SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers are calling on a lobbyist to apologize after she gave Rep. Sandra Hollins, the only African American legislator serving on Utah’s governing body, a tag that said “slave” as part of a presentation to House Democrats on Thursday.
As the news spread across social media Friday, accusations of racism peppered talk on the Hill.
The lobbyist who gave the presentation, Sound Choices Coalition Director Angela Kelly, told the Deseret News that what she said was taken out of context and that there was “zero indication during the presentation” that anyone was upset with it, including Hollins.
The Thursday incident occurred while Kelly presented her thoughts on SB102 that would decriminalize polygamy — legislation that Kelly opposes.
Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said Kelly placed the tag on her lunch tray as part of a demonstration where the lobbyist attempted to draw parallels between polygamy and slavery, saying both “strip away the identity of the individual.”
A few minutes later Hollins left the meeting, describing on Friday how she was quite “shocked” and felt belittled by Kelly’s action.
“I was the only African American in the room. I’m the only African American legislator and I’m the only one that got the name tag that said slave,” Hollins said.
She acknowledged Kelly’s argument that polygamist women are enslaved and said she’s spoken to people who’ve reached out to share their perspective on polygamy. Hollins said she “understands” the issues these women experience as well as the oppression that goes with it and emphasized she believes lawmakers need to push policy that’s going to help them get out of that situation.
“What I don’t understand is when people decide to use slavery as a way to build their political careers. Currently right now we have slaves in this state that are buried that are in unmarked graves that aren’t even identified,” Hollins said. “To me that’s a travesty. I think when you start looking at trying to build a political career or build your organization off of slavery — off of my ancestors — that’s where I have a problem.”
The Democratic Caucus released a statement Friday expressing regret for not shutting down the presentation sooner and called on Kelly to apologize for “racist and absolutely inappropriate” behavior.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who was in a different room when the incident occurred, cut into the presentation to tell Kelly that it is inappropriate to ever compare anything to slavery.
Kelly challenged this, saying: “I’m sorry, you are wrong. You are absolutely wrong. You cannot be closed-minded like that. You have to be willing to say ‘Maybe I don’t know everything about this issue.’ You’re closing off all options.”
To which Romero replied: “You offended members of our caucus.”
Legislators said they were disappointed that the presentation was allowed to continue for as long as it did.
“As a person of color here up at the Legislature, these are things that Rep. Hollins and Sen. Escamilla and our other members that are from communities of color, experience from time to time,” Romero said. “I think sometimes people don’t recognize it because it doesn’t directly impact them. So I think this a learning moment for all of us. I don’t think we should point fingers at anyone; it’s a learning moment that we need to stand up and speak out.”
Hollins said many of her colleagues reached out to apologize to her saying they wished they would have spoken up sooner.
Hollins said Kelly has not yet reached out to apologize, but if the lobbyist were to she’ll probably look at this as an opportunity and try to help her understand why her actions were inappropriate.
Kelly said she “meant no offense” and that she would like to talk to Hollins and “understand how that made her feel.”
When asked what exactly happened during the caucus meeting, Kelly said she gave Hollins a piece of paper that said “wife” and that whether or not she gave the representative a tag that said slave is “not the issue.” She said Hollins just happened to be the first person there and that she would have done the comparison on anyone and did not single out the representative because of her race.
“It’s interesting to me where this has been taken,“ Kelly said. “Slaves did not have a choice. Their skin color determined they were a slave. In polygamy what determines it is you are a woman. You are a female. And this is now your role.”
But instead of focusing on “a piece of paper,” Kelly said the point of her presentation was to get legislators to ask questions about whether polygamy is restricting a women’s rights.
“Those are the questions,” Kelly said. “That’s never going to happen if we stay focused on a piece of paper and on someone being offended.”
Romero emphasized that the House Democrats were not against the presentation.
“We were against singling out a member of our caucus who happened to be the only black woman ever elected to the Utah state Legislature who’s currently serving, a name tag that said slave.”
The legislation, SB102, would lower the penalty for consenting adults practicing bigamy in Utah from a felony to an infraction in hopes of encouraging victims of abuses within polygamy to step forward. The bill would also enhance penalties for bigamy when it is related to other crimes like fraud, abuse and child marriage.
The Senate voted unanimously in favor of the legislation on Friday. Next, it will go before the Senate for a third and final reading, and if passed, will move on to the House.