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Black Lawmakers Asking For GOP Accountability After Heckling Incident

Indiana Legislative Black Caucus

Members of the Indiana Legislative Black caucus gather at the Capitol on March 2nd, 2021. (Adam Pinsker WTIU/WFIU)

The head of Indiana’s House Republicans says he will not tolerate unruly behavior from his GOP colleagues.

This is after several Republicans heckled members of the Black Caucus last month while they were speaking on the House floor.

The incident happened after debate over a school de-annexing bill on February 18 quickly spiraled out of control.

“Discrimination and segregation….excuse me I have a right….Mr. Speaker I am going to stop my remarks…It’s impugning me as a legislator, saying what I feel,” said Representative Greg Porter (D-Indianapolis) as he was speaking during the February 18 floor session.

Rep. Jake Teshka
Rep. Jake Teshka (left) and Rep. Vernon Smith debate House Bill 1367 on February 18th, 2021.

Rep. Jake Teshka’s (R-St. Joseph County) House Bill 1367, would allow Greene Township to break away from the South Bend School Corporation and join the John Glenn school district.

Teshka said most students in Greene Township are not attending schools in South Bend, so de-annexing makes sense.

“There's out of the roughly 400 school age kids in Greene Township, South Bend is currently educating 88 of those.”

If the governor signs the bill into law, the State Board of Education would still have to approve the plan. Voters in Greene Township also must pass a referendum with at least 51% of voters before de-annexing.

The South Bend Corporation would not lose out on property tax revenue after passing a school referendum in 2020.

“If this process moves forward, and if Greene Township were to de annex, they would still be paying on that referendum through its 10-year course,” said Teshka.

The same legislation passed the senate twice last year with bi-partisan support.

But when it was brought up again in the February 18th House session, Gary Representative Vernon Smith said a bill paving the way for a mostly White township to break away from a predominately Black and Brown school district has racist overtones.

“And I don’t care how you twist it, how you paint it, how you disguise it, how you camouflage it, it’s racism…boo…boo if you want to,” said Smith.

The tension spilled out into the hallway where Representative Vanessa Summers (D-Indianapolis) said Representative Sean Eberhardt (R-Shelby County) lunged toward her.

After that, the head of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus Representative Robin Shackleford (D-Indianapolis), requested more Indiana State Police be posted at the Indiana Government center, where legislative sessions are being held due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“During that incident, the Indiana State Police does happen to be away from their detail right there in front of the chamber. So we got to talk to Superintendent Carter, I spoke to him personally, he's going to make sure that there's someone at all times securing the chamber,” said Shackleford.

She also wants the members who were heckling during the session to be censured, and she wants all lawmakers to go through anti-racism training.

READ MORE: Indiana Black Caucus Calls For Reprimand Of House Lawmakers, Implicit Bias Training

“Whether it’s five or ten, people can get together and talk about their experiences, and how those experiences affect our decision making and something that everyone has to do.”

Shackelford, and other members of the Indiana Black Caucus want to bring attention to what they say is blatant disrespect being shown by the House Republican super majority.

“When you are bigger than the little guy your tone, is not respectful always, and I that is in my view what is happening down here,” said Indiana Democratic Party Vice Chair Cordeila Lewis-Burks.

Lewis-Burks once served as a lobbyist in the 80’s and 90’s. She says Democrats and Republicans worked together during that time, even when they disagreed.

Speaker Todd Huston
House Speaker Todd Huston (center) addresses the legislature on February 22nd, 2021.

She says longtime Republican Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, who retired last year, would not have tolerated what occurred in the chamber last month.

“We've got a novice or novice in the Speaker's office, and this is nothing against him. I think they are taken advantage of him. But I think it Brian was still around; this would not have occurred," said Lewis. 

Current Speaker of the House Todd Huston (R-Fishers) did not respond to requests for an interview but during a February 22 House session, he told lawmakers that he will strictly enforce rules of decorum from now on.

“I don’t want to be heavy handed in enforcement, it’s not my nature to be heavy handed in enforcement, but make no mistake moving forward that will be the case.”

Representative’s Shackleford and Teshka agree that the current state of national politics and the constraints of holding a legislative session under COVID-19 restrictions are contributing to the tension between Democrats and Republicans.

“When I went up to representative Smith, who represented Porter, after that, the whole thing happened on the floor and extended my hand to them, and you can tell that the emotion in their eyes is genuine,” said Teshka.

The Indiana Legislative Black Caucus will be holding its “Call to Action” days through March 11th, to protest racial injustice in the legislature.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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