BATON ROUGE, La. — Gov. John Bel Edwards derided a bill that could protect Confederate monuments, calling the proposal impractical and unnecessarily divisive on Tuesday, a day after black lawmakers stormed off the Louisiana House floor in protest over a Republican’s plan.
The Democratic governor wouldn’t say during a news conference whether he would veto Republican Rep. Thomas Carmody’s proposal if it reaches his desk. But he called it “problematic” in its current form and said it had caused more division than he ever saw in his eight years as a legislator.
The bill would ban the removal of any plaque, statue or other monument on public property commemorating a historic military figure or event — unless local voters approve the removal in an election.
Edwards said while Louisiana’s Confederate past is “certainly part of our history, can we say it’s the best part?”
The governor’s comments came hours after members of the Legislative Black Caucus held a news conference to urge the Senate to strike down Carmody’s measure.
Rep. Joseph Bouie, a New Orleans Democrat who is caucus chairman, said representatives had shown a lack of leadership by advancing the bill Monday.
“The members who voted for this said they voted holding their nose, but said this is what their constituents were calling for them to do,” Bouie said.
The debate over Confederate symbols has flared since nine black parishioners were shot to death by an avowed racist at a church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. New Orleans recently removed two Confederate-era monuments from prominent locations and intends to take down two more. Carmody’s own city of Shreveport has been debating what to do with a Confederate monument in front of the parish’s courthouse.
House Speaker Taylor Barras, a New Iberia Republican who supported the bill, said he’s concerned the issue’s divisiveness could affect other heated debates on the budget, taxes and criminal justice overhaul as the session enters its final weeks ahead of the June 8 adjournment.
“There’s a lot of temperatures raised. It’s an emotional topic,” he said.
Bouie said the black caucus had no plans to retaliate legislatively.
The governor said requiring an election before any war monument can be moved isn’t feasible, arguing that many objects might need to be moved for reasons entirely unrelated to the monument’s political significance. He also said the state should not be intervening into these local issues.
Ahead of the vote, numerous black lawmakers delivered impassioned speeches, pleading with their colleagues to reject a bill they found so hurtful.
Democratic Rep. Pat Smith of Baton Rouge recounted how she had been told to “get over” slavery by one woman during a committee hearing and had since been bombarded by hate-filled emails from white supremacists.
Carmody was the only lawmaker to speak in favor of the measure. He said the bill’s aim is not to maintain Confederate monuments, but rather to let local residents vote on the issue.
Immediately after the proposal passed, every black representative gathered their belongings and walked out of the room. Rep. Ted James of Baton Rouge said he and his colleagues went to a private room downstairs to “calm down” and “regroup.”
“I was disappointed to look up at the scoreboard and see how people who I consider friends voted on this — especially after we were able to express to them the personal nature and the offensive nature of this,” said New Orleans Rep. Gary Carter, a Democrat.
House Bill 71: www.legis.la.gov