GOP: Pinsky’s ‘Schoolhouse Steps’ Remarks Conjure Up Image of Southern Racists

    On the second day of Senate floor debate over legislation that would give local school districts the option of starting the school year before Labor Day, tempers boiled over.

    Defending his bill, Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Chair Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s) could barely contain his anger Friday as he talked about Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s (R) executive order from 2 ½ years ago mandating that all schools open after Labor Day and close by June 15.

    Pinsky and supporters of his bill have repeatedly contended that Hogan’s executive order robs Maryland school districts of their right to set the school calendar.

    “No one individual, even if they are armed with an executive order should have the right to stand on the schoolhouse steps and say students, you can’t enter here before Labor Day,” Pinsky said Friday. “No one individual should be able to stand on the schoolhouse steps if they are armed with an executive order scribbled with a signature to say June 15th you got to get out of the school.”

    That imagery offended State Sen. Robert Cassilly (R-Harford), one of several Republicans who have been defending Hogan’s executive order.

    “I rise in outrage,” he said, shortly after Pinsky spoke, accusing his colleague of comparing Hogan to racist Southern governors who stood in schoolhouse doorways in the 1950’s and ’60s to prevent African-American children from entering.

    Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) tried to calm the tensions, suggesting that while the debate had turned emotional, it hadn’t gotten out of bounds.

    “We love each other,” he told his colleagues. “This is Senate debate.”

    But later in the day, Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chassé returned to Cassilly’s criticism and offered a similar rebuke.

    “Senator Pinsky’s comments are exactly why people are disgusted with politics,” Chassé said. “If you can’t have a conversation about school start dates without referring to the other person as an historical racist, then you are part of the problem. Marylanders have made it clear they want more debate and discussion and less divisiveness and demagoguery – the senator should pay attention.”

    In an interview Friday evening, Pinsky – one of the most senior and vocal progressives in the General Assembly – said he was surprised that Republicans would suggest he was comparing Hogan to racists like the late Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus and the late Alabama Gov. George Wallace.

    “If he draws parallels from it, he draws parallels from it,” Pinsky said.

    He added that he was “explaining the implications of [Hogan’s] actions” – that with a signature, a governor could subvert the will of local school districts.

    “I think that offends a lot of people,” Pinsky said.

    The Senate gave preliminary approval to Pinsky’s bill on Thursday. Final debate is scheduled to resume on Tuesday.

    In a related development, Sen. Melony G. Griffith (D-Prince George’s) introduced a bill Friday mandating that Maryland schools educate students about the abolitionists Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.

    That was an outgrowth of the debate over Pinsky’s bill on Thursday. Republicans, in a maneuver to try to get Democrats to vote against paying tribute to Tubman, introduced an amendment to Pinsky’s bill mandating a day of classroom instruction about Tubman. Democrats voted against it, anyway.

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    Josh Kurtz
    Co-founder and Editor Josh Kurtz is the leading chronicler of Maryland politics and government. He began covering the State House in 1995 for The Gazette newspapers, and has been writing about state and local politics ever since. He later became an editor at Roll Call, the Capitol Hill newspaper, and spent eight years at E&E News, an online subscription-only publisher of news websites covering energy and environmental issues. For seven of those years, he led a staff of 20 reporters at E&E Daily, which covers energy and environmental policy on Capitol Hill and in national politics. For 6 1/2 years he wrote a weekly column on state politics for Center Maryland and has written for several other Maryland publications as well. Kurtz has given speeches and appeared on TV and radio shows about Maryland politics through the years.