‘The people of Pennsylvania expect better from us:’ Outrage-filled week punctuated with bipartisan call for civility

(Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

A string of controversial actions by lawmakers in the state House  — from abortion-protester harassment to white nationalist selfies — led Democratic and Republican leadership on Wednesday to call on lawmakers to tone down their rhetoric and focus on respectful legislating, while also acknowledging “the nation is watching.”

“There is no room for hate in any form in this chamber or in our own lives,” House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, told lawmakers during a rare rebuke from the House floor. “The people of Pennsylvania expect better from us, and we all promised to serve the people of our commonwealth to best of each of our abilities.”

“We saw some spirited debate today, and that’s the way it should be,” Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, added, referring to some sparring over a controversial bill banning abortion based on a diagnosis of Down syndrome. “But we need to respect, and we all should respect, the views of all Pennsylvanians.”

House lawmakers have been in the news over the past week for a variety of controversies. Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, D-Chester, compared pipeline workers to Nazis in a tweet sent late in April that made its way into headlines last week.

Local trade unions representing those workers called for Otten, a first-year member who ran as an anti-pipeline candidate, to resign. She also faced criticism from fellow Democrats and the state GOP.

Otten has contended that her words are being spun, and that she’s been misinterpreted and misconstrued.

“My tweet was never intended to compare workers to Nazis,” Otten told the Capital-Star. “It was more to make a comparison to a mentality around excusing bad actions as ‘just doing your job.'”

Then this week, national anti-abortion rights groups picked up two videos posted to social media by Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia. In the videos, Sims verbally harasses people protesting outside a Planned Parenthood location in his district and offers money to viewers who can identify the individuals.

Dem Rep. Brian Sims makes national headlines in viral video condemning Planned Parenthood protesters

The videos have attracted national attention from conservative media and lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. They were first highlighted on Twitter by Live Action, a group that opposes abortion access, while Fox News and the Washington Post later covered the controversy.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 9,500 people had signed an online petition calling for Sims to resign, while anti-abortion activists are planning a rally outside the Philadelphia clinic.

In a video posted to his social media accounts Tuesday, Sims did not apologize but admitted he was “aggressive” during the incident.

“I know two wrongs don’t make a right,” Sims said. “I can do better, and I will do better, for the women of Pennsylvania.”

Finally, during a gun-rights rally Monday at the Capitol, progressive activist Sean Kitchen snapped a photo of first-year Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, R-Clinton, taking a selfie with three members of the American Guard — a group the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies as a hate group and the Anti-Defamation League calls “extremists” with ties to white nationalism.

Borowicz received national attention in March when she delivered a rambling prayer invoking “Jesus” 13 times before the chamber’s first Muslim-American woman, Rep. Movita Johnson-Harrell, was sworn in.

Johnson-Harrell called the prayer “Islamaphobic” afterwards. She also criticized the Borowicz selfie on Twitter.

Johnson-Harrell added to the Centre Daily Times, “We need our elected officials to be aware and conscious of who they are meeting with, and the message that sends to the public. Being seen smiling next to members of a hate group is not the image I would choose for myself.”

In a statement to the Daily Times, Borowicz called the controversy around the selfie “nonsense” and “exactly what Americans are tired of, lies and distortions of the truth.”

What happens next

At least one top House Republican is calling for an ethics investigation into Sims, questioning if his behavior is fitting of a public official.

In a statement, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, called on Sims to “issue a formal apology to those he harassed and to the constituents he serves.” Saylor is the third-ranking House Republican.

In one of the videos, recorded in April, Sims is heard offering $100 to his viewers to publicly identify a woman and teens protesting outside the Planned Parenthood. Saylor described the action in a statement as “openly encouraging cyber bullying.”

“If you had a daughter, and someone said ‘well, I’ll pay $100 for her name and address,’ what was the point of that?” Saylor told the Capital-Star. “That was outrageous for any man to make that statement, let alone anybody to do that.”

He also said it’s “wrong” to try to compare the situations of Borowicz and Sims.

“People walk into the Capitol, or anywhere, and walk up to you. You don’t know if they’re a child predator. You don’t know who they are. Just because you are photoed in the same photograph as somebody doesn’t mean you’re supportive of their issues,” Saylor said.

Neither Cutler nor Dermody hinted that any further action would be taken against members during their short floor speeches. A spokesperson for Cutler added that they would not comment on what the Ethics Committee investigates and does not investigate.

But the week of outrage also elicited the attention of Gov. Tom Wolf, who called on “both sides” to focus on working together again.

“Democracy only works when we talk to each other, not hurling epithets,” Wolf told the Capital-Star.

Stephen Caruso is the Capital-Star's House reporter. He previously covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.
Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

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