Legislative efforts to protect Confederate monuments in Louisiana failed Wednesday when a state Senate committee shot down two measures.
Senate Bill 198 would have required legislative approval prior to removal of statutory. House Bill 71 would require a public referendum before memorials are taken down.
Voting 4-2 for each bill, the Senate & Governmental Affairs Committee rejected both proposals, making the success of either measure nearly impossible at this point in the legislative session. The session must adjourn a week from Thursday on June 8.
The issue exposed barely covered anger between the races and the legislators. After HB71 was approved in the Louisiana House two weeks ago, the Legislative Black Caucus walked out.
State Sen. Beth Mizell, R-Franklinton, said her SB198 never mentioned the Civil War. She felt the testimony Wednesday took the intent of her legislation down a different path than the protections of military and historical monuments that she wanted.
Sen. Gregory Tarver, D-Shreveport, noted that the two-year fight to remove monuments in New Orleans is over. Still, most of testimony Wednesday refought the recent removal of the four statues.
New Orleans Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, the committee's chairwoman and head of the Louisiana Democratic Party, said at their essence both bills are about whether state government should overrule decisions local government makes about the monuments it owns sitting on property it owns and to decide who to celebrate with those memorials,
Nevertheless, Peterson allowed witnesses freehand to discuss their diametrically different takes on the history and impact of slavery to the origins and meaning of the Civil War.
Peterson said many supporters were impassioned by the belief they were protecting the memories of their Confederate soldier ancestors. But she also wanted to remember the experiences of opponents whose ancestors were enslaved.
When the HB71 was sent to Peterson’s committee, supporters erupted in the blog-o-sphere claiming that she would never allow a fair hearing.
Peterson said she received dozens of vitriolic emails. But she also was determined that everyone would get a chance to have their say.
Unlike the House committee hearing – where the chairman used an egg timer to limit testimony – Peterson let everyone talk as long as they wanted. The hearing lasted about six and half hours.
Rob Maness, a former U.S. Senate candidate who testified in favor of the legislation, complimented Peterson for her handling of the hearing.
All 13 of the supporters who testified in favor of the two bills were white. The audience groaned or clapped to various points made during testimony until scolded by Sergeant at Arms who were tasked with keeping order.
Some supporters argued that slavery wasn't really a racial issue. Dana Farley, of New Orleans, for instance, argued that tribal leaders in Africa sold slaves.
Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, countered that was like saying South American coca farmers were more culpable for the sale of illegal drugs in America than crime lords.
Several witnesses were making their first foray and were taken aback at senators on the panel talking among themselves or checking their smart phones.
Jenna Bernstein was angered that some of the senators were absent. “I came a long way, from Florida. I want them all here when I speak,” she said standing at the testimony table and yelling at Peterson.
The chairwoman explained that a few members also were attending a Senate Finance committee hearing at the same time.
Sen. Wesley Bishop, D-New Orleans, said he was concerned about the precedent that would set if a referendum was called whenever a group of people disagreed with the decisions made by local government.
The issue in New Orleans was vetted by two commissions, which approved the removal of the statuary. Then the City Council voted 6-1 to remove the monuments. The procedure was challenged in court and upheld.
“Where does it end?” he asked.
Bishop said he was elected to be the voice his constituents. And every four years the voters can replace him if they don’t like what he says.
“That’s the way representative Democracy works,” Bishop said.
Nicholas Mitchell, with the Jesuit Social Research Institute at LoyolaUniversity in New Orleans, provided something of a history lesson. He said the monuments were put up after the Confederate States of America had lost the war as a reminder to people of color that white people were in charge. The memorials were erected as Louisiana was passing laws that restricted voting, housing and other rights for African Americans, he said.
Voting for both bills was identical and broke along racial and party lines.
Voting against SB198 and HB71 were Democratic Sens. Bishop, Morrell, Tarver and Troy Carter, of New Orleans.
Voting for both measures were Republican Sens. Neil Riser, of Columbia, and Mike Walsworth, of West Monroe.
State Rep. Thomas Carmody Jr., the Shreveport Republican who sponsored HB71, said he would bring the legislation back again next year.