People protesting the Montana House Speaker’s silencing of state Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, hang a banner on the Capitol steps in Helena saying “Democracy dies here” on Monday, April 24, 2023. (Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)
The Montana Republicans said the quiet part out loud.
Not just out loud, but in a press release, memorialized for all to see.
“House Leadership will still stand firm in our commitment to decorum, safety, and order. We will uphold the people’s will that sent 68 Republicans to Helena,” said House Speaker Matt Regier and Majority Leader Sue Vinton, R-Billings, after repeatedly denying Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, from speaking on the House Floor.
Truthfully, decorum went out of Montana’s Legislature quickly — somewhere around the time Republican Rep. Bob Phalen suggested that adultery be made a felony. That was, by my calendar, around Jan. 16, or two weeks into the 2023 Legislative session.
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Last week, after feeling the backlash of not just Montana, but a nation that was watching these legislative antics, which included police in riot gear, Regier, flanked by Vinton, told reporters that the only one silencing Zephyr was (wait for it … wait for it) Zephyr — a statement demonstrably false as Regier has the power to recognize or not recognize any representative on the floor, controlling their microphone and the debate.
Regier’s press conference, in which he took no questions, continued to demonstrate the wisdom of not digging further when you find yourself in a considerably deep hole. His hole, of course, is self dug — a product of being so thin-skinned that he can’t tolerate some well-earned critical words, while being content to let his party misgender whomever they feel like, Zephyr chief among them.
Regier’s follow-up explanation for his actions is as ridiculous as it is intellectually flabby. It has all the rhetorical panache of: I know you are, but what am I?
When the police storm the Capitol, it’s not an affirmation of law and order as much as it is a realization of a breakdown in democracy.
Yet the GOP statement released after last Monday’s war on the floor should tell Montanans exactly about their priorities and their mindset. When they survey the Montana House of Representatives, they see 68 people, not 100. Those other 32 are Democrats.
The Republicans are lying by half truths. Montana voters did send 68 Republicans to Helena, and those 68 members of the Grand Old Party have had their way with every piece of legislation they’ve touched, being able to overwhelm, rout and ignore the opposition. True enough, Montana sent Republicans to the Legislature in record numbers — a veto-proof majority in both chambers, but they’ve confused being in the majority with being able to do whatever the hell they want, including muzzling Zephyr, whose great sin was suggesting that they were complicit in the marginalization of transgender youth by passing regressive and unnecessary laws that would contribute to an already high suicide rate.
Regier and Vinton’s statement shows that their concern isn’t for the rule of law or consideration of the entire body, regardless of party affiliation. Instead, they only care about 68 Republicans and their voices. What about the people’s will that sent 32 Democrats to that same body? Well, you’d hardly know they exist.
The people didn’t send 68 Republicans to Helena to turn off microphones. If that’s the case, any number of representatives should have had theirs muted a long time ago. How about Rep. Greg Kmetz, R-Miles City, who suggested banning blood donations for anyone who had a COVID-19 vaccine, a measure that would have literally resulted in killing Montanans? Or Rep. Braxton Mitchell, R-Columbia Falls, who suggested that Montana kids were stuffing money in the underwear of drag performers?
That’s some decorum, Mr. Speaker.
Vinton and Regier celebrated law enforcement who marched onto the floor of the House in riot gear, not realizing that when the police storm the Capitol, it’s not an affirmation of law and order as much as it is a realization of a breakdown in democracy. We have lawmakers in the Capitol so that we don’t have to rely on law enforcement as our only means of order.
Vinton and Regier’s Republican Party loves to talk about freedom and liberty, so it’s stunning to see those words co-opted by people who so openly and brazenly muzzle a woman for speaking the uncomfortable yet undeniable truth that there was no need to pass these bills and every reason to believe they would cause harm.
But House leadership hasn’t just trampled on the First Amendment right of Zephyr to speak, they’ve now disenfranchised the more than 10,000 people from her district in Missoula. Silencing a person and discounting their constituents is the stuff of tinpot dictatorships.
We should be grateful that leadership showed us what they’re really about, because those values stand in stark contrast to the historic values of Montana, which include letting people speak, and having spirited debates.
If Republicans, through their leaders like Regier and Vinton, have to keep reminding us that 68 precious GOP members were sent to Helena, they may have won the battle on the House floor, but the war of public opinion may be slipping right out from beneath them.
The statement from Regier and Vinton can be translated: We’re right because we’re in the majority; because we said so.
I suspect that statement will be deeply satisfying for those who want to fashion Montana as a safe harbor for those sentimental about the good old days when men ran the world, women stayed at home, and anybody else could remain either unquestioning and respectful, or stuffed deeply into the closet.
But Montana’s allure and its beauty is not measured in sky and mountains alone. We tolerate differences of opinion, and even encourage them. We like the surprising diversity of opinions of artists, writers, cowboys and farmers whose feistiness translates into character. We respect people’s pronouns because, if nothing else, we demand the same respect and courtesy for us.
Muzzling is something we do to animals, livestock, not fellow Montanans.
And, we believe that what’s beneath the Big Sky is a place big enough that beckons, whispers and even enchants everyone to enjoy it in his or her or their own way.
Daily Montanan is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Daily Montanan maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Darrell Ehrlick for questions: [email protected]. Follow Daily Montanan on Facebook and Twitter.
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