On Thursday, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accused a Republican colleague of perpetuating a “culture” of sexism on Capitol Hill, using an unusual speech on the House floor to denounce Representative Ted Yoho following their tense encounter at the Capitol three days before.
“This issue is not about one incident. It is cultural,” she said. “It is a culture of … impunity, of accepting of violence and violent language against women, and an entire structure of power that supports that.”
Ocasio-Cortez, a liberal firebrand and social media sensation, has been railing against Yoho over the last 48 hours, using Twitter to condemn his conduct during their tense confrontation over anti-crime policies Monday.
She said that she was prepared to let the episode go, before Yoho took to the floor Wednesday morning to offer an apology — a speech that Democrats widely panned as insincere.
“And that I could not let go,” she said.
House Democratic leaders took the rare step of allowing Ocasio-Cortez a full hour to make her case on the chamber floor. She used about 10 minutes of that window, before ceding the podium to a number of other Democrats, who urged Yoho to offer “a real apology,” in the words of Representative Judy Chu.
“It’s not expected that everyone in this chamber agrees with each other,” Chu said. “It is expected, however, that we treat each other with dignity and respect.”
One by one, Democrats male and female took to the floor to warn against both the acceptance of sexism at the highest levels of power, and an erosion of civility across Congress and the nation at large.
“We are not on the House floor today because of just one callous incident,” said Representative Ayanna Pressley. “Unfortunately, what brings us to this moment are the structural and cultural conditions and, yes, the very men that have normalized the marginalization of women — and specifically women of color — since this nation’s very inception.”
The remarkable floor speeches came three days after Yoho and Ocasio-Cortez sparred over criminal justice policies on the Capitol steps, where he had confronted her for suggesting that poverty was a major factor driving a recent crime spike in New York City.
Yoho had called her “disgusting” and “out of [her] freaking mind” for promoting such an idea. She had shot back, calling him “rude.”
After the two went their separate ways, Yoho offered a final comment to the air: “Fucking bitch.”
Ocasio-Cortez repeated those words near the beginning of her speech on the House floor on Thursday — a particularly striking moment in a chamber that has yanked comments much tamer than that from the Congressional record.
She also took issue with Yoho’s statement, delivered Wednesday, that he would never use such crude language towards women because he has a wife and two daughters.
“Having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man,” she said. “Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man. And when a decent man messes up, as we all are bound to do, he tries his best and does apologize.”
Yoho issued a statement shortly after the Democrats had delivered their condemnations in which he downplayed the tensions surrounding Monday’s encounter and denied using the sexist slur.
“No one was accosted, bullied, or attacked. This was a brief policy discussion plain and simple and we have our differences,” he said. “We are both passionate members of Congress and equals. She has … every right [to] give her account of the conversation but she doesn’t have the right to inflate, talk about my family, or give an account that did not happen for political gain.
“The fact still remains, I am not going to apologize for something I didn’t say.”
In his own floor speech the day before, Yoho had apologized for the “abrupt manner” in which he confronted Ocasio-Cortez.
“It is true that we disagree on policies and visions for America, but that does not mean we should be disrespectful,” he said.
Yet Yoho did not acknowledge uttering the harshest language, referring only to “words attributed to me by the press.” He added that the sexist words were not aimed directly at anybody — “and if they were construed that way, I apologize for their misunderstanding.”
Democrats, rallying behind Ocasio-Cortez, wasted no time denouncing his speech as disingenuous.
“Telling a woman, ‘I’m sorry you heard it that way’ is a cliché as old as time to belittle and dismiss women after attacking them,” said Representatives Mikie Sherrill, noting that the current Congress boasts more women than any in history.
“We have got to do better.”
Ocasio-Cortez, 30, is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. She said she sought to organize Thursday’s speeches to show her family that she wasn’t one to take abuse sitting down.
“My father, thankfully, is not alive to see how Mr. Yoho treated his daughter. My mother got to see Mr. Yoho’s disrespect on the floor of this House towards me on television,” she said. “And I am here because I have to show my parents that I am their daughter, and that they did not raise me to accept abuse from men.”
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, who had welcomed Yoho’s apology on Wednesday, changed his tune a day later, calling it a “non-apology” and condemning the “attack” on a colleague.
“All of the men on this side of the aisle are supportive of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” he said.
While a host of Democrats were urging Yoho to take another stab at contrition, one lawmaker stood out as not being among them: Ocasio-Cortez herself.
“I do not need Representative Yoho to apologize to me. Clearly, he does not want to,” she said. “And I will not stay up late at night waiting for an apology from a man who has no remorse for … using abusive language towards women.”