Vermont House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) punished and publicly chastised a fellow Democrat who demanded a quorum vote Wednesday that forced dozens of lawmakers to rush to the Statehouse to pass emergency legislation related to COVID-19.
Johnson announced Thursday she had removed Rep. Cynthia Browning (D-Arlington) from her post on the powerful Ways and Means Committee. She replaced her with Rep. Emilie Kornheiser (D-Brattleboro).
Johnson noted that Wednesday’s plan to vote on a package of bills without a quorum had been approved by the House Rules Committee, had overwhelming support in the chamber, and was pursued as a way to keep lawmakers and their constituents safe.
“Yet one member unnecessarily required every other member to choose between their duty to Vermont and the health and safety of their communities, peers, and loved ones at home,” Johnson wrote in a searing letter to colleagues. “Being a legislator requires that we know the rules. True public service requires the wisdom to know when to use them. Yesterday’s quorum call was not wise.”
Speaker Mitzi Johnson (standing) tries to dissuade Rep. Cynthia Browning (seated, in blue) from insisting on a quorum vote Wednesday.
The move signaled a remarkable fall from grace for a Democratic legislator who has never been afraid to buck leadership but still managed to do so in a way that party leaders respected.
Just last month, Johnson praised Browning as someone with whom she doesn’t always agree but who has “honesty and integrity” and lets leadership know her concerns up front. She contrasted Browning with another representative, Linda Joy Sullivan (D-Dorset), whom she chastised for casting a surprise vote against overriding Gov. Phil Scott's veto of a paid family leave bill. The bill, one of the House's highest priorities, failed by one vote.
Johnson told Seven Days the vote was “not the first time that [Sullivan's] gotten squirrelly.” Sullivan and Browning are friends, and Browning didn’t take kindly to the remark. The following day, she lambasted the speaker from the floor.
Rep. Cynthia Browning conferring with Rep. Linda Joy Sullivan on Wednesday
Browning’s disdain for Johnson was evident after her quorum vote. If Johnson was so concerned about lawmakers’ health, Browning argued, then Johnson should simply drop the resolution authorizing the House to hold a remote vote to approve remote voting.
"It is important to note that I did not call members into the House yesterday — she did," Browning said, after Johnson kicked her off the committee.
Browning called the bill flawed for its "circular reasoning" and argued that it wasn’t proper. She insisted House rules needed to be followed even during an emergency. She did not raise any objections about the actual practice of remote voting during a health emergency, just the way it was being approved.
“But if you start cutting corners on parliamentary procedures and Democratic processes in an emergency, you’ll very quickly find that you’ve thrown something overboard that you can’t get back,” Browning said.