YOU TELL ME LET’S HEAR IT! NO LIMITS
A bitter partisan fight broke out on the floor of the Virginia House of Delegates on Friday after a Republican lawmaker suggested “the abortion industry” may be a factor in the rise of mass shootings and accused Democrats of being the historical party of slavery and Jim Crow.
Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper — running in a GOP primary for U.S. Senate as the most mainstream-friendly challenger to U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. — stunned Democrats with an explosive speech pushing back against the minority party’s calls for stronger gun-control laws in the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.
Noting that Democrats recently compared Republicans to Nazis, terrorists and “segregationists” while attacking the GOP for being pro-gun, Freitas said Democrats shouldn’t project their own “sins” onto their opponents.
“It was not our party that supported slavery, that fought women’s suffrage, that rounded up tens of thousands of Asian-Americans and put ’em in concentration camps, that supported Jim Crow, that supported segregation, or supported Massive Resistance,” Freitas said. “That wasn’t our party. That was the Democrat party.”
Coming on a Friday expected to be uneventful and short, the ruckus cast a sour mood over the House as lawmakers headed home before the final week of the session.
Saying many mass shooters come from “broken homes,” Freitas ticked off a series of reports and statistics and suggested abortion, “the welfare state” and other cultural shifts that began in the 1960s have weakened families.
If Republicans can be accused of being in the pocket of the National Rifle Association, Freitas said, the same can be said of Democrats and the groups that support them.
“When I get up here and I talk about abortion, I don’t assume that you’re all bought and paid for by Planned Parenthood. I don’t assume you’re horrible people because I disagree with you on a policy position,” Freitas said.
Though Freitas framed his speech as a call for “mutual respect,” the comments shattered the House’s usually collegial atmosphere, prompting several visibly upset Democrats, many of them African-American, to walk off the floor.
“This is crazy,” Del. Delores McQuinn, D-Richmond, told a colleague as she left the chamber.
House Minority Leader David Toscano, D-Charlottesville, asked for a short recess, apparently to allow Democrats to gather their thoughts. Del. Dawn Adams, D-Richmond, approached Freitas at his desk for what appeared to be a tense conversation.
When lawmakers returned, Del. Joseph Lindsey, D-Norfolk, said the comments left him more offended than he’s ever been since he was elected to the body in 2014.
“I have seen many of my colleagues emotionally shaken and bothered by either a lack of concern for facts or just simply playing to the cameras,” Lindsey said.
House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, then rose to say the party that routinely suggests Republicans have blood on their hands for defending gun rights was getting a taste of its own medicine.
“It’s too much for many of us to stomach,” Gilbert said.
Tensions flared again as Gilbert went on to suggest Democrats no longer care about holding criminals accountable for their crimes or making sure students who act out in schools are disciplined.
Toscano interrupted Gilbert to suggest he was violating House rules by telling willful untruths about his opponents.
“We’d ask the speaker to sanction him for his inappropriate comments,” Toscano said.
House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, trying to keep a lid on what was by far the most heated floor battle of his short tenure running the House, said: “Everyone needs to take a deep breath. The delegate will wrap up his comments.”
Speaking to reporters afterward, Freitas said he was frustrated that Democrats would take offense at a speech meant to convey that Republicans aren’t guilty of the “pretty horrible things” Democrats often accuse them of. Freitas said he wasn’t implying that legalized abortion leads to mass shootings, but that children being born out of wedlock leads to “far-reaching social ills.”
He said his political campaign wasn’t a factor in his decision to speak.
“I don’t base what I do off of Corey Stewart,” Freitas said. “And this isn’t the first time I’ve given a floor speech on something I’m passionate about.”
A former Green Beret who has served in the House since 2016, Freitas is competing against Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart and a handful of others for the GOP nomination to take on Kaine this fall. Stewart, an anti-establishment candidate with a long history of provocative comments, recently questioned the manhood of House Republicans who support Medicaid expansion.
Freitas clashed with Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, earlier this year during a subcommittee debate over guns. After Levine, a lawyer and broadcast political commentator, said that voting against universal background checks is a vote to give guns to gang members and terrorists, Freitas said he didn’t appreciate the comment and said he knew more about fighting terrorists than a “radio personality.”
Republicans were infuriated last month after Levine sent out an email headlined “How the GOP Makes it Easy to Commit Mass Murder.”
Freitas’ comment about Democrats invoking segregation appeared to a be a reference to a floor speech by Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax. On Thursday, Plum compared the students leading the push for gun control to Barbara Johns, a young civil rights pioneer who led a student strike in Prince Edward County to protest substandard facilities at her segregated school.
“I realized, by golly, we’re in another Barbara Johns moment,” Plum said.
As the session winds to a close, House Democrats have been calling on Republicans to reconsider gun-control bills that have already failed, arguing the Florida shooting that left 17 dead demands a legislative response.
Republican leaders have said that’s not possible because of procedural rules that prevent the House from taking up its own bills late in the session as it’s acting on bills that have passed the Senate.
Del. Tommy Wright, R-Lunenburg, the chairman of the House subcommittee that killed most of the Democrats’ gun bills, gave his own floor speech Friday disputing the popular Democratic refrain that “thoughts and prayers” are no longer enough after mass shootings. Saying America has taken God out of its schools, Wright said the country should turn to religion for help.
“I’m going to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, prayers are enough,” Wright said. “That is a problem. Our country has drifted. We’re getting exactly what we have sown.”
Speaking to reporters later in the day, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said he’s still trying to work with Republicans on a comprehensive approach to reforming gun laws. His advice to lawmakers? Calm it down.
“People get tired and they get testy, and I think everybody just has to try and relax and get their work done,” said Northam, who said he didn’t know specifics of what happened in the House and was speaking about frayed nerves in general. “In another week they’ll be back at home.”