History debate about slavery turns ugly in Ohio Senate
By Carrie Spencer Ghose
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - A seemingly genteel debate about history while lawmakers discussed a feel-good bill quickly devolved into a shouting match and accusations of racial insensitivity that ended with an apology from the Senate president.
Tempers boiled over when Senate President Bill Harris, a Republican whose party controls the Legislature, cut off a black Democratic senator talking about black history.
Democrats said it appeared racist to stop Sen. Ray Miller's comments when a Republican was not reprimanded for the same thing.
’No question we're in the minority but we do expect respect," said Sen. C.J. Prentiss, the top Senate Democrat from Cleveland.
Harris, an Ashland Republican, said he let the debate stray from the bill's topic - declaring Sept. 22 Emancipation Day.
Miller, of Columbus, said the day is meaningless unless the Legislature devotes itself seriously to passing bills that address racial inequalities. He noted that Lincoln was reluctant to free the slaves and thought of blacks as inferior.
Sen. Jeff Jacobson, a Dayton-area Republican who is white, rebutted, saying he'd read that Lincoln had a true change of heart.
Miller said Jacobson was revising history.
’I would invite you to my library, ... and then you would have a bit more knowledge about history, particularly as it applies to African-Americans," Miller said.
The senate president's gavel came down when Miller said Lincoln wanted to send all blacks to Africa and pay slave owners for their loss of property.
’No more dissertation on your view of history and President Lincoln," Harris said.
Miller called the action ’shameful" and ’racist." Jacobson left his desk, demanding that Miller be ruled out of order, and all 11 Democrats stood, shouting for Harris to restrain his fellow Republican. State troopers making routine rounds of the Statehouse happened to enter the chamber then and stood ready in the back of the room.
When a recess was called, Jacobson walked to Miller's desk.
’I would not believe you would bring some garbage like that to this floor," Miller shouted, pointing at Jacobson.
Historians still debate Lincoln's racial attitudes, and his presidential museum presents his changing thoughts on slavery.
With order restored after the two-hour break, Harris apologized before calling for the vote on the bill, which passed unanimously.
’I apologize to the individual member, Sen. Miller, and to this body for not being more specific in what I was calling to order, and ensuring that there could not be any interpretation that it was focused on anything other than maintaining order and decorum," he said.
The dispute grew out of building frustration by Democrats over the perception that they are not allowed to speak freely on bills while Republicans get more leniency.
’You can't be disrespected continuously," Prentiss said.
Harris said he applies the rules equally to Democrats and Republicans, but pledged to meet with Prentiss to discuss how the rules of debate are enforced.
Harris said he's corrected Jacobson as well, ’when he gets carried away." He acknowledged that Democrats might get silenced more, because they're more likely to be upset about bills by the GOP majority.
’Because they are in many case not supporting issues, and they're taking the opposite position and they don't get support for that opposite position, they feel they're not getting the recognition," he said.
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