A plea by California Representative Laura Richardson that House Democrats respond after Republican Joe Wilson shouted “you lie” at President Barack Obama last week helped spur her party’s leaders to action.
The “careful but passionate” words delivered at a House Democratic caucus the morning after Wilson’s outburst by a black lawmaker who rarely speaks at such meetings carried such an impact that “you couldn’t ignore that message and that input,” Representative John Larson, the Democratic caucus chairman recalled yesterday.
Larson, of Connecticut, made his comment after the House voted 240-179 to admonish Wilson for his interruption of Obama’s speech to a joint session of Congress. The vote was largely along party lines, with 12 Democrats opposing the resolution while seven Republicans supported it. Five Democrats voted “present.”
After Obama’s Sept. 9 speech on his push for an overhaul of the U.S. health-care, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California tried to shift the focus the next day from the attention Wilson’s outburst was garnering. Noting that the South Carolina lawmaker had apologized, Pelosi told reporters Sept. 10 that “it’s time for us to talk about health care.”
Not all of her fellow Democrats agreed with Pelosi’s assessment, including Richardson, 47. The second-term member who represents Long Beach said she spoke up at the weekly caucus meeting that same day because “leadership didn’t say something strong” about “what they were going to do” in response to Wilson’s outburst.
It was “the elephant in the room that we had not dealt with,” and “I didn’t think it was OK to think it would go away,” she said yesterday in a telephone interview after the House vote.
During her behind-closed-doors speech to House colleagues, Richardson recalls saying that “this country has taken on a display of hate, a display of rage a display of unwillingness to even consider and be open to change.”
Richardson said she was concerned that Wilson’s outburst showed “we have crossed the line of it becoming dangerous if we as members are going to scream at one another.”
She didn’t ascribe any racial motivation to Wilson’s comment, though other black lawmakers who pushed for a rebuke of Wilson said they believed that Obama wouldn’t have been heckled during his speech if he were white.
“No other president in history has been called out in a joint session,” Diane Watson, a California Democrat, said yesterday before the House vote.
[Ed. Note: Rep. Laura Richardson first received national attention last year when the media reported that she had walked away from her mortgage.]