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Leaders call for civility after GOP lawmaker's verbal attack on Ocasio-Cortez

The Hill logo The Hill 7/22/2020 Mike Lillis
Ted Yoho wearing a suit and tie standing next to a woman: Leaders call for civility after GOP lawmaker's verbal attack on Ocasio-Cortez © Getty Images/Greg Nash Leaders call for civility after GOP lawmaker's verbal attack on Ocasio-Cortez

House leaders in both parties moved swiftly on Tuesday to promote civility - and tamp down lingering tensions - by challenging a conservative lawmaker who had accosted a liberal Democrat on the Capitol steps a day earlier.

Confronting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Monday, Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Fla.) had called her "disgusting" and "out of her freaking mind" for promoting the notion that poverty and unemployment have spawned a recent uptick in crime in New York. Moments later, as he walked away, Yoho referred to her with a crude, sexist slur.

The House, while a more rambunctious chamber than the sober Senate, nonetheless has its own norms of etiquette and rules of decorum. And party leaders made clear that Yoho's conduct had crossed a line.

"We need to pursue this kind of conduct and make it very clear it is unacceptable," said House Minority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), suggesting Yoho apologize on the House floor. "I think it was despicable conduct that needs to be sanctioned."

Hours later, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) summoned Yoho to his office to discuss the incident.

"We think everybody should show respect to one another, and not knowing what took place I'll have a discussion with him to see what happened," McCarthy told reporters shortly beforehand.

The heated back-and-forth between Yoho and Ocasio-Cortez came on the first day lawmakers were back in Washington after a long, July Fourth recess. During the break, Ocasio-Cortez had conducted a virtual town hall with family members of gun violence victims, where she suggested that "economic desperation" amid the coronavirus pandemic was at the root of a recent crime spike in New York.

Yoho, spotting Ocasio-Cortez on the Capitol steps during a House vote, confronted her on the issue. The exchange was brief but testy. He called her "disgusting" for advocating that position. She accused him of being "rude" (and would later say she's never experienced a confrontation like it).

Walking away, Yoho uttered a final impression. "F*****g b***h," he said, seemingly to himself.

Yoho's office issued a statement Tuesday that downplayed the incident, characterizing it as "a brief member to member conversation" of the unremarkable sort.

"As you know, these conversations happen frequently when the House is in session," the statement reads.

Yoho's office also noted that he uttered his crudest remarks only after the confrontation was over, while denying the precise language he used. The word, his office falsely claimed, was "bulls**t" - a reference to her policy positions.

"It sounds better for the Hill newspaper and gets more media attention to say he called her a name - which he did not do," the statement reads.

Ocasio-Cortez also responded, embracing the slight and urging women to use the encounter as a motivational tool.

"Believe it or not, I usually get along fine w/ my GOP colleagues. We know how to check our legislative sparring at the committee door," she said on Twitter.

"But hey, "b*****s" get stuff done."

The brief episode was a tiny drop in a sea of events happening on Capitol Hill this week. But it arrived during a volatile time for the country, amid a deadly pandemic and a national debate over racial disparities that's divided America bitterly, frequently along lines of culture, ethnicity, region, gender and party - divisions exacerbated by President Trump's checkered history on race and his aggressive attempts to put down protesters demanding racial justice.

Against that backdrop, the image of Yoho - a 65-year-old white man from North Central Florida - berating Ocasio-Cortez - a 30-year-old Hispanic woman from the Bronx - encapsulated the national mood and served as a microcosm of the broader national debates surrounding gender equality, race and the future of criminal justice.

It also touched a nerve for many women and minorities on and off of Capitol Hill, who condemned Yoho's conduct as a form of misogynistic bullying.

Rep. Katherine Clark (D-Mass.), vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, denounced the "verbal assault" - "Speak with respect or don't speak at all," she tweeted - while Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) quickly noted that Yoho has opposed legislation to make lynching a federal crime.

Demand Justice, a liberal activist group, penned a letter to the House Ethics Committee requesting an investigation. And some Democratic men on Capitol Hill noted that they share Ocasio-Cortez's views on crime and social justice, but have somehow avoided any castigations from across the aisle.

"Like @aoc, I believe poverty to be a root cause of crime," Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) tweeted. "Wonder why Rep. Yoho hasn't accosted me on the Capitol steps with the same sentiment?"

At least one Republican also came to Ocasio-Cortez's defense. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R), a conservative firebrand also from Florida, said that while he disagrees with her policies, he'd vouch for her character.

"I can confirm that AOC gets along w many of her Republican colleagues on a range of things that don't have anything to do w legislation or politics," Gaetz tweeted.

"She is not a b***h."

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