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2 North Carolina state legislators lose leadership roles after remarks

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Two North Carolina state House Republicans have lost their caucus leadership positions after recent comments directed at Democratic colleagues questioning their educational attainment and religion.

Reps. Keith Kidwell and Jeff McNeely have resigned as deputy majority whips after the GOP leadership team asked them to step down, House Majority Leader John Bell said in a news release on Thursday.

“As elected officials, we must serve by example and be accountable for our actions, especially as leaders in the caucus,” Bell said. “While apologies have been made and accepted, we believe this is an appropriate action and step forward.”

Neither McNeely nor Kidwell, both of whom are white, responded immediately Thursday to phone messages left at their legislative offices seeking comment. They remain sitting legislators. Deputy whips are tasked with helping corral votes on issues important to members of their party. The Democrats who were the subjects of the comments are both Black.

During a May 17 debate on legislation to dramatically expand the state’s private-school voucher system, McNeely asked Democratic Rep. Abe Jones, a former trial judge, about attending Harvard University and Harvard law school.

McNeely asked Jones whether he would “have been able to maybe achieve this if you were not an athlete or a minority or any of these things, but you were a student trapped” in a low-performing school.

House Minority Leader Robert Reives complained at once about the question. Speaker Tim Moore cut off McNeely, who later apologized to Jones, saying it “did not come out right.”

The night before, during another tense debate on whether to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of a bill banning most abortions after 12 weeks, Democratic Rep. Diamond Staton-Williams discussed growing up attending church and how it influenced her views.

WRAL-TV reported that a station’s reporter sitting on the floor overheard Kidwell making an aside that Staton-Williams must have meant the church of Satan.

“To challenge a person’s religion when they share a deeply personal story … that is beneath the dignity of this House and that is beneath the dignity of any elected office,” Reives said, citing the news report during a floor speech the next day. Kidwell did not respond publicly at the time.

Moore didn’t criticize McNeely or Kidwell on the floor but later urged colleagues to be respectful of each other.

Staton-Williams said last week “it is unfortunate for someone to question my faith — especially another member of this chamber — when it doesn’t align with his.”

Thursday’s announcement by Bell was made public during a sparsely-attended House floor session. There were no recorded floor votes as most legislators already had gone home for the Memorial Day weekend.

Kidwell is a senior chairman of the powerful House Finance Committee and McNeely is a chairman of the House transportation and agriculture committees. The two also are involved in the chamber’s House Freedom Caucus.

Reives said later Thursday he supported the actions taken against the two Republicans, and that it was up to other top Republicans as to whether they should face additional political penalties.

The resignations come after disruptions in other statehouses this spring that led to actions by and against legislators. In Tennessee, House Republicans expelled two Black Democratic lawmakers for a protest over gun control on the state House floor. And several Republicans in Oregon whose walkout helped prevent a quorum in the state Senate are disqualified from serving as lawmakers in the next term.

Gary D. Robertson, The Associated Press