Jenice Armstrong: Pa. state rep. gets snubbed for violating dress code

Pa. Rep. Vanesa Lowery Brown sports a traditional African outfit during a Black History Month celebration in Harrisburg on Feb. 13. Rep. W. Curtis Thomas (right, rear) was ignored by the General Assembly for his dashiki, which was considered a dress-code violation.
Pa. Rep. Vanesa Lowery Brown sports a traditional African outfit during a Black History Month celebration in Harrisburg on Feb. 13. Rep. W. Curtis Thomas (right, rear) was ignored by the General Assembly for his dashiki, which was considered a dress-code violation.
Posted: February 21, 2013

CALL IT dashiki-gate.

I'm referring to what happened last week when a black member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives attempted to address the body while dressed in Afro-centric attire.

Rep. W. Curtis Thomas, D-North Philadelphia, had donned a kufi cap and a striking blue flowing garment with gold embroidery Feb. 13 in anticipation of the House's annual Black History Month celebration later that day. As House protocol requires, Thomas approached the microphone and waited to be recognized by Rep. Karen Boback, R-Columbia County, who was standing in for House Speaker Sam Smith.

He waited and waited.

The plan had been for him to say a few words and then to yield the floor to Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, D-West Philadelphia, so that she could invite House members to join the Pennsylvania Black Legislative Caucus for the Black History Month proceedings and lunch in the Capitol Rotunda. But they never got the chance.

"They kept overlooking Curtis," said Brown. "He was just totally ignored with no explanation of why he was not being addressed."

Thomas was left just standing there.

The man has held state office for more than two decades, yet there he was getting treated like a disobedient child.

"There was no effort to find out why I was standing up or why I wanted the attention of the speaker," Thomas told me earlier this week.

What he didn't know was that the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus had told the speaker's office of their members' interest in wearing traditional African garb. Executive director Brandon Flood had even emailed images to Smith's office showing examples. The response that the caucus got back was that members were expected to conform to the usual House dress code, which for men means a jacket and tie.

But nobody had notified Thomas.

"The issue I had was the dismissiveness of how what they thought was a violation was handled," Brown, who wore Afro-centric attire herself on Feb. 13, said. "There was no courtesy. There was no level of professionalism."

(Brown's outfit was within the dress code for female representatives, which requires them to wear a dress or skirt.)

She said that, in the past, if something was against the rules, "we have been called down politely so they could educate us. And then we are given a moment to get it together."

That didn't happen.

As House members began to file out of the chambers, Brown shouted after them, inviting everyone to join the caucus for the Black History Month program.

"We had the biggest turnout of members we'd had in a long time," she said. "I think they felt we deserved to be acknowledged.

"We fought so hard to represent our constituents and we are still at the same place we were 40 years ago. How can that be?" Brown said. "That's why it's so important for us to celebrate our heritage . . . it made the celebration more valid and even more important for me."

Afterward, Boback apologized for the slight.

There have been examples over the years of House members who've flouted the dress code and gotten away with it. The late Philly Democratic Rep. David Richardson was known for showing up in Afro-centric attire.

Members recalled times in years past when men wore collarless Nehru jackets without ties. But House parliamentarian Clancy Myer pointed out that the caucus being told to conform to the dress code isn't without precedent. There have been instances when members have asked to show up in Civil War uniforms and were turned down.

"I'm pissed off," Thomas said. "We missed the opportunity. When [Smith] rejected it, we should have sat down immediately because there's a history of ceremonies taking place on the floor of the House. There's a history with the sharing of histories and cultures."

Whatever happened, it sounds like a breakdown in communication on a lot of folks' parts.

The caucus could have communicated better with its members and the House leadership could have pulled Thomas aside and explained what was going on instead of leaving him wondering what was up. That must have been beyond embarrassing.

The parliamentarian recognized that. He said, "We regret that we didn't communicate that fact to Representative Thomas prior to going into recess."


On Twitter: @JeniceAmstrong

Blog: philly.com/HeyJen

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