As the American political system reels from the dual shocks of the coronavirus pandemic and the largest set of civil rights protests we have seen in decades, it’s worth remembering that that system—as flawed and as damaged as it may be—is composed of people. As the Trump administration ratchets up its “culture war” rhetoric and the houses of Congress spar, most government that affects us comes from the state and local level—the level where we’re often represented by our friends and neighbors, the folks you’re more likely to see in the dairy aisle than on CNN. And as deaths from COVID-19 continue to skyrocket, this expansive class of everyday politicians is far from immune from the pandemic—especially as the act of wearing a mask is further politicized by the chief inhabitant of the White House.
As the Mississippi state legislature recently gathered—to finally remove the Confederate symbology from their state flag, among other pieces of legislation—"many politicians flouted recommendations to wear masks inside the Capitol". These state legislators followed the president’s “guidance” and heard nothing but silence on the issue at the time from state leadership (Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves tweeted his support of mask-wearing five days later). Within a week, twenty-three lawmakers, including the lieutenant governor and house speaker, tested positive for the coronavirus. As the Clarion-Ledger put it, that’s “about one in six Mississippi state lawmakers.” The last Mississippi state legislature had an average age of fifty-seven, pushing at the most at-risk age brackets for COVID-19, with some firmly in that camp;the oldest legislator, State Senator David Lee Jordan of Greenwood, is eighty-six years old.
As state legislatures across the country continue to meet, both in regular and special sessions, it is likely that many more anti-mask legislators will contract the coronavirus. A number of legislators, both retired and those who were currently serving, have already succumbed to the virus.
The first state legislator who likely passed away from the coronavirus was State Representative Isaac Robinson of Michigan. A first-term legislator representing Detroit, Robinson was only forty-four years old, but at 6’5” he cut an impressive figure. Born of a political family, he worked in the labor movement and on the staff of the late Congressman John Conyers; “a lawyer, devout Catholic and staunch progressive, he cheerfully championed long-shot causes and people without wealth or power, family and friends said.” In his final days, he spent his time focused on taking care of workers who had been affected by the pandemic, then in its early stages. State Attorney General Dana Nessel said of Robinson that there was “no one who worked harder or loved his community more.”
Only a few days later, South Dakota State Representative Bob Glanzer of Huron became the second person in his family to pass away due to complications from COVID-19. Glanzer, seventy-seven years old, “was a retired loan officer and a past manager of the South Dakota State Fair.” First elected in 2017, he “held a deep love of American history, a love of rodeo, horses, the outdoors and the people of South Dakota. His biggest love was giving to his Lord and Savior, his wife Penny and his family.”
Within a week, another elected official passed away in a state not known for being hard-hit by the coronavirus. Retired State Representative Bernie Juskiewicz of Cambridge served in the Vermont state legislature from 2013 to 2019. Local news sources say that Juskiewicz “developed a reputation as an advocate for secondary education . . . for funding the commissioning of the nuclear submarine the U.S.S. Vermont . . . [and] was active in establishing Jenna’s House, a community recovery center,” though he was known also for his “loyalty and sense of humor.” State House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said of Juskiewicz, “for him, it was service to the state above all.” Governor Phil Scott ordered flags flown at half-staff in his honor.
The following day, another still-serving state legislator passed away. Louisiana State Representative Reggie Bagala of Lafourche Parish was fifty-four years old. A former parish auditor, Bagala won his seat in the state legislature just last October. Just a month into his new role, he had already introduced a bill “authorizing the creation of license plates commemorating the LSU football team’s national championship victory in January.” In a statement, Governor John Bel Edwards described Bagala as “a successful businessman, a devoted family man, and [an] active volunteer,” writing that he “spent his life making his community and south Louisiana a better place to live.”
Many states began to increase the strength and severity of their lockdowns just after Bagala’s passing on April 10, and no additional current state legislators seem to have passed away since. One former legislator, State Senator Morris Hood III of Detroit, MI, passed away in May. A long-established voice in Lansing, Hood had served in the state house from 2003 to 2008, and in the state senate from 2011 to 2018. Since leaving elected office, Hood had worked for Wayne County Supervisor Warren Evans. His colleagues in the state legislator remember him for his year-end speeches, when he “encouraged [his colleagues] to stay close to their loved ones and to tell people that you love them.” Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who served with Hood in both houses of the legislature, described him as “the type of guy who lit up a room and made you glad to be there.”
Thankfully, no further legislators have passed away since the writing of this article, though cases continue to spread in state capitols across the country just as they are everywhere else. From New York to Kentucky to North Carolina to Arizona, state legislators are continuing to test positive for the coronavirus. Many will go back to their communities and though (I hope) all of them will quarantine for the required length of time, every minute of legislative inaction puts more people in danger.
So to all those reading this—this isn’t over. Keep wearing your masks, keep washing your hands, and when in doubt, check out what’s good on Netflix.
The image featured in the headline of the article is licensed under Creative Commons 2.0. The license can be found here and the original photo can be found here. No changes were made to the photo, and the photographer is Tony Fischer.
Ridgley Knapp is a graduate of the College and second-year MPP student at the Harris School for Public Policy. When he's not working in or writing about politics and policy, he enjoys rowing and the New York Times crossword.