State Rep. Kenny Havard said Thursday he won’t apologize over his “joke” legislation that sought to ban exotic dancers from being overweight or older than 28 years.
He took a firm stand on Thursday, despite numerous demands he apologize, blaming the firestorm his comments created on the delicate sensibilities of a nation that he said is overly concerned with being politically correct.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever apologize for being politically incorrect. It’s just not in my nature,” Havard said in an afternoon press conference. “Political correctness, in my opinion has ruined the country, and it looks like it’s ruining the state now.”
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Throughout the day Thursday, legislators openly castigated Havard for what they described as foolish, insulting and offensive behavior which they said has cast an unfortunate shadow over the Legislature. Gov. John Bel Edwards called the move “unfortunate” and “not funny,” while other legislators — male and female — said Havard’s comments were hurtful to women.
“I hope he does apologize for making a comment I know he didn’t intend, but sometimes our words — they are perceived and received by people different,” said State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, on the Senate floor. “It was offensive and when you offend people it’s OK to say that I was wrong and I made a mistake. So please today, let people know that you were wrong and made a mistake.”
On Wednesday, the House chamber debated a bill to raise the age of strip club dancers from 18 to 21. Havard attached a formal amendment to the bill — which he quickly withdrew in the face of opposition — that would have mandated dancers could not be older than 28 years old and weigh more than 160 pounds.
The action quickly drew the ire of women legislators who said his bill was emblematic of casual sexism frequently displayed in the State Capitol.
Havard on Thursday denied that his amendment was directed at women. He maintained he was trying to make an example about how the Legislature is overregulating businesses. He voted favorably for the bill.
He said he was “regretful” that his joke had offended people, in particular Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, who said on the House floor on Wednesday that she was “repulsed” by the behavior.
Havard said that he considers Stokes to be one of the “most thoughtful and capable legislators” in the state, but he also said he disagreed with her assessment that women are commonly treated with disrespect in the State Capitol.
“Rep. Stokes should have talked about it two or three years ago when those incidents occurred,” Havard said about her allegations of sexism. “Since I’ve been here, I haven’t seen that or witnessed that. If it is happening, it’s a horrible thing and we should sit down and talk about it, but I haven’t seen that.”
House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, gave a somber speech on the House floor saying he hoped Havard would apologize to the full Legislature, in particular the women. Havard wasn’t present.
Barras said that while he does not ever intend to censor debate, he was disheartened to see Havard’s actions reflect poorly on the rest of the Legislature as the national media ran away with the story.
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“What we can’t be responsible for is a lack of judgment, which in my opinion he exhibited yesterday,” Barras said. “I am hesitant to call you down on spirited debate, but I also ask you to be respectful to each other in the process.”
While many legislators and officials seemed in agreement that Havard’s comments went too far, many disagreed about whether the issue was part of a deeper culture of sexism in the Legislature.
More female legislators were inclined to see a wider problem, while men interviewed couldn’t identify specific instances of sexism.
State Sen. Conrad Appel said Havard was “foolish,” and told the women of the Senate that they are well-respected as equals. But in an interview he said Havard’s only mistake was putting the joke in writing for the public record.
“You don’t do that in a public venue, but if you go up to the ladies in the House and make a joke that’s OK,” he said. “She may take offense, and she has a right to.”
He also said he thinks “we’re far too politically correct in America.”
On the other side, State Rep. Walt Leger III, D-New Orleans, said he believes the outburst was “an anomaly” in terms of sexist behavior, but he was discouraged by Havard’s unwillingness to apologize. He said that U.S. Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump has popularized the attitude that bad behavior can be blamed on a rejection of being politically correct.
“Making offensive comments and then feeling entitled not to apologize is politically expedient,” Leger said.
Stokes, who previously said she’s been on the receiving end of sexist statements from other legislators, said Thursday that Havard’s joke itself is not OK, regardless of whether it made it to the public.
“The fact that (Havard) thought it was going to be acceptable, the fact that he looked at our culture here, thought this will be fine, people will laugh,” she said. “The culture underlying all of that has to be broken for him to think he’s going to get away with all of that, and that’s really the problem.”
Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, also said she felt like some of the men might be missing the point.
“In America, especially as women, we struggle a lot with our outward appearance,” she said. “When you say we have to look a certain way by being a certain weight, to me it’s discriminatory and it’s offensive.”
Barrow said the sexism is subtle, in the way comments sometimes are inadvertently condescending toward female legislators. She recalled her and another woman being called out in committee by some of her colleagues for asking too many questions about a bill.
Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, D-Baton Rouge, said she feels a sense of “male dominion” in the Louisiana House. She noted that recently when she had a similar bill to a male legislator, she was discouraged that his bill was voted forward over her version, a move she said felt inadvertently sexist.
However, not everyone felt that way. State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, told her colleagues, “I have never felt anything but respect from the gentleman in the Senate.”
Gov. Edwards, who served eight years in the state House, said he couldn’t recall specific instances of sexism during his time in the Legislature.
“I may not be as sensitive to these issues as I should be,” he admitted, adding that he believes there should be more women in Louisiana offices.
Reached for comment, former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who started in the state Legislature when there were only five women, said she recalls being treated as an equal throughout her political career.
She noted that during Hurricane Katrina, “there was a lot of chatter out and about in the political class that the storm was too big of an event for a woman to be in charge of.” But despite political disagreement, she said the people she worked with and who answered to her never undermined her because of her gender.
With 21 female legislators, Louisiana has among the lowest percentage of women legislators in the country at about 15 percent of the total body. Nationally, the average is about 25 percent.
“You’re sitting in an institution where you’re clearly in the minority and you’re trying to make sure you’re seen as belonging,” said Debbie Walsh, director of the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics. “Jokes do matter — racists jokes, sexist jokes, they make you feel like your an outsider and that you don’t belong there or you’re just an object.”
What’s worse, said Julie Schwam Harris, co-chair of the Legislative Agenda for Women, is that unchallenged “archaic attitudes toward women” by a male-dominated Legislature can bleed into policy decisions.
“It isn’t always intentional effort to do harm, but it ends up harming women by not showing that respect and truly equal attitude toward women that men have for each other,” Harris said.
Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter @rebekahallen.