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Ohio County GOP Chairman Deletes Image Calling Wildfires ‘God’s Punishment to Liberal California’

Columbiana County Republican Party Chairman Dave Johnson said in a telephone interview that the post, which he published on Sunday after reading a news article and deleted later that day, reflected his belief that Democrats have mismanaged California.

By Andrew J. Tobias

An influential eastern Ohio Republican leader says he has deleted an "inartful" image he'd published to his Facebook page that said the ongoing California wildfire was "God's punishment to Liberal California."

Columbiana County Republican Party Chairman Dave Johnson said in a telephone interview that the post, which he published on Sunday after reading a news article and deleted later that day, reflected his belief that Democrats have mismanaged California. But, he said that he didn't mean to offend anyone.

"Look, that's a meme. And it's how I feel about liberals, but did I mean that God is going to punish everyone who lives in California? No. It's a figure of speech, and I probably shouldn't have done it. But I did, and it doesn't change how I feel about what's happened in California," Johnson said.

He later added: "Now to the extent that that meme would have offended or hurt someone in California, yes, that's not the intent, and I don't think that's what it says. But you know, it's in the eyes of the beholder, and so if it offended anyone that had a loss of life, then I'm sorry. That was not my intent, and anybody who knows me knows better."

The fire has killed at least 77 people, according to media reports. It has destroyed more than 10,500 homes while burning 234 square miles. A Los Angeles Times report has tied the fire to a malfunctioning power line.

Johnson is an influential member of the Ohio Republican Party's central committee. He owns the Spread Eagle Tavern in Hanoverton, a regular stop for politicians running for office in Ohio, and served as a delegate to the 2016 Republican National Convention. His post prompted a swift backlash from Democrats, including Mahoning County Democratic Party Chairman David Betras, another county chairman from the Mahoning Valley with a statewide profile.

In a news release published to his county party's Facebook page on Monday, Betras called on Johnson to resign over the post.

"Johnson owes the victims, their families, and the heroes who fought the fire and participated in rescue efforts an apology," Betras wrote in a post published to the Mahoning County Democrats' Facebook page. "In addition, I think his demented comments disqualify him from holding positions of public trust. He should, therefore, immediately resign from all the public positions he holds," which includes his party leadership and positions with the Columbiana County Board of Elections and the board for the Ohio Bureau of Workers' Compensation.

In an interview, Betras called Johnson's post "beyond the pale," and called on other Republicans to denounce it.

"If you want to have a discussion about environmental policies, that's fine, but if you say this is God's wrath coming down because you're a liberal and people are dying ... I don't know where we're at as a country then," he said.

A spokesman for the Ohio Republican Party did not respond to a request for comment.

But Johnson called Betras' post a "Democrat stunt." He said the backlash stoked by Betras and others has driven people to send profane messages to his businesses and family members.

"It will eventually die out," he said. "They're trying to make an issue out of it because they got their butts kicked in this election cycle."

(c)2018 Advance Ohio Media, Cleveland

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