After raucous session, Michigan House speaker slams Democrats' 'disrespect'

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
House Speaker Tom Leonard.

Lansing — State House Speaker Tom Leonard ripped into his Democratic colleagues Thursday after a contentious session Wednesday ended with a Democratic staffer’s firing.

Leonard, R-DeWitt Township, told reporters that he has met repeatedly with House Minority Leader Sam Singh in attempts to correct the minority caucus' behavior, but to no avail.

Singh, the East Lansing Democrat, has “an uncontrollable situation” trying to rein in House Democrats who have “absolutely no respect for this institution,” Leonard said.

“For the past 18 months, you have seen one caucus continue week after week after week to disrespect this chamber,” the speaker told reporters. “They egg on protesters, they videotape members, they’ve cursed at the other side, they’ve called them racists, they have protested during the national anthem. The list goes on and on.”

Republican attacks against the Democratic caucus and staffers are a ploy to distract from the GOP's Wednesday passage of two controversial measures, Singh said.

“Democrats stood up against that and they were silenced by the majority,” he said. 

Tensions between the two parties peaked Wednesday during House votes on Republican-backed bills that would repeal the prevailing wage law and create Medicaid work requirements. Labor groups in the gallery continually interrupted speakers with shouts and expletives, despite warnings from Speaker Pro Tem Lee Chatfield, R-Levering.

When the House passed the prevailing wage repeal, the gallery erupted in shouts and chants. When Chatfield called for immediate effect of the measure, Democratic lawmakers shouted for a roll call vote. Chatfield decided there was enough verbal support for immediate effect.

The Michigan Constitution requires that a bill must have two-thirds support to have immediate effect -- expressed through a "voice vote," "rising vote" or a "roll call vote." 

Singh said 41 House Democrats opposed immediate effect, which would have made it impossible for Republicans to have two-thirds support if a roll call vote had been taken. He said Chatfield's refusal to recognize that opposition or take a roll call vote violated the Constitution. 

"What the Republicans did by not following their own rules and the Constitution was disrespectful to this institution," Singh said.

Leonard said Chatfield had the right to discern whether there was two-thirds support.

“The rules say that that is in the discretion of the person in the chair,” Leonard said. “Rep. Chatfield was in the chair. His discretion was that the support that was needed was there.”

After the prevailing wage vote, the House took up the Medicaid work requirements bill. Republicans allowed two Democrats to speak about the bill before ending debate and calling for a vote, even though several Democrats still wished to speak.

When the Medicaid work requirement bill was approved, Chatfield again called for immediate effect. After the vote for immediate effect, as the clerk was leaving the rostrum with the bill, Democratic staffer Ryan Sebolt left his place in front of the rostrum.

The House speaker's spokesman initially said Sebolt, also an Ingham County Commissioner, rushed onto the rostrum and "pinned" a clerk against the wall before he was escorted from the floor.

Video appears to show Sebolt darting around the rostrum and through several people standing nearby before coming into physical contact with the clerk, who by that point had stepped off the rostrum.

The video does not appear to show Sebolt going on to the rostrum or "pinning" the clerk, though he is at times partially blocked from view by people standing at the front of the chamber. 

Leonard said Sebolt was fired immediately following the incident.

“His actions were completely unacceptable,” the speaker said. “This House floor is the most sacred place in state government and we saw a young man yesterday who had an anger problem, who was running around the House floor, yelling, throwing things, stomping his feet, slapping the desk. And then I watched him run towards the rostrum and we know he was trying to block the clerk from doing his job.”

Sebolt, who is listed as running for re-election to the Ingham County Board of Commissioners in November, did not return a call, text and email requesting comment.

Many Democratic House members on Thursday wore bow ties in solidarity with Sebolt, who often wore one the House floor.

Singh said the speaker's office was "blatantly lying" about the severity of the incident. 

"They are willing to do anything to distract from the issues that happened yesterday," Singh said Thursday. 

House Republicans have respected Singh’s requests for Democratic appointments to committees, allowed Democrats to correct mistaken votes, and kept the board open during check-in and votes because of late lawmakers who are “downstairs smoking the most recent cigarette or grabbing a sandwich or getting lunch,” Leonard said.

“They are continuing and continuing to violate the rules and, again, the dignity of this proud institution,” he said. “I think you saw a lot of that boil over yesterday.”

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