JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Following the silencing of Missouri NAACP President Rod Chapel at Monday evening’s Special Committee on Litigation Reform, House Democrats and left-leaning organizations and advocacy groups called for Rep. Bill Lant, R-Pineville, to be removed from his position as chair of the committee.
Chapel said Lant should apologize to the members of the state NAACP.
“It’s their voices he silenced, not mine,” Chapel said.
After hours of testimony over bills offered by Reps. Kevin Austin, Joe Don McGaugh, and Dean Plocher that would significantly alter the way discrimination lawsuits are handled in the state, Chapel attempted to testify himself on behalf of the NAACP. After questioning why universities and school organizations would testify in favor of the bill, he began commenting the law would heighten discrimination. Lant then interrupted Chapel and asked him to keep his comments focused on the bill. Chapel said he was.
After approximately 30 seconds, Chapel likened the bill to a “Jim Crow” law, and Lant turned off Chapel’s microphone and said he would close the hearing if Chapel continued to testify. Chapel then went back into the audience. Rep. Gina Mitten, D-St. Louis, protested and attempted to inquire Chapel, but Lant said she was not recognized by the chair to ask questions.
The outcry began Monday night and continued into the morning. Chapel, along with other members of the NAACP, Empower Missouri and PROMO held a brief press conference. Chapel announced he would seek a meeting with Gov. Eric Greitens and another with Speaker Todd Richardson to request Lant be removed from his position on the committee.
“We as Missourians need some assurance that what happened to me, what happened to the NAACP, will not happen to other individuals or groups that seek redress here at the Capitol,” Chapel said. “To that end, I think Rep. Bill Lant should no longer be chairman of the committee and that stronger committee leadership that embraces our core values as Missourians would be put in place.
House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty also asked Richardson to remove Lant from his post, citing that this was Lant’s second offense of prejudice against an African-American man. She said Lant had not allowed Rep. Clem Smith, D-St. Louis, to ask a question during a hearing of the House Workforce Standards and Development Committee last February.
“…we now have two incidents in which Rep. Lant has abused his authority as committee chairman to silence black men,” Beatty said. “It does not appear that Rep. Lant has a similar history of treating white witness and committee members with contempt or disrespect. A pattern seems to be forming, and it is not one you can allow to continue. In demonstrating that he is incapable of treating all people with respect, Rep. Lant has proven himself unworthy of the privilege of a chairmanship.”
Richardson, however, did not force Lant to step down, though he did say Lant had agreed to a second public hearing on the bills “to ensure we have the kind of open dialogue this bill merits, and the public deserves.”
“Public hearings are meant to provide for an open exchange of ideas and a forum for both proponents and opponents to share their viewpoints. I am disappointed with the confrontational nature of yesterday’s hearing in the Litigation Reform Committee,” Richardson said. “The bill being heard is a controversial and difficult issue and needs to be handled in an open and transparent manner.”
Coincidentally, the NAACP held their legislative day Tuesday, where Richardson spoke. The speaker admitted the House had not been “at its finest” Monday evening. Greitens also spoke at the legislative day but did not comment on the matter. He also did not speak to reporters after he spoke.
In a statement, Lant said he took his responsibilities as chairman of the committee seriously.
“In my effort to keep the discussion in our Monday hearing germane to the bill, I prevented the exchange of ideas and viewpoints that are essential to our legislative process,” Lant said in a statement. “I believe strongly that everyone should have the opportunity to be heard on this, or any other, issue.”
It remains to be seen whether or not that will be good enough for the Democrats critical of Lant’s efforts. Both Chapel and Beatty independently noted the irony of Lant’s actions against a leader of the NAACP speaking on a measure they fear could lead to more discrimination during Black History Month. Glenn Koenen, the chairman of the Hunger Task Force for the advocacy agency Empower Missouri, noted a larger problem with the way hearings have been conducted.
“I’ve been coming up to this building on behalf of more than a half-dozen groups for more than 25 years,” Koenen said. “What we’ve been seeing is a gradual erosion of civility.”