Decision to bar Zephyr an avoidable outcome
State Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, alone on the house floor stands in protest as demonstrators are arrested in the house gallery, Monday, April 24, 2023, in the Montana State Capitol in Helena, Mont. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP, File)
| April 30, 2023 12:00 AM
An unprecedented week at the state capitol last week drew the attention of the nation when Democrat Rep. Zooey Zephyr was barred from the House floor and from participating in debates for the remainder of the session.
The sequence of events was set off April 18 when Zephyr, a transgender representative from Missoula’s HD 100, spoke on amendments to legislation that would ban gender-affirming care for children. To quote Zephyr in full, she said, “If you vote yes on this bill and yes on these amendments, I hope the next time there’s an invocation, when you bow your heads in prayer, you see the blood on your hands.”
That last part of that comment drew the ire of the far-right and ironically named Montana Freedom Caucus, which called for Zephyr to be censured for using “inappropriate and uncalled-for language.” Childishly, they made their demands while purposely misgendering Zephyr — an embarrassing schoolyard-bully tactic that should be beneath public representatives.
While Zephyr certainly used strong and proactive words, use of the idiom “blood on your hands” is hardly unusual in debate, nor is it a phrase that should rise to the level of censure. As Associated Press reporting details, the wording is regularly used by members of both parties in statehouses across the U.S., including by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, who used that same “blood on your hands” phrase toward Democrats in regards to voting laws last year.
Nonetheless, Montana House leadership — apparently appalled and deeply offended by the cliche — decided Zephyr had breached “decorum” with her choice of words. Following a vote, the Republican majority led by House Speaker Matt Regier blocked her from speaking on the chamber floor until she apologized.
That decision came to a boiling point Monday. Following a rally outside the Capitol, Zephyr’s supporters interrupted the House session by shouting “Let her speak.” Law enforcement in riot gear were called in to remove protesters from the gallery, with seven being arrested.
All the while, Zephyr played into the commotion, at one point taunting House leadership by raising a microphone in the air toward her supporters.
The House was shut down the next day, and on Wednesday the representatives voted along party lines to bar Zephyr from the chamber floor for the remainder of the session that is expected to end in early May. Zephyr can still vote, but cannot discuss proposals and amendments under consideration in the full House.
It’s been at least 50 years since Montana lawmakers have sought such disciplinary action.
House leadership’s initial decision to silence Zephyr was clearly excessive, and one has to question whether any other lawmaker would have received the same treatment for merely speaking in dramatic tones. Her discipline — if even necessary — could have been handled through other mechanisms.
Zephyr, however, crossed the line when playing to her supporters as Monday’s boisterous protests erupted. Lawmakers were warranted in being concerned for their safety and Zephyr should have been more cognizant of her actions that day. Thankfully, law enforcement managed the situation swiftly, professionally and without issue.
The House needed to move on with its important business, and it had become clear that Zephyr’s presence was making that task difficult, if not impossible.
The unfortunate consequence of Zephyr’s removal is that it directly affects her 10,000 plus constituents who deserve to have a voice on all matters taken up by the House until the session is sine die.
Republicans have made their point, but now it’s time for House leadership to rise above and help heal the division sown, and allow Zephyr to return to finish the final few days of the session.