PHOENIX (AP) — The Arizona Senate on Monday opened an ethics investigation into a firebrand Republican member who tweeted inflammatory comments about last weekend's racist attack at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket that left 10 people dead.
The referral of Sen. Wendy Rogers of Flagstaff to the Ethics Committee was in lieu of the immediate expulsion that Democratic lawmakers were planning, GOP Majority Leader Rick Gray said. Due process considerations require no less than an ethics investigation, he said.
But Democrats were furious, noting that Rogers was just censured in March for a repeated series of tweets and statements that embraced white nationalism and called for violence.
Despite a bipartisan 24-3 vote on the Republican plan to open an ethics committee review that could lead to an expulsion, censure or reprimand, Democrats failed to get any Republicans to back their motion to expel Rogers.
On Saturday, as news of the mass shooting by a white suspect who had posted a racist screed on the internet and driven about 200 miles (322 kilometers) to a primarily Black neighborhood in Buffalo, Rogers tweeted “Fed boy summer has started in Buffalo.”
Many in both parties took that tweet to mean that Rogers was blaming the attack on the federal government, especially in light of Rogers' history of embracing conspiracy theories and posting of racist tropes.
Republican leaders of the Senate tried to get in front of the controversy Monday morning, putting out a statement condemning the violence and “all hate speech that has served as an inspiration for these kinds of heinous crimes.”
Without naming Rogers, the statement said “words have consequences, and while we believe in our first amendment rights of free speech, we denounce any and all extremist rhetoric that has fueled these horrendous acts.”
Only three members voted not to open the ethics probe, including Rogers and Republican Sen. Warren Petersen, who said he hadn't even heard of the controversy when he walked onto the Senate floor. Republican Sen. Kelly Townsend, who is challenging Rogers in the GOP primary after redistricting put both in the same district, also opposed the ethics probe.
Townsend said Rogers' comments were an embarrassment to the state and the Republican Party and added to the pain of the families of those killed in Buffalo.
“But she has a right to make them,” Townsend said. “I have to defend a person's right to say ugly things. That's why the First Amendment exists. It doesn't exist for the kind words — it exists for the ugly words.”
Rogers issued a statement after the vote slamming Democrats for what she said was an effort to divide Republicans, and said her now-deleted tweet was misinterpreted.
“Sadly, my comment was taken completely out of context and became a false narrative that’s now the focal point of a firestorm created by certain race-obsessed members of the media,” Rogers statement said.
The hours-long debate in the Senate over what to do about Rogers devolved into a fracas, with Republicans accusing Democrats of trying to make political hay and Democrats accusing GOP members of a pattern of dodging uncomfortable discussions about race relations by shutting down any debate on the issue.
Republican Sen. Sonny Borrelli called it an example of cancel culture from Democrats who dislike Rogers and her brand of politics. Others agreed that Rogers' words were being used against her.
“This is not an expellable offense,” Republican Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita said. “The Ds are politicizing it.”
She called it a dangerous precedent to consider expelling or even censuring a member for their tweets or comments.
GOP Sen. J.D. Mesnard, who was House speaker when a member was expelled in 2018 after a series of sexual misconduct allegations, said hearings and an ethics committee process were imperative.
“This is the equivalent of a legislative execution," Mesnard said of the motion to expel Rogers. "That’s why due process and an ethics process and investigation is so critical.”
Democrats pointed to Rogers' previous problems, which started the month she was sworn into office in 2021 when a staffer accused her of bullying and other unprofessional conduct, and the March 2022 censure, which also was approved by a 24-3 vote with three members not present. Townsend was absent, but said she would have voted yes.
“How many times do you allow your children to get out of hand before you provide the opportunity for discipline,” Democratic Sen. Theresa Hatathlie said. “Discipline is a teaching moment. That is something we have already had.”
Democratic Sen. Martin Quezada said much the same, and accused GOP members of “kicking the can down the road,” by not taking immediate action.
He said Rogers' tweets needed no investigation, and those and her history were all that was in play.
“Now there’s a track record, now there’s a pattern of behavior,” Quezada said. “We haven’t heard any effort to defend those actions. And my assumption is because there is no defense to those actions."
Rogers made no comment on the floor of the Senate where the other members spent hours discussing her.