HELENA — A Billings Republican legislator said Saturday he believes the U.S. Constitution calls for the shooting or jailing of those who identify as socialists.
State Rep. Rodney Garcia, from House District 52 on the South Side, first made a statement in the form of an unprompted question at a state party gathering in Helena Friday meant to kick off election season and offer training for party members and candidates.
In his question after a speech by former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who was Montana’s representative in the U.S. House for two years, Garcia said he was concerned about socialists “entering our government” and socialists “everywhere” in Billings, before saying the Constitution says to either shoot socialists or put them in jail.
The Montana Republican Party later condemned Garcia's remarks.
In this year's presidential election, President Donald Trump has often called Democrats "radical socialists" in an attempt to use the term socialism, which is defined as theories about collective or government ownership and operation of the means of production and distribution, as a boogeyman-like phrase to criticize proposals from Democrats where the federal government would play a larger role in areas like health care or education.
All but one of the Democratic Party candidates have repeatedly explained they are not socialists, while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist.
After Zinke responded with a non sequitur “You know, Montana’s a great state,” Garcia said back: “We have to do something.”
Zinke’s answer to Garcia didn’t engage in Garcia's statement and pivoted to talk about the former Secretary's effort to open satellite offices of the Interior department in the western part of the U.S.
On Saturday, a reporter asked Garcia to clarify his remarks.
“So actually in the Constitution of the United States (if) they are found guilty of being a socialist member you either go to prison or are shot,” Garcia said.
Garcia could not to point to where in the Constitution it says socialists could be shot or jailed.
Asked to clarify if he thought it was fair to shoot or jail a socialist, including those who live in Montana, Garcia said yes.
“They’re enemies of the free state,” Garcia said. “What do we do with our enemies in war? In Vietnam, (Afghanistan), all those. What did we do?”
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Asked if that was an appropriate response to his opponent from the last election cycle, Garcia said “according to the Constitution, I’m telling you.”
“I agree with my Constitution,” Garcia said. “That’s what makes us free. We’re not a democracy, we’re a Republic Constitution.”
In 2018 Garcia ran against Amelia Marquez for the House District 52 seat in Billings.
Marquez said Saturday she is associated with the Montana Democratic Party and is an eastern member at-large with the party’s executive board. She said she is also a democratic socialist and her political views align with those of Sanders.
Marquez said Saturday after being told about Garcia's statements she wished the state legislator would spend more time talking to his constituents about their needs.
“I wish Rep. Garcia would continue to focus on the issues rather than this constant worry over things that are somewhat ludicrous,” Marquez said.
Garcia said he views what he sees as an influx of socialism in Montana as a “very dangerous” situation and that socialism has destroyed countries like Venezuela.
“They’re teaching that to kids. Thank God my grandkids know it’s wrong because I teach them. And it’s a very dangerous situation," Garcia said.
Garcia added he believes socialism is growing, citing advertising he says is done by socialists on Facebook.
Garcia is not new to controversy. During the 2019 state legislative session in the midst of debate over child protective services, he went on a conservative radio show to accuse child protection workers of kidnapping children. He was forced to return a $3,000 campaign contribution in 2018. He also proposed a bill during the 2019 session that would have had the state of Montana buy the Colstrip power plant. It was tabled in committee.
The Montana Republican Party issued a statement Saturday censuring Garcia’s comments. When Garcia spoke Friday there was laughter after his question; some of those asked by a reporter about it said it was a response to an uncomfortable situation.
“The Montana Republican Party wholeheartedly condemns the comment that was made and under no circumstance is violence against someone with opposing political views acceptable,” said Spenser Merwin, the MT GOP executive director. “It’s disappointing that this isolated incident took away from the weekend’s events which showcased the strength of our statewide candidates and the importance of the upcoming election.”
The Montana Democratic Party on Saturday evening released a statement decrying Garcia.
"Rodney Garcia has brazenly flaunted his conviction for a domestic dispute, called single moms deadbeats, and was only elected because he created an illegal campaign cash scam. Now he's publicly calling for people to be shot,” said party chair Robyn Driscoll, adding she thinks candidates who were at the event should condemn Garcia.
Garcia in 2018 told the Billings Gazette he was involved in a domestic dispute with his ex-wife that led to his arrest and conviction. Garcia told the Gazette two years ago he made a phone call to his ex-wife but that he didn't do anything wrong.
Billings Gazette reporter Mari Hall contributed to this story.