SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (NEXSTAR) — Dramatic and disruptive protests have erupted on the floor of the Illinois House many times throughout the years, but rarely have those protests been carried out by the Representatives themselves.

In the late 1970s, former Representative Doug Kane, a Springfield Democrat, stormed the House podium as his party protested the rules set in place by the Republican-led majority.

In 1982, during the intense debate over the Equal Rights Amendment, former Republican Secretary of State Jim Edgar summoned police to arrest and remove protesters who chained themselves to the rails outside the chamber doors. After their arrest, the protesters later returned and staged a protest inside the House chamber. Former Republican House Speaker George Ryan famously had to step over them to get to the podium.

But on Thursday, with the galleries closed off to the public during the pandemic, the politicians on the House floor became the protesters, and staged a demonstration over mask rules that resulted in their own removal.

Eight of the nine Republican members left the chamber after a majority of members voted for their removal. Guards at the door were given a list of members who would not be allowed back in without a mask.

Rep. Tony McCombie (R-Savanna) refused to leave, setting off tense moments between chamber guards and the elected official they were sworn to protect.

“I apologize for putting you in this position,” McCombie told House Doorkeeper Wayne Padget when he approached her and asked her to leave.

While McCombie stayed on the floor, House staff considered possible options for arranging her removal. The male guards surrounding the chamber grew frustrated during the standoff. One grumbled, “they need to grow up and do their jobs.”

Several of the chamber door guards are retired law enforcement officers, and they desperately wanted to avoid any physical confrontation with a state lawmaker. House staff considered inviting female officers from the Secretary of State’s police unit in the chamber to escort McCombie out, but ultimately decided against it.

The Illinois Constitution contains “legislative immunity” protections that bar police from arresting elected officials while they are “going to, during, and returning from sessions of the General Assembly.”

Lawyers who reviewed the constitutional language felt the Secretary of State police could still remove her from the chamber floor without technically arresting her, because she would not be detained once she stepped off the floor.

“I was elected to be on the floor. So that’s why I stayed,” McCombie explained after the House adjourned. “My chair would have been removed, and I would have been barred from re-entering. So I felt I had no choice but to stay there.”

McCombie was given the option to vote remotely from outside the chamber, but when she wouldn’t leave, House staff disabled her voting button. Later, she described the mask protest as a way to vent frustrations about the broad use of executive powers for nearly two years during the pandemic.

“We know that the Governor has been overreaching and that we should be voting on this,” McCombie said.

Rep. Lakesia Collins (D-Chicago) filed the motion to remove the defiant Republicans, calling their publicity stunt a “clown show.”

“You’re over there whining about a mask,” Collins said. “Do your job and comply with the rules in this House. If not, go remote.”

Rep. Andrew Chesney, a Freeport Republican, tried to turn the debate over masks and public health into a fight over crime and public safety, calling the mask rule “virtue signaling,” and the “height of hypocrisy.”

“You wear a cloth mask and talk about safety? Why don’t we protect the people in the state of Illinois,” Chesney shouted over boos from Democrats. “You say nothing. Hypocrisy is no longer defined by Webster’s Dictionary hypocrisy is known as the Democrat party in the state of Illinois.”

One Democrat shouted back, “You don’t care about Chicago.”

Collins said she would keep calm as she responded to Chesney’s “ignorance.”

“Let’s not forget it’s mindsets like yours that created those murders,” Collins retorted as Chesney scoffed. “Your privilege to look down on people who are living in poverty who do not have access to a simple grocery store.

“You can attack me, you call me out my name, you can refer to the city of Chicago day and night,” Collins said. “But let’s not forget the poor whites that stay in your district. You ignore them, you don’t fund them. But you blame it on the Democratic Party, when the reality is that you take care of the wealthy in your district, like you, and you ignore the poor.”

“I’m not sure how we got here,” House Republican Leader Jim Durkin responded, calling for members to “take the temperature down a little bit” and redirect their focus to the “very serious sanction” of removing members from the chamber.

“It’s within the rules. I understand it. The rules are the rules,” Durkin said. “Let’s see how the vote goes, and we’ll accept the consequences of it.”

The final vote was 66-39 in favor of removing the mask martyrs. House Democrats Sue Scherer (Decatur), Larry Walsh (Wilmington), Fred Crespo (Hoffman Estates), Marty Moylan (Des Plaines), Stephanie Kifowit (Oswego), and Mike Halpin (Rock Island) did not vote to remove their Republican colleagues.

“This is the lowest I’ve seen us go,” Rep. Mary Flowers (D-Chicago) said after the Republican protest.

Flowers, a 38-year veteran and the oldest member of the Illinois House, said she personally felt safe and did not mind if Republicans took off their masks while they were seated more than a hundred feet away from her. She, and three of her Democratic colleagues were spotted with their masks off during floor debate one day prior.

“I would be okay with it, but there’s other members that may not be okay with it,” Flowers said, referring to medical concerns raised by some of her colleagues. “With me, I just live my life one day at a time.”

“I don’t want to make any of you sick,” Rep. Dan Ugaste (R-Geneva) said. “I don’t want to make any of your family members sick. I don’t want to put them in jeopardy. And if wearing a mask, after two years or in three sessions of dealing with this, were really the answer, I’d be the first to have it on. I’d double and triple up for you. But we all know that what we’re wearing — the studies have told us — aren’t doing a whole heck of a lot.”

Several medical and epidemiological studies have been published that run counter to Ugaste’s claims, including peer-reviewed research from Stanford Medicine, Yale University, the Mayo Clinic, and the Centers for Disease Control. Each of those studies found masks, especially N-95 masks, are an effective tool to slow the spread of a deadly virus that has so far claimed the lives of more than 900,000 Americans.

“We are not following science today,” Chesney said. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re following political science.”

While Chesney intended his remark to criticize hypocrisy in the House rules, his antics are also a part of a broader political strategy to change which party rules the House.

As he and his colleagues set the dramatic stage for political theater in the House chamber, judges in the chambers at the Fourth District Appellate Court across the street were considering the limits of Governor Pritzker’s mandatory mask policies in school classrooms.

Later that night, the court upheld a lower court’s ruling to suspend Pritzker’s mask rules, setting up a Supreme Court showdown over the extent of Pritzker’s executive authority during a public health emergency.

Pritzker, so far, has pointed to public opinion to defend his use of executive power to enforce statewide mask rules. But as public health metrics start to improve and the threat of the virus begins to fade, Republicans are betting that courts, legislators, and voters will grow impatient with blanket rules and orders, and will increasingly demand a return to the status quo when individual citizens determined their own risks and made their own health decisions.

“Mind your own business,” McCombie said on the House floor. “Mitigate your own risk.”

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Republicans were nearing the end of their run in power. Democratic agitators, and sometimes lawmakers, were the ones storming the House to protest and obstruct.

It was an election year, too, when Republicans used House rules to remove protesters and wielded their majority to defeat the ERA. But the political momentum had already taken hold. Democrats retook the majority that November and nominated Michael J. Madigan as their speaker. He and his party would govern the chamber, and set the House rules, for 38 of the next 40 years.