A rookie mistake, or a sign of things to come?
Celia Cohen has the story here, and I think it’s an important one. Here’s why.
During my time in Dover, the following served as Speaker of the House, the leader of the institution: Lonnie George, Chuck Hebner, Brad Barnes, Terry Spence, and Bob Gilligan. In addition to being white males, they all had great respect for the institution of the House. They all, to varying extents, created a collegiality that extended beyond the 41 members themselves, to full-time and part-time staff, per diem staff, and to the extended Leg Hall family.
As one of his first acts as the presumptive Speaker, Pete Schwartzkopf fired two per diem employees. Their alleged sin: Being disrespectful to Pete Schwartzkopf. Not to his face, mind you. Someone told him that they had dissed him. (Et tu, Valerie Longhurst?) Just let this Schwartzkopf quote float around in your brain for awhile:
“It was not a very hard decision,” Schwartzkopf said. “Do I bring somebody back who vocally and vehemently disagreed with leadership or somebody who will just do the job?”
Vocally and vehemently? Well, vocally, yes. Assuming that Schwartzkopf’s narc was accurate, someone presumably vocalized it. Vehemently? Really? And, by all accounts, they did their jobs well.
Before we go any further, let me explain who per diem employees are, and what they do. In general, per diems only work on days that the General Assembly is in session. About 50 days a year, or so. They handle routine, but important tasks: bill preparation; updating legislative calendars, agendas, and ready lists for the legislators; handing out bills and amendments during session; maintaining order in the chambers; even serving as podium officials, including bill clerk and reading clerk. Those chosen are, by and large, patronage employees, there aren’t many of them, and they are selected by the elected officials themselves. Not by the Speaker or the President Pro-Tem. Many are retired. So, yes, they are often politically active, are generally delights to talk to, and are integral elements in both the day-to-day operations of the General Assembly and the collegiality of the body. Doesn’t matter if you’re a D or R, they’re all part of that institution known as the House. And, yes, gasp(!), they often have opinions about politics.
The two per diems who Pete fired had one thing in common: Each managed a successful campaign for a first-time Democratic House candidate. Kim Williams and Andria Bennett. For their troubles, Pete fired them. Not good.
These firings serve only to create a sense of paranoia amongst the staff. While one might hope that the Speaker would call on his ‘better angels’, his second-in-command is Rep. Valerie Longhurst, whose only supervisory experience prior to entering the House was in wrangling volunteers at her local Babe Ruth League canteen. Probably would have fired them too if they hadn’t been, you know, volunteers. What the House apparently faces is a leadership team that prefers to run the institution through intimidation rather than collegiality.
That could present a challenge to the presumed leadership team-to-be. While there was a sharp split during the leadership elections, it wasn’t as if it was Good vs. Ee-vil. Valerie Longhurst excepted. Fair-minded House members who voted for Schwartzkopf/Longhurst may well already be having second thoughts about what the next two years could portend under this team. Which is important because the House leadership has not yet been officially chosen.
The Senate leadership has officially been chosen. The Senate met in Special Session to consider judicial nominees. Prior to considering the nominees, the Senate approved the leadership nominees. The House has not yet met.
What generally happens is that the House D’s and the House R’s each submit their nominee for Speaker, presumably Schwartzkopf and Dan Short. Short has been named Minority Leader by the House R’s. He won’t be the next Speaker. But, if enough House D’s go ‘not voting’, it’s at least possible that Schwartzkopf could face a challenge from within his own caucus. A nominee requires 21 affirmative votes to be elected Speaker. His ill-considered firings could make that 21-vote threshold dicey for the former state cop.
For the sake of the institution, I hope that Pete Schwartzkopf sends a strong signal that he values the collegiality of the institution, like his predecessors. It’s not a sign of weakness to admit mistakes. He can recognize the value of each and every employee of the House, and let them know that they don’t need to look over their shoulders. He can also make clear that, while he will reward his supporters in the leadership vote, he will not punish those who opposed him. Senator Thurman Adams took the punishment route after he defeated Sen. Blevins and a more progressive slate of senators back in 2000. That acrimony permeated the Senate until this year. It would be a sad irony if, in the same year that the Senate appears to have healed longstanding rifts through consensus leadership choices, the presumptive House leadership team opts to open wounds on the other end of Leg Hall.
Your move, Mr. Presumptive Speaker.