PROVIDENCE — Representative Robert J. Quattrocchi was removed from a House committee on Thursday because he asked a fellow legislator “Are you a pedophile?”
Quattrochi, a Scituate Republican, posed that question to Representative Rebecca Kislak, a Providence Democrat who is a lesbian, during a March 17 hearing on a bill she introduced to require “equity impact statements.” Her proposal would require that legislation spell out how it would have an impact, positive or negative, on people based on race, religion, sexual orientation, and other factors.
“Do I have to take into account how it affects Satanists in Rhode Island?” Quattrocchi asked. “Or do I have to take into account, with sexual orientation, how it affects pedophiles in Rhode Island? Anything like that?”
Kislak said, “Well, first, I want to point out that pedophile is not a sexual orientation. My equity right now is pointing out that that was really offensive.”
Quatrocchi said, “Oh, I didn’t mean to. Are you a pedophile? I’m sorry.”
Representative Evan P. Shanley, chairman of the State Government and Elections Committee, jumped in, saying, “We are getting off track.”
And Kislak said, “I think this is an example of why we need to be talking about equity.”
On Thursday, House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, a Warwick Democrat who is gay, removed Quattrocchi from the State Government and Elections Committee, effective immediately.
“Representative Quattrocchi’s statements to Representative Kislak during the March 17 hearing are not in keeping with the decorum or the integrity of this body,” Shekarchi said in a statement read on the House floor. “Use of suggestive and offensive language and the disparagement of an esteemed colleague will not be tolerated in this chamber.”
House Minority Leader Michael W. Chippendale, a Foster Republican, objected in a letter sent to all House members.
“The Speaker has acted under pressure from ‘a mob,’” Chippendale wrote. “If inadvertently causing offense to a fellow House member becomes grounds for ‘punishment’ then we expect that standard to apply evenly to all members moving forward.”
He brought up statements made by House Democrats in past years, saying, “Going forward if someone suggests in floor debate that a fellow member is uncaring, callous, or otherwise stands for anything other than the best interests of their constituents as numerous members have in moments of rhetorical excess over the years, we would expect punishment.”
Chippendale said reaction to the “inartful exchange” between Quattrocchi and Kislak had “unleased a whirlwind” that was distracting from important issues and that represents a “180-degree departure” from the long-standing practice. He questioned whether “perceived insult” is now the standard by which House members will be judged and disciplined.
In response, House spokesman Larry Berman said, “This was a measured and fair response to uphold the decorum of the House.”
He noted House speakers have the power to appoint or remove committee members, issue a censure or reprimand, or to send matters to the House Conduct Committee. And Quattrocchi remains on the Corporations and Oversight Committees.
Last year, Shekarchi removed then-Representative Carlos E. Tobon, a Pawtucket Democrat, from the Finance Committee after WPRI-Channel 12 reported that Tobon had been repeatedly taken to court over allegations he failed to repay money he owed and that he didn’t disclose those debts on his ethics forms as required.
During Thursday’s House session, Quattrocchi spoke without issuing an apology.
“So much unnecessary drama, so much unnecessary pressure,” he began. “Today, I am going to confess my guilt — for calling out evil, an evil act against children. And because I did that, evil came for me through my answering machine in the most disgusting, vile — I don’t even know how to describe it — language.”
He said callers had left him messages that “wished the rape of my children, my mother, my death, for me to be shot in the head.” Also, he said he had received an email that depicted “my Lord and savior Jesus Christ fornicating with a sheep with my face superimposed on the sheep’s head,” and another that “had my deceased dad’s face on the sheep.”
“All this for asking questions, not making statements, not making accusations, not talking about any groups of people — doing the job that my constituents sent me here to do, using what I thought was my freedom of speech,” Quattrocchi said. “If God put me here to be a lightning rod, so be it. I won’t bend a knee to a man or a woman. I’ll bend my knee to God. And when my time is done, I will accept God’s judgment. That is the only judgment I care about.”
Kislak also spoke during Thursday’s House session, saying, “I want to take a minute to wish my beloved spouse, Dr. Joanna Brown, a happy 20th anniversary.”
Referring to Quattrocchi’s comment, Kislak said she already said what she wanted and needed to say about the matter in committee.
“It is a tremendous honor to serve with all of you in this People’s House,” she said. “We don’t always agree with each other — and in fact, we often don’t — and that’s entirely fine. We saw that today in our floor debate. That’s really the point of our democracy — that people representing all different communities must come together to govern our state. But our constituents expect us to treat each other, and them, with respect. And that’s how we can and should work to do the people’s business. It’s what our democracy requires and what our constituents expect.”
House members gave her a standing ovation.
Kislak also noted members of the LGBTQ+ community had spoken out about Quattrocchi’s comments.
For example, a group of advocates for LGBTQ+ youth and adults in Rhode Island signed a letter saying they were “greatly alarmed” that Quattrocchi asked Kislak if she is a pedophile.
“The resurrection of such dangerous rhetoric based in bias and disinformation is part of what is fueling the flames of increased harassment and violence and a sweeping campaign of legislative attacks targeting LGBTQ+ people — primarily young people — across the country,” the statement said. “There is no place for such ugly ignorance in Rhode Island. Committee Chairs have a responsibility to ensure that legislative debate does not devolve into hateful rhetoric.”
Rhode Island has been a leader in protecting equality for the LGBTQ+ community, the advocates said. “The people of this state are proud of that legacy,” they said. “Our representatives should be working to ensure safety, dignity, and equity for all residents, not perpetuating dangerous, false comparisons that undermine the humanity of LGBTQ+ people.”
The letter was signed by Janson Wu, executive director of GLBTQ Legal Advocates & Defenders; Rush Frazier, executive director Youth Pride Inc.; Ryan Vigneau, chief of staff for the RI Queer PAC; Catherine M. Gorman, board chair of Pride in Aging RI; Colleen Daley Ndoye, executive director of Project Weber/RENEW, and others.
In a separate statement, Paige Clausius-Parks, executive director of Rhode Island KIDS COUNT, said, “I was at this hearing when this horrific question was asked, and the wrongful and harmful characterization of LGBTQ people was publicly made. As a Black Queer woman, I was deeply impacted by this comment.”
LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to experience depression and to consider and attempt suicide, Clausius-Parks said. “Comments disguised as questions like this contribute to why many of our kids are hurting,” she said. “The LGBTQ+ community has done a lot of work to bravely come out, share our stories, and educate our families and neighbors about how we are and to explain how love is simply love.”
Rhode Island has been a leader in passing laws to protect the LGBTQ+ community, Clausius-Parks said. “Yet one of our lawmakers used our State House as platform to spew false information, flame hatred, and stomp on progress,” she said.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.