By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 20, 2005
Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday removed the chairman of a state judicial commission for referring to illegal immigrants as "wetbacks," saying through a spokesman he was offended by the comment.
Ehrlich, who had been pressured by Hispanic leaders and Democrats to take action, announced that the administration had rescinded the appointment of William G. Duvall Jr. as head of a panel responsible for interviewing judicial candidates on the lower Eastern Shore.
"Obviously, the governor is offended by the remarks. He believes any decent-minded Marylander would be offended by them,'' spokesman Henry Fawell said.
The use of an ethnic slur by one of Ehrlich's appointees reignited criticism this week from the governor's opponents who say he has shown a pattern of insensitivity to immigrants. Last year, Ehrlich dismissed multiculturalism as "crap" and "bunk" and said immigrants should assimilate by learning to speak English.
Ehrlich, the state's first Republican governor in 36 years, was elected in part by appealing to moderate voters. As he seeks reelection in 2006, political scientists say, the governor cannot risk alienating the state's growing Hispanic community.
Ronald Walters, political science professor at the University of Maryland at College Park, said the governor's action yesterday suggests that he is trying to repair strained relations with Hispanics.
"The coming contest for the governor's race is going to be very close,'' Walters said, adding that Ehrlich "understands he needs every possible vote from every possible constituency."
The controversy began with a May 5 posting on Duvall's Web log, http://www.duvafiles.com , that provides commentary on Wicomico County government.
Duvall, a retired lawyer who was appointed to the unpaid position in 2003, criticized a proposal by county officials to convert a former juvenile boot camp into temporary housing for women detained by immigration officials.
In the entry, first reported by the Daily Times of Salisbury, Duvall wrote that the "dedication of the R. Hunter Nelms Memorial Drill Academy Facility to rehabbing errant youth was, and is, a losing proposition. Now it wants to turn the place into a warehouse for illegal female wetbacks."
On Tuesday, Duvall posted an apology on his site: "I emphatically apologize to any and all who may have been personally offended by my posts." He could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Before Ehrlich rescinded the appointment, Dels. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery) and Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George's) said inaction by Ehrlich would send the message that he condones the use of the word "wetback" -- a derogatory term for Mexican immigrants who illegally enter the United States via the Rio Grande.
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who is running for the 2006 Democratic gubernatorial nomination, also urged the governor to remove Duvall.
"There appears to be a pattern of hostility and insensitivity on the part of your administration toward ethnic minorities," Duncan said in a letter to Ehrlich.
After the announcement, Gutierrez said she was disappointed that Ehrlich was not more outspoken.
"I'm glad he's taken this step, but I would really hope he would take this opportunity to do some fence-mending with the Hispanic community,'' she said.
Luis Borunda, chairman of Hispanic Republicans of Maryland, said Duvall's comments were demeaning and degrading.
But Borunda said Ehrlich could not be held responsible for the comments of his appointees. Borunda, who was appointed by Ehrlich to the Baltimore County school board, said the governor "wants to continue to elevate the participation of not just the Hispanic community, but all the communities."