Was Arizona Speaker JD Mesnard really inappropriate about Michelle Ugenti-Rita, or does Kelly Townsend just have issues?

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JD Mesnard and Michelle Ugenti-Rita
Arizona House Speaker JD Mesnard and Rep Michelle Ugenti-Rita, Photo Gage Skidmore, CC2.0

It could be argued that the members of the Arizona House of Representatives have behaved more like the cast of Riverdale this session than elected members of a legislative body. Now the person who has most often been forced to behave as the grown-up in the chamber, Speaker JD Mesnard, is accused of speaking inappropriately about fellow-member Michelle Ugenti-Rita – but on very flimsy evidence.

And, not for the first time, Representative Kelly Townsend has created controversy by offering what appears to be unsolicited (and arguably unhelpful) public support for Ugenti-Rita. It is a complicated plot-line, so buckle up!

Kelly says JD said something rude about Michelle

Kelly Townsend
Rep. Kelly Townsend (R-16)

Earlier this week it was revealed that Republican Majority Whip Kelly Townsend had accused Republican Speaker JD Mesnard of speaking inappropriately during a meeting on February 16th, 2017. It was a private meeting between the leaders from each party. Mesnard supposedly remarked on the clothing of fellow Republican Representative Michelle Ugenti-Rita.

As reported in the Arizona Republic, a televised feed of a House committee meeting Ugenti-Rita was attending in another room was showing on a monitor. House Majority leader John Allen noticed that Ugenti-Rita had brought a portable heater with her.

Then, according to Townsend in the Republic:

“…the Majority Leader (Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale) made a comment about the fact she had her heater going,” Townsend said. “The Speaker made a comment about, ‘You know, if you wore warmer clothes, you wouldn’t need it…’ The majority leader (then) made a comment about … ‘Clothes wouldn’t help her because she’s cold-hearted.’

“Here we are having a conversation about the choices of Michelle Ugenti-Rita’s clothing. And we have … lawyers and staff (in the room), and I just felt it was inappropriate and it was unprofessional.”

According to records recently obtained by the Republic, Townsend then texted a top GOP aide to complain about the conversation:

“That was wholly inappropriate, immature, and massively unprofessional for the entire room to be mocking Michelle Ugenti-Rita behind her back in front of the Democrats. To have the speaker discuss her clothing choices was … appalling.

“I will be sharing with her everything that was said and expect in the future that we have professional meetings. And I better not find out that these types of things are being said about me.”

Townsend sent the text to the aide’s landline by mistake, however, so the it was never received and the matter appears to have been forgotten. Forgotten until…

The Don Shooter expulsion revives the issue

In one of the most dramatic events of a very dramatic state legislative season, the Arizona House of Representatives expelled Representative Don Shooter for sexual harassment on February 1st.

As speaker, JD Mesnard was at the center of this process, making the crucial decision to expel, not merely censor, his fellow Republican. In the hours before the expulsion he even took two law enforcement officials to Shooter’s office to remove two handguns before the vote.
But also central to the story was Michelle Ugenti-Rita, who was the first woman to publicly accused Shooter of inappropriate behavior.
A week after Shooter’s expulsion, with sexual harassment discussions swirling around the House, Townsend resent her text about Mesnard’s remarks to Ugenti-Rita.

Why attack JD Mesnard?

According to Townsend’s own account of the conversation, Mesnard’s remark was (at least on the surface) uncontroversial. As a general rule, wearing warmer clothing does tend to result in feeling warmer, and without the full context it is hard to see how this could be seen as demeaning.

According to Townsend it was Majority Leader John Allen that made a possibly unprofessional remark about Ugenti-Rita being “cold-hearted” (and even this would depend on context). So why single out Mesnard for a complaint? So far, Townsend has offered no explanation.

Mesnard is, unsurprisingly, not amused. Not only does he deny Townsend’s allegation but he also makes it clear that the private meeting was meant to be just that – private. And he is even more furious that the Arizona Republic have decided to publish a story with only Townsend’s account to go on.

The meeting was meant to be a chance for party leaders from both the Republican and Democratic caucuses to speak off the record.

In a jointly issued statement, Mesnard, Allen, Speaker Pro Tempore T.J. Shope, Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, Assistant Minority Leader Randall Friese, and Minority Whip Charlene Fernandez said:

“In order to diffuse tension while discussing what can be contentious issues, we sometimes tease and joke with one another.

“While comments along the lines of what Rep. Townsend has alleged may have been made, these exchanges are always in jest, generally good-natured, and made in confidence. This conversation was very brief and occurred nearly a year ago, making it difficult for leaders to remember exactly what was said or by whom. However, Speaker Mesnard did not make any disparaging comments about Rep. Ugenti-Rita.”

JD Mesnard was also quoted in the Arizona Republic responding individually to Townsend’s allegation, saying: “She believes I made an inappropriate comment, about, I think, Miss Ugenti-Rita’s clothing.

“I, as a general rule, don’t talk about what is said in privacy, especially in a Republican-Democrat leadership situation. What is said in that room is not supposed to leave that room.”

Kelly Townsend’s odd relationship with Michelle Ugenti-Rita

Townsend and Ugenti-Rita
Townsend and Ugenti-Rita

This is not the first time Kelly Townsend has taken to Michelle Ugenti-Rita’s defence. During the Shooter investigation, allegations were made against Ugenti-Rita as well.

One of the more unexpected side-revelations was that lobbyist Brian Townsend (no relation to Kelly) had distributed revenge porn material. At the time Brian Townsend had been in a relationship with Ugenti-Rita, and many suspected that she was the subject of the revenge porn. And, as this communication was part of an official investigation, there was reason to believe that the media would be able to access it under Arizona’s public documents laws.

Apparently as a response to this risk, Kelly Townsend then introduced a bizarre new law that would keep “explicit content” confidential if it involves a state legislator in a sexual harassment investigation “that includes photographs of a sexual nature of a member or staff person.”

At the time Townsend claimed the law was her idea, but that she had spoken to Ugenti-Rita “to explain to her what I was doing.”

While protecting revenge porn victims from having their compromising images made public would be seen by many as a laudable goal, why Townsend wanted to extend protection only to Arizona legislators and not to everyone is unclear.

But it is clear that while other female Republican House members have not always supported Michelle Ugenti-Rita (especially the four who called for her to lose her committee chairmanship following Don Shooter’s allegations), Townsend is prepared to leap to her defence at a moment’s notice.

And considering how Townsend’s allegations are based on her disclosure of confidential information, and that the special law to protect explicit content only drew more attention to Ugenti-Rita’s supposed revenge porn, it looks unlikely her recent actions will do much other than cause embarrassment to her, to JD Mesnard, and to Michelle Ugenti-Rita.

In short, Townsend’s actions do not quite add up.

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