AUGUSTA, Maine — A subject as emotionally charged as gun rights will raise the tension virtually anywhere it comes up, but on the Legislature’s Criminal Justice Committee, tempers are boiling over in public.
One committee member suspects his house was targeted by a vandal for his vote to limit the capacity of gun magazines. Hecklers in the back of the committee room are a normal occurrence. Relations between some lawmakers and the committee’s co-chairman have been deteriorating.
The committee, which is in the midst of deliberating over dozens of bills related to gun control and concealed weapons permits, descended into conflict Thursday afternoon when Senate Chairman Stan Gerzofsky, D-Brunswick, cut off debate among lawmakers. Gerzofsky said Friday that he was trying to make efficient use of the committee’s time and that the issues under discussion will be on the agenda again next week. But at least three members of the committee told the Bangor Daily News that they were angry about what transpired and legislative leadership from both parties said they will be looking into it.
At issue Thursday afternoon was a bill that seeks to repeal a law enacted two years ago which allows employers to prohibit guns in employee vehicles on company grounds, according to a Lewiston Sun Journal report. Rep. Corey Wilson, R-Augusta, was questioning a member of the Maine State Chamber of Commerce when Gerzofsky told Wilson his time was up. When Wilson told Gerzofsky he had more questions, Gerzofsky told him, “not in this work session.”
That caused some dissension among other committee members, including Rep. Timothy Marks, D-Pittston, who was overheard saying “this committee is dysfunctional” as he left the room. Marks said Friday that his concern over the encounter with Gerzofsky remains.
“I’ve only been in the Legislature for a few months so I’m not familiar with all the rules,” said Marks. “When he refused to let me ask my question, I didn’t know if it was right or wrong, but I’m not happy with the answer I got. I should have been allowed to ask my questions.”
Wilson said he saw Thursday’s events as a continuation of the conflict brewing between Gerzofsky and some members of the committee throughout the session.
“It’s unfortunate that there’s continued personality conflicts between the Senate chairman and virtually all the members of the committee,” said Wilson. “It can be extremely frustrating.”
Senate President Justin Alfond, D-Portland, said in a prepared statement Friday that he takes the complaints he has heard about the committee seriously and will follow up with Gerzofsky.
“I’m certainly concerned by what I heard,” said Alfond. “It is absolutely necessary that the committee process has the full faith and confidence of the public and lawmakers alike. And to that end, I will be speaking with the chair.”
Senate Minority Leader Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, said he will meet with Alfond early next week about the issue.
“We’ve just got to make sure that the committee doesn’t get derailed and have things get personal between the members,” he said.
Gerzofsky said Friday that as chairman of the committee, it is his prerogative about how committee hearings are run and that his actions Thursday had nothing to do with personalities. He said Marks, Wilson and others arrived at the hearing late and attempted to extend the discussion as he was moving toward ending it. Gerzofsky said the committee had been in session until late the night before and that he had promised one of the committee members that they would adjourn by about 4 p.m. Thursday.
“These [gun control and concealed handgun permit] bills have tied up an enormous amount of time,” said Gerzofsky. “They all deserve the same respect and some serious due diligence.”
Gerzofsky said the tension on the committee is caused by tremendous pressure lawmakers are under as they consider the gun bills, which have drawn hundreds of people to the State House to testify. Gerzofsky said there have been serious physical threats against committee members and numerous adversarial exchanges with the public.
Marks, who has proposed several bills related to concealed handgun permits, was the subject of a gun rights rally in Wiscasset last month and said he learned this week that he is named in a mailer being circulated by the National Rifle Association that supports abolishing Maine’s concealed handgun permit system. And Sen. David Dutremble, D-Biddeford, said Wednesday that his home had been shot with a paintball gun, which he suspected was in retaliation for a tie-breaking vote he cast Tuesday on a bill limiting the capacity of gun magazines to 10 rounds, according to the Portland Press Herald. No one was injured and there was no damage.
“The committee is clearly tired and nerves are getting a little frayed,” said Gerzofsky. “I know this is a very sensitive issue. … I broke no rules. There will be no repercussions.”
Even Friday, when attendance at the committee’s work session was sparse, a group of people mumbled criticisms from the back row. Among them was Phil Merletti of Lee, who is a spokesperson for a group called Take America Back of Maine. He believes the Maine and U.S. constitutions give citizens the right to carry concealed weapons without any permit.
“I’m furious right now,” said Merletti after hearing hours of debate on several concealed weapon permit bills. “These people are in violation of the constitution that they took an oath to follow.”
Wilson, who raised his profile considerably by sponsoring a bill signed by Gov. Paul LePage on Friday that makes personal information on concealed weapons permits confidential, said despite the friction between himself and Gerzofsky, he’s confident the committee can continue its work under the leadership of House Chairman Mark Dion, D-Portland.
“We’ll get the job done,” Dion said Friday afternoon. “I see conflict as a necessary process a group has to go through to establish itself. As a leader of a group you have to learn how to manage that conflict so it’s not corrosive. … That’s what we’re going through except everyone gets to watch it. Sometimes it gets messy.”
But evidence of the rift between Gerzofsky and others remains, including in the form of a Wilson-brand volleyball in Gerzofsky’s office that has a face painted on it similar to a soccer ball in the movie “Castaway,” which features Tom Hanks stranded on a deserted island. Gerzofsky admitted that he bought the ball for Rep. Wilson and plans to give it to the young lawmaker later in the legislative session “so he can have a friend.” Gerzofsky said the ball is not meant to disparage Wilson, but Wilson said he’s not so sure.
“I thought it was rather peculiar because he and I have had a number of conflicts in the past,” said Wilson. “This is a committee of 13 members, not a committee of one member.”