TOPEKA, Kan. — A newly elected Kansas lawmaker accused of threatening two state officials and abusive behaviour toward girls and young women before taking his seat will get a public warning about his past conduct rather than facing possible removal from office, a committee decided Friday.
A state House committee reviewing a complaint against state Rep. Aaron Coleman, of Kansas City, Kansas, said it will draft and send him a public letter of warning that will include expectations about his future conduct. The panel’s three Democrats preferred stronger action against Coleman, but its three Republicans were wary of disciplining him for actions occurring before he took office.
Some Democrats wanted to censure or expel the 20-year-old Coleman, but either action would take a two-thirds majority. The chamber’s Republican leaders were wary of overturning an election, and during Friday’s committee meeting, members of both parties said they didn’t want to base their decision on Coleman’s behaviour as a minor.
The committee’s decision means a complaint filed against Coleman by 13 Democrats, including House Minority Leader Tom Sawyer, of Wichita, will be dismissed. But committee members said the letter will act as a guide for Coleman, and if he does not abide by what it spells out, he could face another complaint.
Coleman was elected to the House as a Democrat but dropped affiliation with any party after Sawyer refused to give him committee assignments. He identifies as a progressive and socialist.
“Mr. Coleman’s going to be watched,” said committee Chair John Barker, an Abilene Republican.
A new allegation against Coleman became public Friday. Heather Sprague Scanlon, Sawyer’s former chief of staff, said in a written statement that Coleman called her during the summer after House Democrats had denounced Coleman on social media and launched into a “raging diatribe.” She said Coleman made threats to physically harm Sawyer.
When those statements were read to him, Coleman told the committee, “That is not accurate.”
But he later apologized to Sawyer and said he’s willing to apologize to Scanlon for his “inappropriate conduct.” He publicly asked for a Statehouse mentor and said he’s spoken to his attorney about counselling.
“I welcome an informal letter of warning and I am willing to voluntarily accept any recommendations,” he said.
The committee’s action ends the possibility of Coleman becoming the first state lawmaker in Kansas ousted from office. The Kansas State Library has found no record of any legislator being expelled, although in the past six years, lawmakers in at least four states have been expelled for misconduct.
“I know that prior to becoming a member of the Kansas House of Representatives, I have not always lived up to my own ideals of treating others with dignity and respect,” Coleman said in opening remarks that he read to the committee.
Coleman narrowly ousted a veteran Democratic lawmaker in the August primary while running on a platform that included providing universal health coverage, ending college tuition and legalizing marijuana. He won that race even after admitting on social media that he had circulated revenge porn as a “sick and troubled” middle school-aged boy.
He faced only write-in candidates in the election, even as at least two other accusations of threatening or abusing girls or young women came to light. In December, the campaign manager for his primary opponent obtained an anti-stalking court order against him, but they settled the lawsuit she filed against him earlier this month.
The complaint against Coleman said another reason to expel him was a now-deleted post-November election tweet in which Coleman suggested Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly would face an “extremely bloody” primary in 2022 for not being progressive enough. Kelly has called Coleman unfit to serve in the Legislature.
“People will realize one day when I call a hit out on you it’s real,” he wrote. He later said he meant to use the phrase ”political hit.”
Coleman told the committee that the language of the tweet was “inappropriate” and said he now has a team of people handling social media posts for him.
Sawyer had called Coleman “a danger to women” and had said his removal from office was necessary to protect other lawmakers and the Legislature’s staff.
“We would not want this person to blow up and do something dangerous to someone else,” Sawyer told the committee Friday.
But later, Sawyer said he hopes a public letter will tell Coleman “he’s got to change or he’s gone,” and prevent bad behaviour.
“I don’t want to send the wrong message and say it’s okay to be abusive to women and continue that pattern and get by with it,” Sawyer told reporters.
Andy Tsubasa Field is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
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John Hanna And Andy Tsubasa Field, The Associated Press