Arizona’s public meetings are becoming increasingly toxic under Republican leadership

freedom caucus

State Senator Jake Hoffman speaking with the media outside the Arizona State Capitol building on the opening day of the 56th Legislature in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo by Gage Skidmore.

By Camaron Stevenson

February 14, 2024

Republican legislators have expelled three members of the public from state committee meetings this week, and have cut off or silenced the testimony of several others in a draconian exercise of power.

So far, the following individuals have been abruptly removed from state committee meetings within the span of a week:

Scheel and Goldkorn were ejected for opposing  Republican legislation; in Ford’s case, Rep. Laurin Hendrix, R-Gilbert, forced the reporter to leave the committee room after he asked Hendrix about his obstruction of a bill introduced by one of his Democratic colleagues.

Legislators have also successfully silenced members of the public by citing unrelated procedural rules that don’t apply to them.  Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, implied a minister testifying was acting as an unregistered lobbyist and hinted at legal action when, in fact, the minister’s actions did not constitute lobbying.


How Republicans in the Arizona Legislature use their positions to intimidate the public and silence dissent. #arizonanews #azpol #azleg #aznews #1a #firstamendment #satanictemple #everythingarizona @Copper Courier

♬ original sound – Copper Courier

Rep. Rachel Jones, R-Tucson, ended the public comment of Hugo Polanco, a lobbyist representing Living United for Change in Arizona, after he stated House Bill 2748 was racist in nature. Jones accused Polanco of impugning, or verbally attacking, a legislator, which she claimed was against the rules of the committee. Polanco pointed out, correctly, that the rule only applies to legislators talking about each other, and not members of the public, but Jones ended his testimony anyway.

The recent actions taken by state legislators demonstrate a pattern of behavior in the vein of populist authoritarianism, according to Michael McQuarrie, director of the Center for Work and Democracy at Arizona State University. Politicians using government institutions to erode trust in the democratic process has been on the rise for nearly a decade, locally, nationally, and globally.

“The long-term effect of that is going to be to make people less and less trusting of democratic institutions at the local level,” said McQuarrie. “We’re going to see more and more of these kinds of arguments. And the long-term of that is basically going to further degenerate our democracy.”

‘Get out of my room’

The Arizona House Commerce Committee met on Feb. 13 to discuss House Bill 2282, a proposal that would create stricter requirements for Arizonans seeking unemployment benefits. Goldkorn came to the meeting to speak in opposition to the bill, which she believes would create an undue burden to those seeking to utilize the public service.

When Goldkorn finished her statement, committee chair Rep. Justin Wilmeth, R-Phoenix, opened the floor to questions from legislators, a common practice after a speaker has concluded. Goldkorn, however, refused to take questions.

“Those are my opinions,” she told the committee. “I don’t consider this to be a debate, thank you very much.”

“You’re exactly right ma’am, I wasn’t opening it up to debate, I was opening it up for questions,” Wilmeth responded. “You don’t get to decide when you’re done, ma’am.”

But there are no rules requiring members of the public to answer questions after providing comments. When Goldkorn asserted such, Wilmeth escalated abruptly.

“Alright well, get out of my room,” said Wilmeth. “This is a circus. Move the bill.”


BREAKING: Phoenix Sen. Justin Wilmeth just kicked a member of the public out of a public meeting because she would not take questions. This is the fourth time in the past week that Republican legislators have removed or silenced a member of the public who offered opinions they didn’t agree with. #azleg #azpol #beballotready #everythingarizona

♬ original sound – Copper Courier

Shouting match in Elections Committee

But tensions that flared in the Senate Government Committee meeting on Feb. 6 make Wilmeth’s actions docile by comparison.

Sen. Wendy Rogers, R-Flagstaff, who chairs the committee, established at the beginning of the discussion on Senate Bill 1733 that they only had time to hear from four members of the public. Typically, this decision allows for two speakers in opposition to the bill and two speakers opposed to the bill. However, for this bill—of which Rogers is the sponsor—the committee heard three comments in support of the bill and one against.

Scheel, who had signed up to speak in opposition, went to the podium after the fourth speaker. Rogers seemed open to hear his testimony—until she heard his name.

“Oh—negative sir, we already are done with speakers,” Rogers said, speaking over Scheel. “You may take your seat.”

Sen. Priya Sundareshan, D-Tucson, who sits on the committee, attempted to speak, but was immediately cut off by Rogers, who refused to recognize Sundareshan. In government committees, the chair has near-total control over the conduct of the room, and other legislators cannot speak unless they are recognized by the chair.

“When Ben Scheel was thrown out, it deprived all of us of that valuable input, considering we were hearing so many witnesses in favor of the bill,” Sundareshan told The Copper Courier. “I’m not sure what goal it serves to be so mean to members of the public, because that’s where you can clearly say, ‘wow, that’s unprofessional and disrespectful.’”

Rogers also refused to recognize Sen. Anna Hernandez, D-Phoenix, and would not let her speak. She also did not formally recognize Sen. Jacqueline Parker, R-Queen Creek, when she spoke up—but allowed her to continue talking, as Parker called in the sergeant at arms to forcibly remove Scheel from the room.

The Scheel of it all

This was not the first time Scheel had been removed from a committee. In March 2023, Scheel was told by the Republicans who led the House Elections Committee that his testimony would no longer be allowed.

He was then escorted out of the room by security and has not been allowed to speak in that committee since.

“Excluding someone from public comment because of opposing views is undemocratic,” said Scheel. “This behavior from Republicans sets a dangerous precedent for freedom of speech in the people’s house.”

But for those like McQuarrie, who have studied similar behaviors extensively, setting that precedent is exactly the point.

“The overall effect is basically to disattach people from a commitment to democratic institutions and start attaching them to narrow partisan political practices to fix the problem,” said McQuarrie.”This is why some people want to just make government dysfunctional, because that can support partisan or personal rule rather than democratic rule or the rule of law, because people will be so frustrated with the way things are working.”

The Copper Courier reached out repeatedly to several Republican legislators who sit on these committees to be interviewed for this article, but did not receive a response.


  • Camaron Stevenson

    Camaron is the Founding Editor and Chief Political Correspondent for The Copper Courier, and has worked as a journalist in Phoenix for over a decade. He also teaches multimedia journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.


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