When Politicians Behaved Badly Around Kids This Year

From proposing Planned Parenthood mascots to silencing 10-year-old advocates, lawmakers weren't always on their best behavior around the children.
by | December 25, 2015
Florida state Rep. Charles McBurney was widely criticized for cutting off a 10-year-old testifying against a bill. (AP/Steve Cannon)

Anyone who's hung around a state capitol knows the place can be crawling with kids, but politicians aren't always on their best behavior around them. There have been a number of instances around the country this year when lawmakers have conducted themselves in ways that many deem inappropriate when trying to help mold young American minds.

Perhaps the most notorious example is still a debate that took place on the floor of the New Hampshire state House back in March.

In keeping with the state's tradition, a group of fourth-graders learning about civics proposed a bill -- in this case, one that would name the red-tailed hawk as the official state raptor. State representatives then proceeded to tear the legislation apart in a raptor-like fashion.

During the debate, which students attended, state Rep. Warren Green said that because the bird grasps its prey "with its talons, then uses its razor sharp beak to basically tear it apart limb from limb ... it would serve as a much better mascot for Planned Parenthood."

The school principal said that reference sailed over the kids' heads, but what stung was a comment from state Rep. John Burt, who complained about the waste of legislative time and energy of having children propose bills.

"Bottom line, if we keep bringing more of these bills and bills and bills forward that I really think we shouldn't have in front of us, we'll be picking a state hot dog next."

After the debate drew national scorn, including from comedian John Oliver, the New Hampshire House soon performed a sort of penance, passing a resolution encouraging student participation in state government. Rep. Renny Cushing, the resolution's sponsor, said he had first come to the capitol as a fourth-grader to promote a bill that was voted down.

"No one made fun of the legislation," said Cushing. "No one mocked me. What I remember is I was treated with respect."

But students in New Hampshire weren't the only ones to get inadvertent civics lessons in how the system really works.

In Kentucky, hundreds of high schoolers rallied for a bill that would give students a say when selecting new superintendents. But to their disappointment, the bill picked up and dropped unrelated provisions addressing transgender students' bathroom use and religious expression in schools. Eventually, it died because the House didn't want to deal with the Senate add-ons.

Failure to send a clean bill to the governor left kids with a bad impression, said state Sen. Reggie Thomas.

"This Senate has succeeded in doing one thing," he said. "We have now shown every young person across this state how messy, how futile and how ineffective government is."

But Sen. Mike Wilson argued that that's not necessarily a terrible thing to learn. When it comes to legislation, after all, you can't always get what you want. Rules are rules, suggested Wilson. If kids want to be part of the process, they can't expect to be treated with kid gloves.

That seemed to be the argument advanced by Florida state Rep. Charles McBurney. He was widely criticized in the liberal blogosphere in April after cutting off a 10-year-old testifying against a bill to let adoption agencies refuse same-sex couples on religious grounds. The 10-year-old, Nathaniel Gill, was adopted by a same-sex couple whose lawsuit led to the striking down of the state's ban on same-sex couple adoption.

In his defense, McBurney said that Nathaniel's entire testimony was entered into the record and he was simply trying to get through a crowded agenda. "Should I have let the young man continue and cut off others?" McBurney wrote in a Facebook post. "Perhaps so."

But if kids can't expect special treatment, they do deserve respect.

That was the argument advanced by Kayla Solsbak, a student at the University of Richmond in Virginia, who attempted to ask Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a presidential candidate, a question when he appeared at the school. Kasich mainly took softball questions from older residents in attendance, ignoring students, but when she finally caught his eye, he said "I'm sorry, I don't have any Taylor Swift tickets."

Solsbak took her grievances to the school paper.

"What continues to strike me is the hypocrisy of his condescension," she wrote in The Collegian. "He touted his ambitious energy as an 18-year-old man, but as soon as I, an 18-year-old women, exhibited ambition, I became the target of his joke."

But not all politicians lack respect for those who can't vote. In Vermont, elementary school students inspired and testified in favor of a bill to declare May the month of kindness. The legislature passed it in October.