Amid rising tensions that threaten to disrupt the legislative session in its third week, Gov. John Bel Edwards said Thursday that controversy surrounding House Education Committee Chairman Ray Garofalo is enough to justify his removal as leader of the committee.
"I believe that the incident is egregious enough to warrant his removal. But I'm also the first to tell you, I'm not the one that makes that decision," Edwards said, noting that the call is up to House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales.
"I think it is obvious and incontrovertible that he made some very unfortunate statements that have caused a significant number of his colleagues to lose confidence in him," the Democratic governor told reporters.
Garofalo, a Chalmette Republican, is under fire because of a five-hour hearing Tuesday on his bill that he said was aimed at preventing colleges from using classrooms as biased political platforms on racism, sexism and other volatile topics.
The hearing and its aftermath has sparked a firestorm of criticism, and one exchange during the hearing that touched on slavery is under intense scrutiny.
In the midst of the hearing, Garofalo said there could be a classroom discussion of slavery, for instance.
"You can talk about everything dealing with slavery. The good. The bad. The ugly," he said.
Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-Metairie, replied: "There is no good to slavery, though."
Replied Garofalo: "You are right. I didn't mean to imply that and don't believe that."
Critics said the lawmaker implied there were positive aspects of slavery.
"Your comments suggesting there was some 'good' within the immoral evil of slavery as practiced in this country is reprehensible," said a Wednesday letter from New Orleans City Council President Helena Moreno and others. "If you feel that there is 'good' in slavery, you should resign immediately."
Garofalo called such suggestions far-fetched and, in remarks to the House on Wednesday, urged colleagues to talk to him if they had concerns.
Raising the stakes, Garofalo on Thursday sent a blistering response to Moreno over criticism of his bill to curb the teaching of "divisive concepts" in Louisiana colleges.
"Quite frankly, I am disappointed that a person with your legislative and life experience would respond to and embrace unfounded accusations against anyone without investigating the facts surrounding said accusations," Garofalo said in his message to Moreno, who leads the council and is a former state House member.
"Your letter significantly adds to the misinformation campaign that is occurring and distracts from the primary focus of the bill — to provide a discrimination-free learning environment that provides equal opportunity for all students, regardless of race or background," the Chalmette Republican wrote.
"The tenor of your letter clearly displays that either you did not investigate said facts or you chose to ignore them. Having worked with you for many years in the legislature, I will choose to believe the former. I am additionally disappointed that after working together with you and at least one of your colleagues, that no one attempted to contact me directly regarding your confusion," he said.
Moreno said Thursday evening, "Rep. Garofalo is saying a lot except he has not said he's sorry."
Aside from the immediate back-and-forth, the controversy is raising the specter of major political rifts, and hard feelings, in just the third week of the 2021 regular legislative session that could carry over to debates on other high-profile topics, such as the effort to revamp the state's tax system, as well as bringing up controversial bills that would require uncomfortable votes.
It also has the potential to split the House into feuding camps, with Garofalo's critics on one side, including comments Thursday that his response to Moreno was intemperate and likely to fuel ill feelings. Garofalo's allies argue that the controversy has been grossly blown out of proportion by distorted accounts of the episode on Twitter and elsewhere.
Schexnayder, who has the power to yank Garofalo's chairmanship, did not address the issue publicly Thursday.
Moreno and others also blasted Garofalo's bill in their message Wednesday, calling it racist and sexist.
"This type of legislation would intentionally stunt the educational growth of generations of Louisiana’s elementary and secondary school students, as well as university scholars, using Orwellian means to ban trainings or instruction on the existence and prevalence of systemic racism and sexism throughout our nation’s history and within all facets of society today," Moreno and other council members wrote.
"To be clear: this amounts to a state-sanctioned muzzle on the freedom to teach the realities of white supremacy, racism, and sexism," they wrote.
"Young and developing minds deserve an education that is honest with them and allows for growth and repair. They deserve an opportunity to address more complex issues like the inequities that exist when different communities interface with the criminal justice system, access health care, try to find a job that pays a living wage with benefits, and the list goes on."
The Louisiana Legislative Black Caucus on Wednesday urged Schexnayder to remove Garofalo as chairman of the education panel.
Caucus members met with Schexnayder on Thursday but talks continue. State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, chairman of the Black Caucus, said Thursday there were no new developments on the controversy.
The 37-member caucus is a key voting bloc, and anger over the Garofalo episode could cripple the chances for the passage of key bills in both chambers, and especially those that require two-thirds support, such as those leadership wants to revamp the state's tax system.
Garofalo was in the House chamber for Thursday's gathering before the Legislature ended business for the week. His controversial legislation, while technically alive, is in practical terms dead because of the controversy that has engulfed the topic.
A wide range of opponents spent hours denouncing the proposal Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma public school teachers would be prohibited from teaching certain concepts of race and racism under a bill given final approval by the state House on Thursday.
The GOP-controlled House voted for the bill that prohibits the teaching of so-called "critical race theory," which is what Garofalo and his allies complained Tuesday is happening in Louisiana colleges and universities.
Staff writers Blake Paterson and Sam Karlin contributed to this report.