Charges of racism were reverberating Friday on Capitol Hill a day after a lobbyist opposing legislation to decriminalize polygamy placed a label that said “slave” in front of the first African American woman to serve in the Utah Legislature.
Angela Kelly, director of the Sound Choices Coalition, used the “slave” label presentation during a minority caucus meeting in an attempt to compare the loss of identity within polygamy to that experienced by blacks during slavery.
“I was in shock that she was even comparing the two," Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, said Friday according to audio of a news conference.
Hollins said when the incident occurred, she no longer felt safe in the caucus. Initially, she wanted to respond in a way that was educational, and left the room to gather her thoughts. But the more she thought about it, the angrier she felt.
“I got angry about it because then I started thinking, ‘Why is it my responsibility to educate this woman on this?’ She should know better. We are living in a time when she should know that this is inappropriate."
Hollins said this isn’t the first time she’s experienced ignorant comments.
“Unfortunately this incident is just one small incident that is of a larger pattern that’s happening not only in Utah but in the United States.” She said many similar stories go untold.
Kelly said on Twitter on Thursday night that “Polygamy = slavery is not my idea. But I am happy to take up the cause.”
She also defended her comparison by tweeting comments attributed to Harriet Beecher Stowe and said, “The real disrespect is refusing to acknowledge the slavery of polygamous women in your own home state.”
Hollins said she should be apologizing.
“I think they not only should apologize to me, but I think they should apologize to the entire caucus because they were offensive,” she said.
A statement released by the Utah House Democratic Caucus on Friday also called on Kelly to apologize. “Mrs. Kelly should apologize to Rep. Hollins. Her behavior was racist and absolutely inappropriate.”
Angela Kelly responded to the incident with a prepared statement. “I meant no offense toward representative Hollins. I am happy to talk with her in person about this. I did not hand her a name tag that said ‘slave,’ that is false. I am not the first to compare polygamy with slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe also compared polygamy to slavery. Are we going to make the assumption her intent was any different than mine?"
Hollins said because she’s in a leadership position, she is able to raise awareness for the issue, but many people in Utah don’t have a voice or don’t feel like they have a voice.
"There are folks in our community who don’t feel safe. They don’t feel safe and just navigating in this state is a chore, and it’s hard, it’s very hard to be a minority in this state and I want people to understand that,” said Hollins.
She said it’s offensive when someone tries to use her ancestors to build their political career or to try to build up their organization. “They don’t have that right,” she said.
Hollins thanked Rep. Angela Romero, who initially wasn’t in the caucus meeting but came in to speak up and shut down the discussion.
"I basically interrupted the presentation and explained that we weren’t going to tolerate comparing polygamy to slavery and it had nothing really to do with the bill either, " said Romero during an interview.
“Sometimes it’s scary to speak out, but I felt like somebody had to speak out on behalf of Representative Hollins because when I looked at her I could tell she was bothered and I wanted to make sure she knew she had the support of her caucus.”
A statement from the Democratic Caucus, released Friday, said that "as a caucus we regret not confronting and shutting down Angela Kelly’s presentation earlier and for allowing a mortifying presentation to proceed.”
The controversy comes just weeks after Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox sparked outrage by making a slavery-abortion comparison at a convention of the conservative Utah Eagle Forum.
Ethnic minority members of the Legislature, including Holland, called the comparison “offensive” and “callous political language.”
Cox, who is running for governor, later said that “in retrospect, I would’ve used another analogy.”
“I have an issue when anyone compares anything to slavery, whether it’s Lt. Governor comparing abortions or whether it’s [Angela Kelly] comparing polygamy. My main concern was her treatment of Rep. Hollins and that she felt OK giving her a name tag that said ‘slave’ on it. That’s just despicable," said Romero.
Hollins said it’s important to have these difficult conversations.
“It is very disappointing that we’re still having these discussions, but I think it’s important that we do have these discussions. When things like this happen, we cannot sweep them under the rug," she said. "That’s the only way we can move forward and that’s the only way that we can start healing as a nation.”