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The leader of the Arizona House of Representatives House Municipal Oversight and Elections Committee doesn’t want speakers in front of the committee to utter the words “conspiracy theory.”
This comes just two weeks after a hearing in which that same House committee met jointly with its Senate counterpart and allowed a Gilbert insurance agent to spread wild and utterly unfounded conspiracy theories about a multitude of state and local officials during one of its meetings.
During a March 8 meeting, Chairwoman of the House Municipal Oversight and Elections Committee, Rep. Jacqueline Parker, R-Mesa, told a speaker he could not use the words “conspiracy theory” when speaking about legislation the committee was considering.
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Parker did not respond to a request for comment.
Rep. Oscar De Los Santos, a Laveen Democrat and a member of the committee, called that directive “utterly startling.”
“That’s exactly what their lies are,” De Los Santos told the Arizona Mirror. “They are lies. They are conspiracy theories that have repeatedly been debunked.”
“It’s important for the public to remember that whatever happens in that committee is not reflective of what most Arizonans think and know,” he added. “Most Arizonans aren’t buying these lies. They know our elections are accurate and safe.”
Parker’s directive not to use the words “conspiracy theory” was aimed at Ben Scheel, executive director of the left-leaning nonprofit Opportunity Arizona, who has been a frequent and vociferous critic of the committee and its work.
Rep. Alexander Kolodin, R-Scottsdale, repeatedly interrupted Scheel, who attended the hearing to speak about several election bills the committee was considering, saying that Scheel was violating the rules of order by impugning the motives of the members of the committee.
Kolodin repeatedly interrupted and spoke loudly over Scheel for impugning the motives of members of the committee. That was a stark contrast to how he reacted on Feb. 23 when Jacqueline Breger falsely accused Gov. Katie Hobbs, several Maricopa County supervisors, 12 Maricopa County Superior Court judges, the mayor of Mesa and multiple state legislators of taking bribes from the Sinaloa drug cartel in the form of money laundered through a housing deed scam.
During Breger’s 45 minutes of testimony that day, Kolodin did not speak up to mention the rule against impugning members of the legislature until his Republican colleague Ken Bennett stopped Breger and said her comments were not appropriate.
Kolodin then calmly redirected Breger to avoid casting aspersions about the GOP lawmakers listening to her speak — all of the Democrats on the committees boycotted the hearing — and called her testimony “explosive.”
Kolodin told the Arizona Mirror that there really wasn’t a difference between Breger’s and Scheel’s impugning the motives of the legislators, Bennett just caught Breger’s offense more quickly than he did.
“Bennett was absolutely right when he made the objection,” he said.
Kolodin said he caught Scheel’s transgression more quickly because the lobbyist who throws barbs at the committee regularly, while Breger is a member of the public who hadn’t spoken to the committee before Feb. 23.
Breger did not provide any valid evidence of the alleged bribery, and many Republican members of the committee and the rest of the legislature distanced themselves from the testimony after it gained traction in national far-right media, with people sharing the false claims as fact.
“If those are not conspiracy theories I don’t know what is,” De Los Santos said of Breger’s claims. “I think it’s wholly appropriate to call them out for what they are.”
Kolodin, the vice chair of the committee, said he did not want to speak on behalf of Parker, but in his view, speakers before the committee are free to call something a conspiracy theory — but should not be allowed to say the motives of the committee members are acting based on conspiracy theories.
Invoking the ‘great replacement’ conspiracy triggered fireworks
Scheel attempted to say on March 8 that all of the bills heard by the Municipal Oversight and Elections Committee were based on conspiracy theories and falsehoods, citing previous presentations in front of the committee by We The People Arizona Alliance, a far right group that has made spurious and debunked claims including that early ballot drop boxes are regularly used for fraud.
“This committee continues to perpetuate falsehoods,” Scheel said before Kolodin cut him off.
On March 8, the committee heard several bills that had already been passed by the Senate, including Senate Bill 1141, which would require voters to present ID when they drop off mail in ballots in person; Senate Bill 1201, which would prohibit the use of a voter’s previous signatures on electronic poll books for comparison to verify their signature on a mail-in ballot; and Senate Bill 1213, which would require the state Elections Procedures Manual, issued before every election by the secretary of state, to receive approval from the Joint Legislative Audit Committee.
The manual already must receive approval from the governor and the attorney general.
But it was when Scheel commented on Senate Bill 1142, which would require the secretary of state and county recorder to post the dates and locations of all of their voter registration events, that things really got heated.
The secretary of state and county recorders often host these events in communities where voter registration rates are low, and Scheel said the legislation is based on the idea that Arizona’s voter rolls include immigrants and other people of color who are illegally registered to vote. Scheel said that the entire premise is rooted in the “great replacement” theory, a false belief that non-white people are being brought into the U.S. to replace white voters.
This theory is often espoused by anti-immigration groups and white supremacists, and has been the driving force behind several mass shootings around the world, including at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, in 2019.
After Scheel mentioned the great replacement theory, Kolodin loudly called for Scheel to stop and said that he was accusing Kolodin, who is Jewish, of being a white supremacist.
Parker then halted Scheel’s testimony.
Scheel told the Mirror that he doesn’t believe he violated the committee’s rules.
“I was speaking to the bill,” Scheel said. “I never mentioned any legislator’s names, or any person at all. I was speaking to the bill, and I never said the words ‘racist’ or ‘white supremacist.’”
Still, he apologized to the committee later in the hearing after Parker told him he wouldn’t be allowed to testify in the future until he could be respectful to the committee members.
“My reaction was that they really just don’t want to hear public testimony that contradicts them,” Scheel told the Mirror. “It’s unfortunate that they’re not willing to listen for 30 seconds and that I kept getting cut off.”
This won’t stop Scheel from holding the committee accountable for “using public dollars to broadcast lies,” he said.
If Scheel does testify in the committee again, he won’t get any leeway from Kolodin, who said he’s “had to deal with real white supremacists” and won’t tolerate being accused of being one.
“You don’t do that,” Kolodin said. “He can go f*** himself.”
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