Protesters Rally Against Daines’ Vote on DeVos as Secretary, Silencing of Warren

Montana senator’s support of controversial education secretary and rebuke of Massachusetts Democrat provokes protests

By Tristan Scott
Protestors oppose U.S. Sen. Steve Daines in downtown Kalispell on Feb. 8, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

In the span of a week, crowds of protesters have twice gathered at U.S. Sen. Steve Daines’ Kalispell office to rally against the Republican lawmaker’s recent actions — first castigating him for his support of Betsy DeVos as the nation’s Secretary of Education and then expressing outrage over his move to gavel down U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic lodestar from Massachusetts.

The freshman senator’s censure of Warren came mid-debate on Feb. 7 as Daines was chairing a proceeding over attorney general nominee Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator whose record on civil rights has sparked objections from Democrats for decades. Sessions was confirmed Wednesday.

Daines’ move to silence Warren, whose testimony he shut down by ordering that “the senator will take her seat,” went viral on social media and prompted outcry across Montana. In addition to the protest in Kalispell, crowds also gathered in Missoula.

“What is the point of holding a confirmation hearing if nothing critical can be said about the nominee? Are senate confirmations just a rubber stamp process now?” protester Nancy Woodruff asked on Wednesday.

Woodruff was one of about 30 protesters who converged outside Daines’ Kalispell office to object to his treatment of Warren, which they called a violation of free speech.

At the time, Warren was reading from a 1986 letter written by civil rights leader Coretta Scott King, in which she opposed the U.S. Senate’s appointment of Sessions to the U.S. District Court.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, interrupted Warren, saying she was out of order according to a rarely used Senate rule that states a senator cannot impugn the motives or conduct of another senator, “directly or indirectly.”

Daines, who was presiding over the Senate, agreed with McConnell, telling Warren to take her seat.

He later defended his action in an interview with Lee Newspapers, and posted on Facebook: “Last night the U.S. Senate chose civility over inappropriate behavior by Senator Elizabeth Warren. As you know the U.S. Senate is the world’s greatest deliberative body and we should be able to have civilized debate.”

That didn’t sit well with the protesters gathered outside Daines’ office on Wednesday.

“Four male senators quoted the Coretta Scott King Letter after her [Warren] and were not stopped,” said protester Kwen Shirley.

Daines also drew the ire of local educators last week when, on Feb. 2, a crowd of former educators gathered at his office in objection to his support of DeVos as Secretary of Education, calling her unqualified.

“She wouldn’t be qualified to be the superintendent of the Somers Lakeside School District let alone serve as the Secretary of Education,” said Jennifer Rogge, a teacher from Somers who serves on the PTA. “There’s such a lack of qualifications.”

Rogge was among a dozen educators who placed apples and a brown bag lunch outside Daines’ office doors, proffering the gifts in hopes they might persuade him to vote against the confirmation of DeVos, who stood out as a controversial nominee due to her lack of experience, her support for privatization of public schools and her prominent role as a donor to Republican candidates, including Daines.

According to FollowtheMoney.org, an archive of contributions to political campaigns, Daines received donations from individual members of the DeVos family totaling $46,800.

Some of those who objected to Daines’ support of DeVos suggested that his vote was “bought and paid for.”

“You have to wonder why is she getting so far without any key qualifications and experience?” said Michelle Ahern, who spent much of her teaching career in public schools, including Columbia Falls.

On a brown bag lunch left outside Daines’ office door, someone wrote in black Sharpie marker: “Dear Senator Daines, Stand up for MT students! Vote no on Devos. Here’s my lunch money.”

On Feb. 7, Daines cast the second-to-last vote in favor of Devos’ confirmation at the nation’s secretary of education, setting up Vice President Mike Pence for his historic tie-breaking vote.

“Betsy DeVos will work to bring education decisions back to our communities where they belong,” Daines said in a statement.

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, did not support DeVos, objecting to her inexperience and support for privatization of public schools.

“Our public education system is — and this can’t be argued — the foundation of our democracy,” Tester said. “We’ve had a democracy in this country for nearly 250 years because of the success of our public education system. What is troubling about the nomination of Betsy DeVos as Education Secretary is that she wants to privatize this public education system we have. If we do that, we will destroy the foundation of this country, and we will destroy — it may take a few years — but we will destroy our democracy.”

According to Tester, more than 8,500 Montanans contacted him opposing DeVos’ nomination.

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