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As Hate Speech Pervades Politics, Many Politicians Escape Consequence

After making racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic comments, elected officials often stay in office, either by apologizing or attacking their opponents. But public servants may have a harder time keeping their jobs.

Maryland Delegate-Slur
Del. Mary Ann Lisanti was censured by the Maryland House of Delegates for making a racial slur about a majority-black county, but she has resisted calls to resign.
(AP/Brian Witte)
Last week, Shane Bouchard stepped down as mayor of Lewiston, Maine, after texts were revealed in which he shared racist and sexist jokes. What made this unusual was not that Bouchard was caught using offensive language but rather that he chose to resign.

Hardly a day seems to go by without revelations that a public official somewhere has said something racist, anti-Semitic or homophobic. In many cases, they either apologize or bluster their way through the situation. Only some choose to bring their own careers to an end -- even when the calls for them to resign may be loud.

Last June, Arizona state Rep. David Stringer, a Republican, turned back calls for him to step down after he referred to immigration as an "existential threat," saying there weren't "enough white kids to go around" in the state's public schools.

He won reelection in November. That month, he faced renewed calls for his resignation after he told a group of Arizona State University students that, unlike European immigrants, African-Americans "don't blend in." But Stringer has kept his seat, despite the revelation that he was found guilty on multiple sex charges in 1983.

Democratic Del. Mary Ann Lisanti was unanimously censured last month by the Maryland House for using the N-word when referring to a black-majority legislative district. But Lisanti apologized and has resisted calls to resign.

In neighboring West Virginia, Republican Del. Eric Porterfield has also refused to resign over controversial comments he made last month. Unlike Lisanti, he did not apologize. After using the homophobic slur "f----t," he later defended himself, saying the LGBTQ community is "a modern-day version of the Ku Klux Klan, without wearing hoods, with their antics of hate” and that he was being "persecuted" by the community, which he referred to as a "terrorist group."

Attacking their critics like Porterfield did has become a fairly common technique for public figures who are found to have engaged in hate speech. After the liberal site Media Matters for America published audioclips of Fox News host Tucker Carlson making racist and homophobic statements, Carlson responded on his show: “We will never bow to the mob.” 


Past Racism Catches Up to Politicians

Of course the most prominent cases right now of politicians surviving revelations of racism are in Virginia and deal with behavior long before they were elected officials.

Last month, Gov. Ralph Northam and state Attorney General Mark Herring, both Democrats, admitted donning blackface while they were students in the 1980s. The controversy started with a photo on Northam's medical school yearbook page of one person dressed in blackface and another as a member of the KKK.

Both faced widespread calls to resign from leaders of their own party, yet both appear firmly ensconced in office at this point. Both apologized, and Northam has pledged to devote the remainder of his term to racial reconciliation. 

The situation in Virginia prompted reporters around the country to look at other old yearbooks. Soon after the Northam and Herring stories broke, the Virginian-Pilot reported that Tommy Norment, the top Republican in the Virginia Senate, edited a Virginia Military Institute yearbook that included racist language and photos of students in blackface.

Norment issued an apology and also remains in office.

"The use of blackface is abhorrent in our society and I emphatically condemn it,” Norment said in a statement. “As one of seven working on a 359-page yearbook, I cannot endorse or associate myself with every photo, entry or word on each page.”

Shortly before the Northam story broke in Virginia, Florida Republican Secretary of State Michael Ertel did resign after photos surfaced showing him in blackface 15 years ago. But Florida GOP state Rep. Anthony Sabatini has refused to step down from office after a photo of him wearing blackface emerged, dismissing it as a “silly high school prank.”

At a moment of seemingly heightened sensitivity, old “pranks” and posts continue to haunt politicians. During his ultimately successful campaign for a Virginia House seat in a special election last month, Ibraheem Samirah apologized for five-year-old Facebook posts in which he said that sending money to Israel is “worse” than sending money to the KKK.


'I Regret What I Said'

Not all examples of public figures' hateful speech are relegated to years past. 

Recent comments made by U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, a Minnesota Democrat, were perceived by many of her colleagues as anti-Semitic and led to lengthy debate in the House about whether and how to condemn her. In the end, the House approved a broad anti-hate speech resolution. 

Omar has repeatedly made comments suggesting that the loyalties of American supporters of Israel are suspect. Omar has apologized for giving offense, releasing a statement last month that said, "I thank my Jewish allies and colleagues who are educating me on the painful history of anti-Semitic tropes."  

Some of Omar’s own critics, it turns out, have made anti-Semitic comments themselves. While decrying Omar's comments about Israel during a radio interview on Monday, former Maine GOP Gov. Paul LePage said that “the Jewish people in America” supply the Democratic Party with most of its funding.

LePage is known for making controversial comments. Last month, he criticized the National Popular Vote Compact, which is seeking to abolish the Electoral College, because he said it would mean that “white people would have nothing to say.

On Monday, Bennett Bressman, who was a junior staffer for Nebraska GOP Gov. Pete Ricketts’ reelection campaign, apologized for thousands of online posts, many of them anti-Semitic or anti-immigrant. Bressman once suggested it would be a good idea to run down Black Lives Matter protesters. 

“I understand how they look really bad and are really bad on their face,” Bressman told the Lincoln Journal-Star. “I regret what I said."


Worse Consequences for Public Workers?

While many politicians are able to survive media storms triggered by hate speech, either by apologizing or denigrating their opponents, public servants appear to be more likely to pay a price. Firing a government employee can be easier than ousting an elected official who won't step down.

Last month, the Portland Police Bureau in Oregon removed Lt. Jeff Niiya from a team that polices protests after Willamette Week reported on hundreds of friendly texts he exchanged with Joey Gibson, a right-wing provocateur.

"The texts appear to unnecessarily encourage Joey Gibson, the leader of a group that perpetrates hate speech and violence," Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said in a statement. "Demonstrations that he has led have caused significant disruption and increased fear in our community."

This past Sunday, Alex McBabb, an emergency medical technician in Patrick County, Va., was fired in the wake of reports that he compared black patients to gorillas on a podcast and said he took “immense satisfaction” when he “terrorized” an African-American boy with a needle.

This appears in the Politics newsletter. Subscribe for free.

Zach Patton -- Executive Editor. Zach joined GOVERNING as a staff writer in 2004. He received the 2011 Jesse H. Neal Award for Outstanding Journalism
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