The D.C. statehood convention, after two nights of parliamentary pandemonium punctuated by shouts, screams and a brief shoving incident involving two delegates, approved a 40-member, single-chamber legislature last night in the proposed constitution it is drafting for the city.
In the bitterest and most chaotic session of this chaos-prone convention, delegates squabbled and fought over the two-chamber vs. one-chamber issue, bringing the convention to the brink of collapse Tuesday night.
Single-chamber proponents angrily accused convention president Charles I. Cassell -- who favored a two-chamber legislature -- of improperly blocking a vote change that would have given single-chamber advocates victory.
Several rose to their feet, shouting objections. Cassell supporters yelled back in his defense. At one point, Ward 1 delegate Richard Bruning grabbed Ward 3 delegate Gloria Corn by the shoulders and tried to force her to sit down and stop yelling.
"What are you doing to me?" said Corn, falling into her chair, tears welling in her eyes. Ward 2 delegate Kenneth Rothschild grabbed Bruning and pulled him away from Corn.
Shouting and yelling continued. Cassell attempted futilely to gavel the delegates to order. Finally, his voice barely audible over the din, he proclaimed that order could not be maintained and declared the session adjourned.
The flare-up began Tuesday at convention headquarters in the old Pepco building at 10th and E streets NW when the convention's legislative committee ran into unexpected opposition to its proposal for a 24-member, unicameral -- or single chamber -- legislature for the proposed state.
Several delegates countered with proposals to create a bicameral -- or two chamber -- system and increase the number of legislators to as many as 64.
Ward 7 delegate David Barnes said a small unicameral body would be elitist. It would be filled with "professional politicians," said Ward 1 delegate Marie Nahikian, arguing that a larger legislature would allow "common ordinary folks like you and I" to serve.
Defending unicameralism, Ward 5 delegate Talmadge Moore said a single chamber is easier to follow, cheaper to operate and more efficient. Ward 7 delegate William Blount said delegates favoring more seats appeared to be trying "to carve out positions for themselves" in the proposed legislature.
In a roll call vote, the delegates initially voted 18 to 17 for a bicameral system. While the votes were still being tallied, Ward 2 delegate Alexa Freeman announced she wanted to change her vote from bicameral to unicameral.
Cassell ruled her out of order. With voices rising, several delegates challenged Cassell, but were unable to get the necessary two-thirds majority vote of the convention to overturn him.
Delegates continued to argue over Cassell's ruling. A brief recess was called, but the shouting and disorder grew when the delegates reconvened. Freeman and her supporters contended that the convention rules were silent on whether a delegate can change his or her vote, but cited Robert's Rules of Order, which say, "A member has the right to change his vote up to the time the result is announced."
Cassell still ruled Freeman out of order and over a din of protest attempted to keep the meeting going, but little was done. Votes on other key issues, such as the size of the legislature, had to be recounted as delegates darted in and out of the convention hall, jostled one another and raised the level of shouting to near bedlam. Finally, about 10:30 p.m., Cassell declared the session adjourned.
Last night, the shouting and anger were more subdued. Delegates reversed themselves in a procedural maneuver and voted down the bicameral system and later increased the number of legislators from 24 to 40.