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Anti-Muslim display sparks conflict

March 2, 2019

CHARLESTON - Anti-Muslim material on display at the West Virginia state Capitol on Friday set off a series of events that culminated with a legislative aide seeking medical attention, another resigning and a House Democrat potentially facing punitive action from the chamber.

The controversy began when a group set up a display in connection with “WV GOP Day” at the Capitol. The group, ACT for America, set up a poster juxtaposing a photo of Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., with an image of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.

The group also handed out literature, including a booklet titled “Readin’, Writin’, and Jihadin’: The Islamization of American Public Schools.”

Omar, a freshman congresswoman, is Somalian-American and a Muslim.

Before the day’s House floor session, Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, challenged the viewpoints of the people tending to the booth. According to Ben Kessler, an environmental lobbyist who was party to the events, House Sergeant at Arms Anne Lieberman accused him, Pushkin and Del. Michael Angelucci, D-Marion, of trying to censor free speech.

As Angelucci, Lieberman and Kessler discussed the matter, Lieberman allegedly uttered the phrase, “All Muslims are terrorists,” according to both Kessler (in an interview) and Angelucci in a floor speech.

Lieberman, prior to the announcement of her resignation on the House floor Friday evening, declined to comment on the allegation against her, but said she needed to step outside to cry.

During the morning floor session, House Democrats delivered speeches criticizing ACT’s display and Lieberman’s words. Two Republican delegates - Dianna Graves of Putnam County and Tom Bibby of Berkeley County - both defended the display, citing American’s right to the freedom of speech.

Upset over Lieberman’s remarks, several House Democrats allegedly tried to enter the chamber to air their grievances with House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay.

The House assistant doorkeeper, Logan Casterline, is being “examined for an injury,” according to a speech Hanshaw delivered Friday evening. This apparently came in connection with House Minority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, seeking to forcefully enter the chamber when Casterline used his body to hold the door shut during prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance.

“I’m the one who kicked the door open,” Caputo said. “That’s how angry I was. I went over to that poster and I said it was a racist poster ... Yeah, I kicked that door open; I’ll own it.”

House Communications Director Jared Hunt said Friday night he could not comment on the incident, citing a personnel matter, but the matter has been referred to Capitol Police for investigation. Hunt said inquiries about who approved the display should go to the state GOP.

After the incident and before announcing Lieberman’s resignation, Hanshaw issued a statement to reporters.

“The West Virginia House of Delegates unequivocally rejects hate in all of its forms,” he said. “As we began today’s floor session, we had a series of incidents occur in and outside of our Chamber that absolutely do not reflect the character and civility the people of this state demand of their public servants. Leadership of the House of Delegates is currently working to investigate these incidents to learn firsthand the factual basis of what occurred, and will respond with appropriate action.”

State Republican Party Chairwoman Melody Potter did not return a Friday afternoon text message seeking comment on the racist display.

With a sergeant at arms fired, a doorkeeper seeking medical treatment and tensions high, Hanshaw descended from the Speaker’s podium to deliver a rare floor speech.

“We have allowed national-level politics to become a cancer on our state, to become a cancer on our Legislature, to invade our chamber in a way frankly that makes me ashamed,” he said.

Following the session, Democrats met as a caucus to discuss the day’s events. As they met, yelling from inside could be heard in the hallway.

As they emerged, Caputo declined to comment, leaving Del. Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, to address a small gaggle of reporters.

There, he said the caucus is readying for Caputo to face some form of punitive action from the Republican majority, potentially a censure or formal reprimand.

Sponaugle asked for due process for his colleague, and criticized Republicans for the double-standard of potentially punishing Caputo but not Del. Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer.

Porterfield has been a lightning rod throughout the session for allegations of bigotry. He used an anti-gay slur in committee, he compared gay people to the Ku Klux Klan, and he has implied in a TV interview he would drown his children if he found out they were gay.

“We have a diverse caucus, and many of our people believe this has festered, and it has gotten to a point that it’s intolerable,” Sponaugle said, stating that Porterfield brings hate into the chamber. “It should have been handled weeks ago.”

He said the caucus stands by Caputo. He emphasized there is not yet certainty as to whether Casterline was injured or Caputo will face punitive action.

The House is set to meet Saturday morning, March 2, to process the evening’s events, though exactly what that entails is not yet known.