PHOENIX (AP) — The Arizona Senate on Monday opened an ethics investigation into an incendiary Republican member who tweeted inflammatory comments about last weekend’s racist attack at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, which made 10 dead.
The removal of Sen. Wendy Rogers from Flagstaff to the Ethics Committee replaced the immediate expulsion that Democratic lawmakers were planning, GOP Majority Leader Rick Gray said. Due process considerations require nothing less than an ethical investigation, he said.
But Democrats were furious, noting that Rogers had just been censured in March for a repeated series of tweets and statements that embraced white nationalism and called for violence.
Despite a 24-3 bipartisan vote on the Republican plan to open an ethics committee review that could lead to an expulsion, censure or reprimand, Democrats failed to convince any Republican to support their motion to expulsion from Rogers.
On Saturday, on news of the mass shooting by a white suspect who had posted a racist screed on the internet and walked about 200 miles (322 kilometers) through a mostly black neighborhood in Buffalo, Rogers tweeted “Fed boy summer has started in Buffalo . ”
Many in both parties interpreted that tweet to mean that Rogers blamed the attack on the feds, especially in light of Rogers’ history of embracing conspiracy theories and posting racist tropes.
Republican leaders in the Senate tried to put themselves at the front of the controversy Monday morningissuing a statement condemning the violence and “all hate speech that has inspired such heinous crimes”.
Without naming Rogers, the statement said “words have consequences, and while we believe in our First Amendment right to free speech, we denounce any extremist rhetoric that has fueled these horrific acts.”
Only three members voted not to open the ethics investigation, including Rogers and Republican Senator Warren Petersen, who said he hadn’t even heard of the controversy when he walked onto the Senate floor. Republican Senator Kelly Townsend, who is challenging Rogers in the GOP primary after redistricting the two in the same district, also opposed the ethics inquiry.
Townsend said Rogers’ comments were an embarrassment to the state and the Republican Party and added to the pain of the families of those killed in Buffalo.
“But she has the right to make them,” Townsend said. “I have to defend a person’s right to say ugly things. That’s why the First Amendment exists. It doesn’t exist for nice words – it exists for ugly words.
Rogers released a statement after the vote slamming Democrats for what she said was an effort to divide Republicans, and said her now-deleted tweet was misinterpreted.
“Unfortunately, my comment was completely taken out of context and became a false narrative that is now the focal point of a firestorm created by some race-obsessed members of the media,” Rogers said.
The hours-long debate in the Senate over what to do about Rogers turned into a fracas, with Republicans accusing Democrats of trying to make political hay and Democrats accusing GOP members of tending to avoid uncomfortable discussions about race relations by shutting down any debate on the issue.
Republican Senator Sonny Borrelli called it an example of the cancel culture of Democrats who dislike Rogers and his brand of politics. Others agreed that Rogers’ words were used against her.
“It’s not an expellable offense,” Republican Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita said. “The Ds politicize it.”
She called it a dangerous precedent to consider expelling or even censoring a member for their tweets or comments.
GOP Sen. JD Mesnard, who was Speaker of the House when a member was expelled in 2018 after a series of sexual misconduct allegations, said hearings and an ethics committee process were imperative.
“It’s the equivalent of a legislative execution,” Mesnard said of Rogers’ motion to evict. “That’s why due process, ethical process and investigation are so essential.”
Democrats pointed to Rogers’ prior issues, which began the month she was sworn in in 2021 when a staff member accused her of bullying and other unprofessional conduct, and the March 2022 censure, which was also approved by a 24-3 vote with three members absent. Townsend was absent, but said she would have voted yes.
“How many times do you allow your kids to get out of control before you give them a chance to be disciplined,” said Democratic Senator Theresa Hatathlie. “Discipline is a moment of teaching. It’s something we’ve had before.”
Democratic Sen. Martin Quezada said much the same thing and accused GOP members of “kicking the streets” by not taking immediate action.
He said Rogers’ tweets needed no investigation, and that those and his story were all that was at stake.
“Now there’s a track record, now there’s a pattern of behavior,” Quezada said. “We haven’t heard any effort to defend these actions. And my assumption is that there is no defense against these actions.
Rogers did not comment on the Senate floor where the other members spent hours discussing her.