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N.H. House committee debates pearl necklaces, decorum

  • Courtesy of Shannon Watts Courtesy of Shannon Watts

Monitor staff 
Published: 4/2/2019 5:33:35 PM

A decision by some male members of the House Criminal Justice committee last month to wear pearl necklaces at a hearing on firearms kicked off an explosive controversy that proved impossible to contain. 

Accusations flew that the pearls, worn by pro-gun legislators, were meant to mock gun violence victims who testified before lawmakers. Countercharges of politically-motivated misinterpretation followed suit. And a swirling tempest of national headlines and television segments, vitriolic emails and social media posts kept the committee on the backfoot and feelings of animosity high.

On Tuesday, members of the committee spent an hour discussing decorum ahead of the regular business for the day. Representatives aired out weeks of tensions over symbols and speeches, coming closer than ever to a spirit of common ground.

“I think we all recognize that the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee has for whatever reason been somewhat high profile this session,” committee chairman Renny Cushing said at the start. 

Cushing expanded on the need for more professionalism from the committee, pointing to examples such as a committee field trip to the men’s prison earlier this year in which he said a member was “inappropriate” to a prison employee. He recounted feedback he said he had received in the past weeks from members of the public concerned about the insensitivity shown by the committee.

But inescapable from discussion, he said, was the pearls.

On March 5, the decision by the handful of members to wear plastic pearl necklaces during hours-long testimony from gun rights and gun control supporters took on a viral life of its own. A post on Twitter by a Shannon Watts, the founder of a powerful national organization in favor of tightening gun restrictions, Moms Demand Action, displayed a photo of the representatives and accused them of mocking the female supporters of her organization.

But supporters of the Women’s Defense League of N.H., a state-wide gun rights group, said the pearls had long been a symbol with the group and that their use in the hearing had been taken out of context. The ensuing debate quickly became a national news item, with presidential candidate Cory Booker retweeting Watts’ post and Rep. Debra Altschiller, the Democratic sponsor of the bill being heard, conducting an interview on CNN over the incident.

Since then, Republicans on the committee who wore the pearls say they’ve been flooded with social media posts, emails and postcards, often packed with malicious language. Citing those communications, some members requested Tuesday’s discussion.

For Cushing, the issue centered around respect. He vowed to never take an action restricting the decisions of members but pleaded that they consider toning down potentially provocative behavior.

“If I tell people you can’t wear beads, I’m making a judgment about what you’re wearing,” he said. “That’s not what I’m going to do. It’s an individual thing. But I would have hoped though that we would give some consideration about the message, not what you want to express, but how it might be perceived by others.”

But for many Republicans, the issue was a matter of misinterpretation. Those wearing the pearls had not meant any disrespect to the throngs of people testifying on both sides, they said Tuesday. Urging them to stop was tantamount to giving in to that distortion, they said.

“A lot of people know the meaning behind those, and it’s not to mock women, or Mom’s Demand Action, so locally a lot of people are familiar with that,” said Rep. Deryl Abbas, a Salem Republican who wore pearls at the hearing.

In wading through the chaotic events of recent weeks, lawmakers brought up examples of what they saw as misconduct from members of the public – and even other lawmakers. At one point, Abbas turned to Rep. David Meuse, another committee member and criticized what he saw as a habit of speaking warmly in private but becoming bombastic on social media.

“One of my issues is we have a private conversation it’s one way, and then you publish something else,” he said calmly. “On a personal level, and a professional level, I find that just to be despicable.”

Meuse did not directly respond.

Others connected the events to a rising sense that both parties lack collegiality during a tense year when Democrats have retaken control of the House and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu holds the corner office.

“It’s breaking us down, is the way I see it,” said Rep. Jody McNally, a Rochester Republican. “We’re a whole different group than we were last year.”

Still, as members voiced thoughts that have simmered for weeks, glimmers of hope for repaired relations emerged. Gradually, lawmakers pivoted from accusations to broader observations about the toxicity of social media, many of which prompted nods around the room.

“I feel that this whole pearl discussion is so childish,” said Rep. Julie Radhakrishnan, an Amherst Democrat. “It’s time we rise above it, act professionally and do the business of this House.”

Cushing agreed. “We’re in a world where we can’t control,” he said.

In the end, no formal action was taken. No decisions were made on pearl necklaces, which could resurface when a package of Senate firearm bills cross over to that committee for a hearing.

But an hour into their Tuesday session, the air in the committee began to clear.

“Maybe this was a conversation for the sake of having a conversation,” Cushing said. They moved on to other business.

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