SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — The veteran downstate legislator who is preparing to pass the legislative baton of his rural State Senate district over to House Representative Darren Bailey (R-Louisville) next January was not entertained by Bailey’s public act of defiance when he refused to wear a face mask on the floor of the Illinois House on Wednesday.
“I would not have done that,” Senator Dale Righter (R-Mattoon) said in an interview Thursday morning, arguing that in orchestrating his own ejection from the House floor, Bailey also effectively abandoned his duties as an elected official in the legislature.
Bailey won the March primary election to replace Righter, who is retiring from the statehouse after 23 years in office. Bailey is running unopposed for the Senate seat in November.
In a two-minute speech from the floor of the makeshift House chamber at the Bank of Springfield Convention Center on Wednesday, Bailey cast himself as a martyr who speaks “on behalf of the people of Illinois who feel captive, burdened and unheard.”
In Righter’s view, it was Bailey’s own actions that effectively muted their voices when he complained over a wardrobe rule and voluntarily walked off the job.
“I need every minute of face time and conversation time that I can have, particularly with Democrats who have more influence with the governor than I might have, in order to try to move the ball in the direction that benefits my constituents,” Righter said.
“You have to be there,” he said. “I mean, there’s an old saying that, ‘Half the game is showing up.’ I think that you have to be there.”
Righter described the face mask requirement as a simple act of decency, respect, decorum and deference to the health and safety of his colleagues.
“I’ve been tested,” Righter said. “I don’t have the Coronavirus. So, I don’t wear the mask, honestly, to protect me. I wear the mask for others.
“I choose to wear the mask because I choose to put others concerns, quite frankly, before me,” he said. “And it’s not like I’m making some huge sacrifice.
After rallying in close quarters with demonstrators who held signs comparing a face mask to a muzzle, Bailey entered the convention center warned his colleagues that if they move to eject him, “you’re silencing millions of voices of people who have had enough.”
Bailey’s 109th House district is home to roughly 100,000 constituents. Righter represents roughly 200,000 people in the 55th Senate district. Bailey ran successfully to replace the retiring Righter in March, garnering support from 25,019 voters.
In his provocative speech, Bailey practically invited his colleagues to throw him out.
“You want to send me or anyone else out these doors today, I understand,” he said. “Go right ahead.”
Bailey had already telegraphed his game plan during a protest speech on the steps of the statehouse on Saturday, framing an issue of workplace safety as one that threatens his civil liberties.
“I’m not wearing a mask, friends,” Bailey said. “If you want to wear a mask to protect yourself, you wear a mask. That’s perfectly fine. That’s the purpose of the mask: to protect yourself. I have no problem with that. But don’t be sitting there trampling my rights like the Chicago Democrats are doing and taking my freedoms.”
At a press conference on Wednesday, Illinois’ Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike politely corrected Bailey and explained why medical experts believe the mask reduces the spread of the Coronavirus.
“When you put on a face covering, you’re trying to collect your secretions from when you talk, laugh, cough, whatever you might do that’s going to release these droplets,” she said. “And so being able to kind of capture that really can decrease spread of whatever we’re harboring.”
Dr. Ezike said COVID-19 is often carried and spread by people well before they start to show symptoms or feel sick. Bailey told reporters on Wednesday he has not taken a COVID-19 test, and therefore has no way of knowing if he might be carrying the virus.
Governor J.B. Pritzker, whose administration has recently clashed with Bailey and his lawyer in court, condemned Bailey’s refusal to wear a mask.
“The representative has shown a callous disregard for life, callous disregard for people’s health,” Pritzker said Wednesday. “You just heard a doctor tell you why people wear masks in the first place. It’s to protect others. So clearly the representative has no interest in protecting others.”
Ezike also said wearing a mask in public places can demonstrate a person wants “to be as respectful as we can to people around us.”
Righter cautioned that defiant displays of disrespect likely won’t bode well for Bailey’s prospects of legislative success in the upper chamber.
“The mask issue is mostly, to me, about putting other people before yourselves, because — while I’m not concerned — I work with people, good people, Republicans and Democrats, who, for whatever reason, they are very concerned,” Righter said. “If I can do something very, very simple like don a mask, that helps them feel more at ease and helps them do their jobs better — which by the way, probably helps me down the road — then why wouldn’t I do that?”
By Thursday afternoon, after Bailey’s name made national headlines and protesters showered him with praise, he put on a face mask and returned to the House that voted to remove him.