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Not Ready to Make Nice

Ladies, both those serving in the legislature and those attending the session, are speaking out and pointing out inequalities

“You have to remove that button. It’s a display of protest and against the rules,” a Senate security guard told progressive activist Jennifer Harding as she entered the state Capitol Tuesday. He was objecting to the button, pinned to her purse, which declared “This is what a feminist looks like.”

She refused – loudly — and was ultimately allowed inside.

This came one day after Rep, Kenny Havard (R-St. Francisville) had again illustrated his sexism, by telling Angola’s warden, “You don’t need a bunch of ladies guarding men.” And it wasn’t Tuesday’s only incident of attempting to quell women into submission at the statehouse.

In a Senate Judiciary hearing, committee chairman Gary Smith of Norco went parental on Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, literally telling her, “That’s enough, Karen.”

At issue was a bill brought by Sen. Ronnie Johns of Sulphur, seeking to alter the rules governing riverboat casino. It would permit the facilities to move their gaming floors on land, and adjust upward the amount of gaming space allowed, in order to better accommodate newer, larger video slot machines. Johns maintains the purpose is, first-and foremost, modernization.

“Anyone who says this bill expands gaming needs to go back and read it,” he advised the committee.

“I disagree,” Sen. Greg Tarver of Shreveport replied. And since it is expansion, we also need to expand the current requirements for contracting with minority and women-owned businesses.”

Since the early 1990s, when the laws governing riverboat gaming were enacted, licensees have been required to establish voluntary goals for procuring goods and services from women-owned and minority-owned businesses. Most have set goals of 20 percent or less. Yet as recently as this week, management of three of the boats in the Shreveport-Bossier area were called to account by the Gaming Control Board for persistent failure to reach those goals.

“Didn’t three of the facilities admit they were falling behind on their minority and women-owned contract procurements?” Sen. Karen Carter Peterson asked the bill’s author. “Since this is changing a statewide policy, it’s an opportune time to address that problem, as well. We may need to defer this bill for a week.”

Peterson had some incisive questions for Louisiana Casino Association director Wade Duty.

“How diverse is your association? For example, what percentage of ownership are women and minorities?”

“I’m not sure,” Duty replied. “These casinos are owned by publicly traded corporations.”

“Then what about management?”

“Two casinos in the state have women managers,” he replied.

“And minorities?” Peterson pressed.

“I’m not certain,” Duty said, then added, “No wait. Mr. Woods, the assistant GM at Evangeline Downs is African-American.”

“So, minimal management,” Peterson retorted. “As I’ve often said, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

Duty protested, saying, “Look, these goals were set in 1992. Everything has undergone upheaval since then – technology, for example. We didn’t even have cell phones back then.

“It’s a constant struggle. We need a statewide database of minority vendors,” he urged. “Hook us up with vendor lists for the goods and services we consume.”

“I hear this all the time, and it’s the biggest joke,” Peterson fired back. “Whether its tech or toilet tissue, I know too many vendors off the top of my head that qualify. Every urban community has a thriving minority Chamber of Commerce, so to say it’s a struggle? Maybe those who are ‘struggling’ need to be replaced!”

Sen. Tarver re-entered the conversation, clearly as incensed as Peterson at this point.

“I know minority-owned businesses that solicit and solicit and solicit your casinos and get turned away,” Tarver admonished. “They all have gotten the message: ‘they don’t want us.’ You have 200% more minority owned businesses than in ’92. And you still can’t find them?”

That’s when committee chairman Gary Smith interjected, “Let’s get back on track, and discuss riverboat gaming itself.”

“We’re on message, and for the last 30 minutes have been on message,” Peterson responded angrily.

“Karen, that’s enough,” Smith said, paternally.

Infuriated at being treated like a wayward child, Peterson stormed out of the committee room, leaving Sen. J.P. Morrell to pick up the pieces.

“At this time, I believe it’s appropriate that we defer this bill for a week,” Morrell suggested.

Johns, the bill’s author, was somewhat nonplussed by the animus that had just been on display, and said “I’d be glad to defer for a week, and in the meantime we can meet and discuss the concerns. I hear them clearly, and I think it’s a legitimate issue.

“I bring this bill, with an eye toward our budget issues. Gaming is an important business for our state revenues, and I brought this in good faith.”

Tarver, at this point chastened by the overt efforts at peacemaking, replied, “If you wish to defer, okay. But I take you at your word, that we’ll discuss these issues before the bill is brought up on the floor.”

“In that case,” Morrell said, “I withdraw my motion.”

Discussion on the bill continued politely then – at least until it was time for the public to speak in opposition. No one commented on the concerns raised in the earlier controversy – instead, two Baptist pastors spoke on the evils of gambling.

“It destroys lives,” thundered Dr. David Cranford of First Baptist Church in Ponchatoula. “You don’t deal with the effects, as we do, on a daily basis, but this creates pathological gambling addicts – an estimated 90-thousand in Louisiana, according to your own Department of Health.”

Despite those objections, the bill was approved, without objection, as Sen. Peterson had not returned to the room.

In another Senate Judiciary committee, a bill seeking more gender equity in criminal punishment did advance. SB 335 increases the penalties for those soliciting prostitutes to be equivalent with the ones enacted for engaging in prostitution. Currently, a customer can be fined up to $500, no matter whether it’s a first, second or subsequent offense. The prostitute faces a jail term, and increasing fines – going up to $4000 and 4 years in prison for a third or subsequent offense.

The bill’s author, Sen. Beth Mizell (R-Franklinton), promoted it as an anti-human-trafficking measure, saying “Incarceration for the johns has not been a consideration.”

Sen. Regina Barrow (D-Baton Rouge) responded, “You say incarceration – I say castration.”

And as for the Senate security guard who took issue with the feminist button? An investigation has been launched into his behavior. Apparently, it wasn’t his first incident of excess officiousness.

At Louisiana’s Capitol, where six goddess statues stand sentinel duty above the main bronze doors – where the “Goddess of Agriculture” reigns above the entrance to the Senate chambers and the “Goddess of Time and Knowledge” dominates the entrance to the House – and only 15-percent of the elected lawmakers are women, the day’s events should serve as a reminder of the words of Sojourner Truth, on September 7, 1853:

“You may hiss as much as you please, but women will get their rights anyway. You can’t stop us, neither!”

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