Normally quiet legislative proceedings were anything but last week

The third-floor gallery in the Arizona House of Representatives, which was largely full of anti-abortion advocates, erupted in cheers on April 17, 2024, after GOP lawmakers successfully thwarted an attempt by Democrats to force a vote on legislation to repeal a near-total abortion ban that was first added to Arizona law in 1864. Photo by Jerod MacDonald-Evoy | Arizona Mirror

As Republicans in the Arizona House of Representatives devised and executed a plan on April 17 to block Democrats’ efforts to repeal the state’s 1864 abortion ban, scores of opponents of abortion rights looked on from the gallery above them, eagerly cheering them on. 

“I anticipated the cheering. I was a little bit surprised to the degree… how loud it was. But you’re sort of in that place long enough (that) you learn to tune out the chatter most of the time,”  Rep. Stephanie Stahl Hamilton, D-Tucson, said.  

Stahl-Hamilton’s bill to repeal the 1864 near-total ban on abortion has been the center of discussion since the Arizona Supreme Court this month ruled the ban to be enforceable, placing health care providers and patients in Arizona at risk. 

As members of the House reconvened for their weekly session, participants from an anti-abortion demonstration earlier that day crowded the chamber’s third-floor gallery to support Republican lawmakers in their efforts to prevent the ban from being repealed. When lawmakers succeeded in doing so for the second week in a row, robust cheers filled the chamber. 

Though Arizonans supporting various causes were sprinkled throughout the audience, the overwhelming majority of those in attendance came to support the missions of anti-abortion groups like Arizona Right to Life and Arizona Women of Action. 

“I do think it’s out of step with what most people in Arizona want. I think this is such a loud, small percentage of the population,” Stahl Hamilton said.

A video circulating on social media showing Republicans on the floor entertaining the applauding crowd has garnered over 2 million views, prompting reactions from abortion rights advocates and Democrats nationwide. 

“This is what Republican leaders believe. This is what they want: to take women’s rights all the way back to 1864,” former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said in reaction to the video in a post on X. 

Speaker Pro Tempore Travis Grantham, as presiding officer of the House, is responsible for enforcing the rules of the House gallery. After the first extensive round of applause from the anti-abortion organizers in attendance, Grantham reminded the gallery of House rules regarding expected decorum. 

“Members, and guests who we cherish having here, this would be a very good time to remind everyone, there are posted rules in the chamber,” Grantham reminded the crowd. “I expect the gallery to behave as well as I expect the members of this body to behave.” 

The Gilbert Republican continued to warn the audience about their behavior multiple times, but did not seek any further action,  as he has in the past with audiences that were far less raucous — but ideologically opposed to GOP lawmakers. 

Rep. Nancy Gutierrez is a member of the House Teacher’s Caucus. In a statement to the Arizona Mirror, the Tucson Democrat recalled Grantham’s less tolerant behavior towards teacher’s unions that packed the gallery to watch their budgets get cut during past sessions. 

“The gallery (on April 17) was reminded three times about the rules. I think that the gallery would have been cleared if it had been an opposing viewpoint being raised. When I was in the gallery during Red for Ed, we weren’t even allowed to make a sound,” she wrote.  

This happened again in 2021, when teachers came to watch lawmakers vote on parts of the budget that would have affected education funding. Grantham ordered the gallery be cleared — and even reportedly called the Arizona Department of Public Safety — because audience members applauded a speech by then-Rep. Mitzi Epstien that denounced a GOP effort to limit debate on the floor. 

However, last week’s crowd was not threatened with ejection, even when the audience became particularly boisterous upon a successful motion to recess before Democrats could bring the repeal forward for a vote. During that recess, Stahl Hamilton told the Arizona Mirror that she was approached by members from the gallery audience with a hostile message regarding her efforts to protect Arizona’s access to reproductive healthcare post-Roe v. Wade.  

“I believe her words were something like, ‘You will have to answer to the Lord, Rep. Stahl Hamilton,’” she said.  

Outside of her work as a lawmaker, Stahl Hamilton is a youth minister. Although she comes from a religious background, the Tucson Democrat said that she feels abortion, and the contention that surrounds it, underscores the importance of ensuring no one religion takes precedence over others when it comes to lawmaking. 

“That tells me that folks see this as a religious issue,” she said. “While many of us may be people of faith, and I think our faith informs how we think…the government has no business using one religion over another to determine laws.” 

Despite the show of support suggesting otherwise, the Tucson Democrat said she believes that there is enough support on both sides of the aisle to strike down the 1864 ban. Even staunch opponents of abortion, like Mesa Republican Rep. Jacqueline Parker recognize that.

And with abortion at the forefront of this year’s upcoming election, the fight over reproductive health care in Arizona is far from over.

“I know with the way the cheering was coming off it would seem like … a moral victory. But we’re not done with this issue, and I don’t believe that this ban will stay in place,” Stahl Hamilton said.

The post Normally quiet legislative proceedings were anything but last week appeared first on Arizona Mirror.