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House rebellion of one

Last modified: 5/16/2012 12:00:00 AM
In a bizarre legislative spectacle, a Republican state lawmaker was called onto the House floor yesterday to apologize for uttering a Nazi-era salute in response to what he described as the tyrannical actions of House Speaker Bill O'Brien.

Rep. Steve Vaillancourt of Manchester, an outspoken critic of O'Brien, felt the speaker had restricted the remarks of a Democratic lawmaker on a voter identification bill and allowed a Republican to waver off topic. He called for a point of order, and he and O'Brien began speaking over each other.

"Are you willing to treat everybody fairly or not?" bellowed Vaillancourt.

"Rep. Vaillancourt, another outburst like that and you'll be removed from the hall," warned O'Brien, a Mont Vernon Republican.

Vaillancourt returned to the podium: "Sieg Heil," he said, walking away as a chorus of "oooh"s filled Representatives Hall. The two-word phrase, roughly translated as "Hail, victory!" was chanted at political rallies in Nazi Germany.

O'Brien called for the sergeant at arms to remove Vaillancourt from the hall. After about 20 minutes of discussion, the House passed a motion by Majority Whip Shawn Jasper that Vaillancourt should be allowed to return only after apologizing to the House and O'Brien for his "inappropriate remarks," violating rules of decorum.

Jasper said he did not wish to disenfranchise Vaillancourt's constituents by expelling him from the House but "the salute that was given here should never be given in a body such as this."

Other lawmakers shared similar sentiments. Rep. Bob Kingsbury of Laconia, a World War II rifleman, said "to me this is deep-down, personal, inflammatory, unnecessary insult in my opinion."

Rep. George Lambert of Litchfield classified the comment as hate speech, saying "I believe at least one member of the community I represent would be offended by it, and therefore I am offended."

Rep. Tony Soltani of Epsom, a Republican critic of O'Brien, defended Vaillancourt, whom he argued only said "sieg."

"Mr. Speaker, I heard nothing offensive from my colleague from Manchester," Soltani said, eliciting boos. "All he said was 'victory.' In German. That's all he said."

When Vaillancourt rose to give his apology he started off by correcting a speaker who suggested he said, "Heil Hitler," telling O'Brien, "I'll make the apology as I deem fit, and part of the apology will be to set the record straight." O'Brien cut off Vaillancourt and said he was creating a three-person committee "to make inquiry of you as to when you are willing to make an apology as directed by this House."

The House then broke for lunch with anticipation of Vaillancourt's apology when the members returned. The three-person committee - Jasper, Reps. David Hess of Hooksett and David Campbell of Nashua - counseled Vaillancourt in the back of the hall.

When the House reconvened at 2 p.m., Hess announced Vaillancourt was "prepared to extend his apologies."

"I do apologize for using two German words which I understand have negative ramifications," Vaillancourt said. "Perhaps three Latin words would have been better, so I will never use a German word again," including three German words he then rattled off.

But that wasn't good enough, according to the House leaders who huddled near the speaker's rostrum.

"I regret to say that the language that was stated at the well moments ago . . . is not consistent with the understanding that he gave to the committee in the meeting this afternoon," Hess said.

O'Brien asked the committee to meet again with Vaillancourt about his apology. Moments later, Vaillancourt returned to the podium, apparently understanding from the short meeting that he was to describe his words as inflammatory.

"They are indeed inflammatory, so I want to put the word 'inflammatory' on the record," Vaillancourt said on his second try.

That didn't do it either.

"Members of this House fought in World War II. Members of this House have families who died in the Holocaust. Members of this House have parents who fought in World War II," O'Brien said. "You will now follow the direction of this House and apologize to the chair and to the House. This is your last opportunity."

"Thank you, Mr. Chair," Vaillancourt said, with added clarity to his voice. "Members of the House, I would like to say I apologize for the use of inflammatory German words. I'm fully aware of the fact that they have a connotation that some people do not like and I regret using those German words in that manner."

O'Brien did not hear an apology directly to him, as the motion had requested.

"Apologize to the chair of the House," O'Brien said.

"I said - again - I apologize to the chair of the House for using those inflammatory German words," Vaillancourt said.

"Thank you, representative," O'Brien said. "The House will attend to the regular calendar."

Vaillancourt said in an interview afterward that he did not mean for his comment to be offensive to Jews, saying "I'm probably the most pro-semitic person you could imagine." The comment was intended to protest O'Brien, whom he calls a tyrant.

"This is what happens when you get people who treat different people differently depending on whether you agree with them or not," Vaillancourt said. "I was saying 'Hail, victory, Mr. Speaker' - whatever you say goes."

House Democratic Leader Terie Norelli of Portsmouth said Vaillancourt's comments were clearly "inappropriate and unacceptable," but accused the O'Brien-led House of "a lack of decorum for the last year and a half."

"When you allow some people to boo and not others, when you allow some people to clap and not others . . . when you are disrespectful to members who ask legitimate parliamentary questions, this is where you end up," she said.

(Matthew Spolar can be reached at 369-3309 or mspolar@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @mattspolar.)


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