House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) apologizes to Republicans as Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton) looks on.
Everyone wants to feel needed. That’s perhaps the takeaway from a dramatic clash Friday involving House Republicans and Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero).
Johnson temporarily halted debate on a workers’ compensation bill in deference to Republican members who’d asked for a caucus. When it was time to return to the floor, the electronic bells meant to summon lawmakers back to the Chamber tolled repeatedly throughout the building.
The Republicans, who were meeting in a room downstairs, didn’t heed the chiming, assuming the Speaker would wait until they were ready.
Instead, Johnson went ahead with the day’s business and held a vote, despite the conspicuously large number of empty chairs (Republicans hold 52 seats).
It wasn’t an especially consequential vote. Rep. Adam Greshin (I-Warren), who owns a stake in Sugarbush Resort, had proposed an amendment to exclude ski patrol workers from a bill that extends workers’ compensation to mental health needs. The House, with only two Republican members present, rejected it.
But when they returned, Republicans were irate. In a heated huddle with the Speaker, they threatened to walk out en masse, essentially staging a boycott of the day’s business.
“We decided if they don’t need us we’ll just go home,” Minority Leader Don Turner (R-Milton) later explained. But, he continued, “The speaker didn’t want that so we decided to work out a plan.”
Turner called for another caucus, allowing Republicans to air their grievances.
“I have not seen in 21 years of my time here anything so disrespectful,” said Rep. Mary Morrissey (R-Bennington).
Rep. Marianna Gamache (R-Swanton) said, “I don’t want to hear from her. It was so disrespectful. We have been treated today as if we don’t count. They don’t care about our input. That was clear.”
“They knew we were down here and that’s what really hurts,” said Rep. Janssen Willhoit (R-St. Johnsbury).
Johnson, meanwhile, swept in on a peacekeeping mission. She explained that she’d seen Assistant Minority Leader Brian Savage (R-Swanton) seated in the chamber and assumed “that was a signal leadership was ready to go.”
But the Speaker also offered a mea culpa, and promised it wouldn’t happen again. “You do have my apology that while technically everything happened within the rules … and there were lots of bells and signals, I should have walked over and said, ‘Brian, where’s everybody else?’”
“I would just ask all of you — it being Good Friday, the day of forgiveness — to please assume incompetence before a plot,” she added.
Hurt feelings lingered. “It’s like I know I’m in the minority, that’s fine,” Turner said afterwards. “But when it is blatantly put in your face that, we don’t need you, that’s where it’s an insult to the integrity of the institution and all of our caucus members. So that’s why I guess people are as wound up as they are.”
Johnson’s apology was good enough for most Republicans, who took her up on her offer to hold a revote on the amendment.
It failed, again — though a number of Republicans voted for it.