we can complete our tasks without similar distractions. But if there are, we know you will restore order that is promised in our democratic Republic,” the letter stated.

Idaho Statesman journalist Katherine Jones contributed to this report.