On his way to being sworn in on his first day in Congress, Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., was stopped on the East side of the Capitol.
"Where'd you get that pin, son?" he was asked by a Capitol police officer. With his red hair, fair skin and the youthful looks of a college freshman, Putnam, now 33, told the officer, "I worked very hard to get this pin, sir."
Putnam says that encounter was the first of many, both adorned and unadorned with his Congressional pin, when he would be asked to identify himself to police officers on the Hill.
Similarly, last week, Rep. Cynthia McKinney, D-Ga., was stopped by security while entering a House office building, her lapel pin absent. Yet McKinney refused to pause when asked and a confrontation with an officer, in which she alleges to have been touched inappropriately, ensued. Shortly thereafter, she claimed that she was being singled out, even racially profiled, by the police.
"This whole incident was instigated by the inappropriate touching and stopping of me – a female, black, progressive Congresswoman," McKinney said at a press conference last Friday.
Yet Putnam, and others, contest this characterization of McKinney's incident as a racially-motivated one.
"I've been stopped because of my young age, but I don't believe that is age discrimination," Putnam explains. "I'd bet dollars to donuts that I've been stopped more times than Congresswoman McKinney."
Spokesman Ryan Loskarn says he has been with his boss, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., on three occasions when she's been stopped by Capitol police, both with and without her pin attached to her jacket. When this happens, Loskarn says, "She stops, says hello, and says who she is."
"There has never been an unpleasant confrontation situation," Loskarn explains. Blackburn believes in giving the officers the "benefit of the doubt... it's not asking too much for a Member to stop."
There was even one instance in which Blackburn crossed over "Do Not Walk" sign and "got a talking-to," but she apologized by bringing the security officers donuts the next day.
When she was a "rank-and-file member of Congress," as McKinney is, even House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was stopped, her press secretary Jennifer Crider said. "Most Members get stopped," Crider mentioned.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., has a habit of not wearing his pin, according to his communications director, Brad Dayspring. Smith "gets stopped occasionally" at checkpoints and presents an ID card to officers.
So, if Members of Congress, of both parties, sexes and races, have been and continue to be asked to identify themselves to security, why the wielding of the proverbial race card in McKinney's case?
"Officers here, for some reason, have a blinder on," emphatically argues Stoney Cooks, chief of staff for Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee, D-Tex. He claims that "black women are stopped regularly" at security checkpoints.
Last Tuesday, he notes, Jackson-Lee was stopped while crossing New Jersey Avenue in a car. The dog squad was brought in to inspect the vehicle, the officers looked for her button, which she was wearing, an apology was issued and she went on her way.
"Yes, there's racism on Capitol Hill," Cooks charges. As for McKinney's reaction to the way she was supposedly mistreated by police and her justification that it was racially-motivated, Cooks says: "If I was her [McKinney's] attorney, I'd put pressure on people on here."
Yet an aide to a member of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) says that he's spoken to colleagues who don't think that McKinney's experience was a big deal.
"What has disheartened people," he observes, is that this has been made a racial issue. "It's a sad situation overall – one totally blown out of proportion by everybody – by the participant and by the media."
"Someone should call McKinney on the carpet" for ascending the soapbox on race, the CBC aide contends.
Considering post-9/11 security concerns and the fact that two Capitol police officers were slain in 1999 when a man burst through security and shot them, Putnam said that the police should be able to "inappropriately tackle and hog-tie" anyone who ignores them.
"This is not part of some broader conspiracy of racism," Putnam asserts. The officer "did what he was supposed to do and [McKinney] assaulted him."
Just today, in fact, House Republicans plugged a resolution showing support for and praising the professionalism of Capitol Police in the aftermath of the McKinney altercation.
Going forward, it's hard to say what the ideal "natural end" would be for McKinney and her supporters. Must there be a complex legal battle for her to get the justice she demands? Will a productive dialogue on race come out of this incident and will we gain any more clarity from it?
One thing is certain, the CBC aide points out, "no one's going to stop Cynthia McKinney now."
By Jennifer Hoar