Dems call for Zorn to be censured for Confederate flag mask in long, slow session day

Six hours, one committee meeting and one bill passed

By: - April 29, 2020 7:40 pm

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Days after state Sen. Dale Zorn (R-Ida) came under fire for wearing a Confederate flag-patterned face mask to session, two Democratic lawmakers took to the Senate floor to call on Zorn to be formally censured.

State Sens. Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit) and Erika Geiss (D-Taylor) also proposed a resolution that would ban Confederate flag imagery from the state Capitol.

Dale Zorn

Their impassioned speeches capped off an almost six-hour-long session in the state Legislature Wednesday, which was also marked by the dramatic removal of three protesters from the House gallery — including a Republican state House candidate — but not much else.

Zorn initially defended the mask and the Confederate flag, but then apologized later. Santana first condemned Zorn’s actions, referring to the Confederate flag as a “symbol of hatred” that represents a dark time in American history.

“The flag serves no purpose to remember our history. In fact, it minimize the contributions of 15,000 Michiganders that gave their lives to preserve the Union and abolish slavery in the United States,” Santana said. “… There is no place or no room for bigotry or hatred in Michigan.”

She urged her colleagues to co-sponsor her bill to permanently ban the symbol from display or use on state Capitol grounds. 

Geiss, taking the podium after Santana, said the Confederate flag represents “subtly veiled racism.” She urged the state Senate to “formally censure the gentleman from the 17th Senate district, for his knowing and willing adornment of a Confederate flag pattern on a face mask to the meeting of this body.”

She said Zorn’s apology for wearing the mask was “hollow” and “insufficient” given the gravity of what the Confederate flag represents.

Sen. Erika Geiss | Nick Manes

Geiss also requested that the state Senate swiftly change its rules to prohibit members from adorning, displaying or promoting “symbols, attire, logo or insignia of the Confederacy and/or white supremacy.”

“Immediate public action must be taken on this matter, given that five members of the chamber, multiple staff members and our lieutenant governor are of African descent,” Geiss said. “The actions of the gentleman from the 17th District must have punitive consequences, and rules for this chamber must be updated so that similar actions never occur again.”

On Saturday, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, who presides over the Senate, said on MSNBC that Zorn should be censured and he was “disappointed” that leadership hadn’t done so already.

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) has not responded to repeated requests for comment if any action will be taken against Zorn.

House takes 1 vote

Amid numerous recesses in the state House, House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) briefly called the session to order to have lawmakers vote on one bill before plunging into another recess.

Using an unusual vote-tallying method that involved floor leaders tracking votes from lawmakers social distancing in the gallery above, the House unanimously passed House Bill 5704. The legislation would provide a process for emergency personnel to be notified if they might have been exposed to COVID-19 on the job.

The only other action by either chamber Wednesday was the first meeting of the state Legislature’s new bicameral committee, which was created last week to oversee the state government’s response to COVID-19. The Michigan Senate GOP caucus sent out a release Wednesday morning announcing that the panel had met and “will continue discussions in the following weeks.”

The Joint Select Committee on the COVID-19 Pandemic will have subpoena power over documents and other records from state officials during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lawmakers underscore dangers of in-person session

As session in both chambers dragged on for almost six hours, several lawmakers took to social media to express their concern over the potential health dangers of meeting in person for hours on end.

While it appeared that all state senators wore protective face masks on the floor, one lawmaker told the Advance that at least six members of the state House were not wearing masks or any other form of personal protective equipment (PPE) at all. Several others were wearing their masks improperly or taking them off, the lawmaker said.

In the Senate, lawmakers like state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) took to Twitter to grill Republicans over what he described as an increasingly “unsafe” working environment.

“We did not vote on any resolution, we did not vote on any bills, and I’m getting less and less confident that the Senate is a safe workplace. Not only for us as legislators, but for the many staff members that have to come and report in, be exposed to one another, be exposed to us — and unnecessarily so, because we didn’t do anything all day from 10 a.m. until 4:30,” Moss said in a video clip posted to his Twitter afterwards.

Moss also described the session to the Advance as “a day of nothing in what I imagine is Michigan’s most unsafe workplace.”

Sens. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills) and Adam Hollier (D-Detroit) both tweeted along similar lines.

Last month, state Rep. Isaac Robinson (D-Detroit) died after experiencing COVID-19-like symptoms. Two other lawmakers have tested positive for the disease.

A few protesters Wednesday, more expected Thursday

While the state House was still in the process of taking attendance, members of the media caught a glimpse into what the mood at the state Capitol may be Thursday, when another scheduled anti-”quarantine” protest will coincide with the state Legislature’s third session of the week.

Three protesters of Whitmer’s stay-home order made their way into the chamber gallery, despite it being closed off to the public to allow more social distancing room for lawmakers and press. But the situation quickly escalated once the sergeants-at-arms asked the protesters to leave and they refused to do so.

This culminated in several House sergeants having to forcefully remove the individuals from the gallery. One requested an ambulance and was reportedly carried out in a stretcher. Another has been identified as GOP state House candidate Michelle Gregoire, who is running against state Rep. Jim Haadsma (D-Battle Creek).


The Michigan State Police later released a press statement about an investigation being opened into the incident.

So now Wednesday has come and gone with no action on an extension of Whitmer’s emergency declaration, which the GOP-led Legislature only extended through Thursday, setting up a potentially heated session tomorrow. 

As the Advance previously reported, Whitmer and Shirkey clashed Wednesday over the issue, with the Republican leader trying to put a condition on the extension that checked Whitmer’s powers. She rejected that.

There are also no bills posted in agendas for Thursday’s sessions in either chamber.

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Laina G. Stebbins
Laina G. Stebbins

Laina G. Stebbins is a former Michigan Advance reporter. A lifelong Michigander, she is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she served as Founding Editor of The Tab Michigan State and as a reporter for the Capital News Service.