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Divisive Louisiana House leader out from chairman’s job

May 18, 2021 GMT

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana state Rep. Ray Garofalo is out of his legislative leadership position after weeks of racial tensions in the House that began with his handling of a bill that sought to put limits on classroom discussions about racism.

Garofalo, a St. Bernard Parish Republican, said in a text Tuesday that he was removed as chairman of the House Education Committee. In follow-up statements, Garofalo lashed out at Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and accused the speaker of “sacrificing me to the Black Caucus, who seem to be controlling the Louisiana House of Representatives this term.”

Schexnayder wouldn’t immediately discuss the decision Tuesday. But the House’s second-ranking Republican, Rep. Tanner Magee, said Garofalo was asked Monday to temporarily step down from the chairmanship for the rest of the legislative session, not for the full term. Magee said Garofalo left the meeting and began telling people he was kicked out of the job.

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“He was asked to put his personal ambition aside. He refused and left the meeting. Now he’s telling everyone he’s been removed so he can be a martyr,” Magee said Tuesday.

The Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus, which helped Schexnayder obtain the speaker’s job, had called for Garofalo’s ejection from the chairman’s job in late April and had been withholding support for a tax overhaul sought by Schexnayder and other legislative leaders.

“He’s a distraction from the goals of the session. He’s an obstacle. We would like to get some meaningful tax reform done,” Magee said. “Clay has given Ray every opportunity to participate and work with people so he would not have to be removed as chairman and accomplish tax reform. Ray has refused at every step and has dug his heels in.”

Black lawmakers were upset with Garofalo’s legislation aimed at blocking the teaching of critical race theory, a shorthand label for any examinations of the ways in which race and racism have influenced politics, culture, government systems and laws.

The bill would prohibit teaching in public schools or colleges that the United States or Louisiana is “systematically racist or sexist,” and forbid giving students or employees information that “promotes divisive concepts.”

Garofalo suggested he lost his chairmanship because he wouldn’t agree to demands to shelve the bill.

“It is the speaker’s prerogative to choose who he wants to chair a committee,” Garofalo said in a statement. “I have no problem with his exercising his authority, but I will not sacrifice my principles in doing what I know is right. My legislation is about protecting our children, not erasing or rewriting history as Critical Race Theory seeks to do.”

Garofalo didn’t try to move his proposal out of committee, but he held a contentious, hourslong hearing on it, during which he referenced the “good” of slavery and said critical race theory “fuels hate.”

The comments about slavery came in an exchange with New Orleans Republican Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, who asked Garofalo to explain how the measure would work practically in a classroom.

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“If you’re having a discussion on whatever the case may be, on slavery, then you can talk about everything having to do with slavery: the good, the bad, the ugly,” Garofalo said.

Hilferty interrupted him: “There’s no good to slavery, though.”

Garofalo quickly replied: “You’re right. I didn’t mean to imply that. And I don’t believe that.”

But after the Black Caucus sought Garofalo’s ouster as chairman, the lawmaker doubled down on his defense of the hearing and the bill with the support of some other conservative Republicans, refusing to apologize.

Schexnayder held private meetings with Black lawmakers and Garofalo, trying to end the dispute without success. Instead, racial tensions have ratcheted up in the House over a series of issues this session.

Garofalo’s committee had another divisive debate last week when a fellow opponent of critical race theory, Republican Rep. Valarie Hodges of Denham Springs, tried to amend a bill to prohibit Louisiana’s education board from approving content standards or recommending instructional materials that “provide that a particular sex, race, ethnicity or national origin is inherently superior or inferior to another.”

The amendment failed, but Black lawmakers on the education committee bristled at the return to another debate over teaching race in classrooms. Garofalo didn’t preside over the hearing, but he rankled Black lawmakers when he continued to show up in the room for votes on contentious issues — including on Hodges’ failed amendment.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.