By Lena H. Sun and Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, June 16, 2006
Maryland Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday fired Robert J. Smith, his appointee on the Metro transit authority board, for referring to gay people as sexual deviants on a cable television show.
"Robert Smith's comments were highly inappropriate, insensitive and unacceptable," Ehrlich (R) said in a statement less than five hours after the controversy erupted during a Metro board meeting. "They are in direct conflict to my administration's commitment to inclusiveness, tolerance and opportunity."
At the Metro meeting, board member Jim Graham, who represents the District, had called for Smith to disavow his remarks or apologize or for Ehrlich to remove him. "As someone who cares deeply about human rights, and as an openly gay elected official . . . I cannot remain silent in the face of these comments," Graham said, reading from a prepared statement.
Smith acknowledged after the meeting that he had referred to homosexuals as "persons of sexual deviancy" during a political round-table discussion on a Montgomery County cable show that was shown on Sunday.
"Homosexual behavior, in my view, is deviant," he said. "I'm a Roman Catholic." Smith said his comments had been part of a discussion about a proposed ban on same-sex marriage. "The comments I make in public outside of my [Metro board job] I'm entitled to make," he said. His personal beliefs, he said, have "absolutely nothing to do with running trains and buses and have not affected my actions or decisions on this board."
Ehrlich appointed Raymond J. Briscuso Jr., who heads a biotech consulting company, to take Smith's place. Briscuso, 46, will serve the remainder of Smith's three-year term, which began June 1, 2004.
Briscuso, who used to ride Metro's Red Line regularly between his Bethesda home and his downtown Washington office, said he is "very excited" to serve on the board. Briscuso managed George H.W. Bush's presidential campaign in Maryland in 1988.
For several months, Ehrlich, who is likely to announce his reelection bid this month, has been working to position himself as a centrist. One recent report about a political advertisement the governor is recording suggested that he is considering the line: "Bob Ehrlich governs not from the right or the left, but the center, where we are."
Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan, who with Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley is seeking the Democratic nomination to oppose Ehrlich, said that "Smith's hateful and mean-spirited comments suggest that he is unfit to serve the public, and his immediate removal is wholly justified."
Smith, 47, a Gaithersburg architect, could not be reached by phone last night. Earlier in the day, he said he served at the pleasure of the governor.
Almost immediately after he was appointed, Smith drew attention by questioning expenses at the agency, criticizing spending on promotional materials and other items he considered luxuries. He read lengthy budget documents that other board members tend to skim and asked sharp questions of finance managers.
The Metro directors oversee a $1 billion operating budget and nearly 10,000 employees. They set policy for the nation's second-busiest subway and fifth-busiest bus system. Metro carries more than 1.1 million riders a day.
The board is made up of six voting members and six alternates. Maryland, the District and Virginia each appoint two voting and two alternate members. The board has a vacancy for an alternate D.C. member to fill the spot of Dan Tangherlini, who became the agency's interim general manager this year.
After Smith's removal from the board, Graham complimented Ehrlich for his swift action. "The governor appreciated the seriousness of this problem," he said.
After the meeting, Smith accused Graham, a D.C. Council member, of using "high theater" to seek the media spotlight. He called his actions "highly out of order and inappropriate for this forum."
Smith said he has always supported the transit agency's policy against all forms of discrimination.
Asked whether he planned to apologize to Graham after Graham said the remarks were offensive, Smith replied: "I didn't make the comments to Mr. Graham. . . . I'm sorry he feels that way. I don't agree that his lifestyle is an appropriate way to lead one's life."
Smith's comments drew an immediate negative reaction from Dennis Jaffe, chairman of the Riders Advisory Council, who has been working with Smith the past several months on a committee to improve MetroAccess, the transit service for the disabled.
"I know how dedicated Bob Smith is, but his comments that homosexuals are sexual deviants are most unfortunate and reflect poorly on Metro as an agency," Jaffe said.
In an e-mail sent to all Metro employees yesterday, Tangherlini said he wanted to take the opportunity "to re-affirm to all . . . employees that discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated."
Smith said he has been a regular panelist on the weekly political round-table show, "21 This Week," telecast on Access Montgomery cable Channel 21, for the past 12 years. He appears as a "Republican activist," according to Rodney Bryant, the show's producer.
On last weekend's show, Smith interrupted another speaker who was talking about federalism and Vice President Cheney's daughter. The speaker said Cheney's daughter, who is a lesbian, would not want the government interfering in her life, according to a recording of that portion of the show.
"That's fine, that's fine," Smith interrupted. "But that doesn't mean that government should proffer a special place of entitlement within the laws of the United States for persons of sexual deviancy."
Staff researchers Rena Kirsch and Meg Smith contributed to this report.