A Saturday preview of the coming, volatile Senate debate over a hate crimes bill

State Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, on Saturday
State Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, on Saturday

It was a rare but blistering day at the state Capitol.

One day earlier, a state Senate committee passed out a hate crimes bill pushed by much of Georgia’s political and business leadership, but on a party line vote also extended protections in the measure to include police and first responders.

As passed by the House last year, House Bill 426 would allow enhanced criminal penalties to be levied against those who target their victims on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, or physical or mental disability. From our AJC colleague Maya T. Prabhu: 

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Chuck Efstration, a Dacula Republican, called the addition of law enforcement to his measure a "poison pill."

"This is not about support for law enforcement," Efstration said after the vote. "This is about the legislative process being utilized by the state Senate in order to take a bipartisan measure and cause division (by bringing) about a provision with the purpose of causing Democratic opposition to the bill."

In a rare Saturday session, forced by the inability of the House and Senate to come to an agreement on how the final days of an already delayed session should be brought to a close, the hate crimes bill was a sharp focus of attention in the upper chamber.

State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, on Saturday
State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, on Saturday

We're hearing that a floor vote could come Tuesday. Two senators, Renee Unterman, R-Buford, and David Lucas, D-Macon, spoke on each side of the matter – offering a preview of rhetoric to come. Below is a rough transcript of their Saturday remarks. You watch the exchange here, at about the 43-minute mark. First, Unterman:

"…The reason I'm mad is because, when I woke up this morning, I read a Tweet and I was tagged in a Tweet -- and let me tell you I've been through some Tweets during a congressional campaign, and I've been mad before. But this is personal. I've been through a lot of personal stuff. Y'all know I was in a straitjacket during my congressional campaign.

"But the reason I'm mad -- I'm going to read this Tweet to you: 'I am so disappointed that the Senate Republicans inserted the poison pill of adding occupations as a protected class to the hate crimes bill.' The Senate Dems said, 'We want a real hate crimes bill.' We want a real hate crimes bill. This is a red-hot poker and you're poking that poker into a fire that is just bursting open, and it has the consequences of burning this building down.

"And when you tweeted that, and you said that we were incendiary and that we were stoking that fire -- let me tell you, you're absolutely wrong. I am the only Jewish person in this room. The only other Jewish person I have ever served with was David Adelman. I served over in the House with a couple of Jewish people.

"If there is anybody in this room who wants a hate crimes bill -- I converted to Judaism from Catholicism. For 40 years, for 40 years, over 40 years, I have been the point of a lot of hate crimes, in a lot of just unbelievable things said to me because I'm Jewish, and discriminated against.

"If there is any one person in this room who wants a hate crimes bill more than me, I don't know who you are. But I will stay here from night to day, drive miles and miles and miles to get here, to accomplish that -- because I want it. But I will not sit here and be intimidated....

"If anything, the Democratic caucus needs to be pouring honey on to this building for those who are reticent to vote for this bill, for those Republican senators who are going on the line for you -- and they are going on the line for you, and are going to vote for that hate crimes bill.

"You do not need to be sending that poker into a hot flame already, so I encourage the Democratic caucus to come to the table and to work with the majority caucus and not burn this building down. And for the man standing behind me [Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan], pass a hate crimes bill for the whole state of Georgia.

"And that's why I'm mad. I encourage you to do better. We can do better, and let's move on, get finished. get the budget passed, pass the hate crimes bill, and get out of this building."

Senator Lucas, who is African American, followed Unterman:

"It's really interesting. We're talking about cojones. Who's got the biggest one. We were told that we had a hate crimes bill that came from the House that we didn't need to mess with, we just needed to pass it.

"We are a deliberative body, and what happens is when the House and the Senate disagree, they insist on their positions in a committee of conference.

"But let me say something to you. The reason we are here, in all of the discussion around the world, is because of police. It's because of police, because somebody in a police department did something that was ludicrous. We're not saying that all policemen -- there's something wrong with them.

"When something is going on, you dial 911 'cause you want some help. You want somebody to show up that can do something. But in a hate crimes bill, that's been brought on by incidents by police -- and then to take them, and put them in a protected class in a hate crimes bill I will never vote for. Never.

"It seems to me, it is a poison pill to kill the hate crimes bill. And this deliberative body -- we had conversations with leadership and thought we had a plan that would allow the president of this body to do some things, to change some things. Put in enhanced penalties and some things, and then send it back to the House.

"And we know they were going to insist on their position and a committee of conference would be set up to deal with it.

"But behold, in the wee, wee hours late in the afternoon, all of a sudden, it changed. It changed. A protected class was being put in, and we were told, 'We don't need you. We got the votes to pass.'

"Well, I tell you what. You got the cojones, you pass it.

"We as a Democratic caucus would not pass a bill that's got a protected occupation in it. A policeman is a person, just like me and you…Resist arrest, fight back with a police officer, and look at the charges you get.

"But to come in here and tell us that we're going to put a protected class in a hate crimes bill, when we are here because it was the police that did the work to get us here…

"And I hadn't planned to come up here and fight the Civil War all over again. We need to be talking about what happened on Election Day, why is it there so many folks had to stand in line and wait for hours….

"We need to be talking about elections. We got a run off [in August] and we got a general election November. But I will tell you that I will fight a hate crimes bill that has an occupation in it with all the vigor that I can.

"And I will make sure that when I do it that I'll let everybody know who killed hate crimes bill.

"It is no joke. Do you know what it's like to be like this [pointing to his skin]? Do you know what it's like? We're talking about the attitudes -- we saw it on film, we saw it on video…So don't tell us it did happen when we actually see it.

"Don't tell me I didn't see the police officer with his hand in his pocket, steadily add pressure to George Floyd. Don't tell me I didn't see the guy running that took the Taser. And you've got a Taser, you've got to have been shot with the Taser before you can carry it. And y'all say it don't kill, but you running with a Taser, point and running, and you get shot twice in the back?

"You got his driver's license. You got the car. If anything, you can send the fugitive squad to get him. They have about seven or eight folks. He wouldn't have been able to whoop them. But it's about cojones. A police officer made a decision 'cause he got his butt whooped. That's what happened. So we need to get this thing right and get it done the right way and move on."

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