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Black state lawmaker could be expelled for calling GOP colleagues "racist"

As the Kansas state legislature was debating a bill in March that would have denied in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, Kansas State Rep. Valdenia Winn minced no words in expressing her opposition to it.

"This is a racist, sexist, fear-mongering bill," said Winn, the top Democrat on the panel considering the measure, according to the Lawrence Journal-World. "I would like first to apologize to the progressively-minded people of Kansas who are appalled that we are turning back the hands of time." She suggested the bill's supporters were embracing "Jim Crow tactics, and once again making Kansas a laughingstock." And she apologized "to the students and their parents whose lives are being hijacked by the racist bigots who support this bill."

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Immediately, one of Winn's GOP colleagues objected.

"She just referred to this committee as racist," said state Rep. John Barker, a Republican.

"I said 'supporters,'" Winn replied. "You can do anything you want, but I am going to say what I have to say because if the shoe fits, if the shoe fits, it fits. But this is an example of institutional racism, not individual racist, institutional racism because it deals with societal, structural changes."

Now, Winn is facing the possibility of punishment - or even expulsion from the legislature - for speaking her mind.

Nine Kansas Republican lawmakers - seven white, two black - filed a complaint accusing Winn of "inflammatory language." The legislature's investigative committee scheduled a hearing on the matter in April that was postponed due to an ongoing budget debate, according to Talking Points Memo (TPM), but the hearing has been rescheduled for June 26.

At the hearing, the investigative panel's members - three Republicans, three Democrats - will decide whether to recommend that Winn be censured or expelled due to her remarks. If they recommend a punishment, it will be up to the full body to determine whether to carry it out. A vote to expel or censure Winn would require a two-thirds majority. Republicans currently control 97 of the legislature's 125 seats, or more than three quarters of the chamber.

Winn's attorney, Pedro Irigonegaray, told TPM he fears the upcoming disciplinary hearing will have "a purposeful chilling effect" on legislators.

"It's not right," he said. "I cannot imagine that the committee would make such a recommendation [of expulsion], but the degree of inconceivable actions by our Kansas legislature and governor have reached such a level...It's just gotten to a point where is there a fog of hate clouding the Capitol building."

Kansas state Rep. Valdenia Winn, left, a Kansas City Democrat, asks questions during a committee review of gun-rights legislation, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, at the Statehouse in Topeka, Kan. AP

Democratic leaders in the state have stood behind Winn, accusing the GOP of trying to stifle the free speech rights of lawmakers.

"The Democratic Caucus fully supports Rep. Winn in this matter," Minority Leader Rep. Tom Burrough declared in statement, according to TPM. "This investigation is nothing but an attempt by the majority party to silence a minority voice that dared to speak up in opposition to discrimination. She has a constitutionally protected right to voice her opinion on this or any other issue, as do all Kansans."

Republicans, though, say Winn's remark stretched beyond political expression into a personal attack.

"The difference is this is slander," Rep. Tony Barton, one of the two black lawmakers who signed the complaint, told TPM. "She slandered me personally. I am a sponsor of the bill and slander is far different than just making a controversial statement, and I take that personally."

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Rep. John Bradford, another GOP representative who signed the complaint, said expulsion might be "too harsh," but he argued some form of censure is in order.

Winn "is a very nice person when she is away from the Capitol, just to converse with," he explained. "But when she comes into the Capitol she puts on this front like she is there to insult me. That day she flew off the handle like I had never seen her do before."

"I taught race relations on numerous occasions, I understand race relations and bigotry totally," he added. "I think I have a very good feel."

Irigonegaray, Winn's attorney, suggested the GOP lawmakers are practicing selective outrage, recalling several imflammatory remarks from Kansas Republicans that went unpunished. He pointed to a 2011 suggestion from GOP state Rep. Virgil Peck that undocumented immigrants be shot from helicopters like "feral hogs," and a 2012 prayer from then-House Speaker Mike O'Neal that President Obama's "days be few and brief."

"Was there a special investigative committee to sanction him?" Irigonegaray asked. "No."

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