The county’s 25 commissioners were given time to comment before the resolution came to a vote, Thompson recalled. It was then that County Commissioner Warren Hurst leaned toward the microphone and began a diatribe so hateful it caused Thompson to storm out of the meeting.
“Look what we got running for president in the Democratic Party. We can go over here to [the county jail] and get better people out of there than those running for Democratic, to be president of the United States,” Hurst said, according to CBS affiliate WVLT, which captured some of his comments on video. “We got a queer running for president, if that ain’t about as ugly as you can get.”
His comment — an apparent reference to Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg, who is openly gay — drew laughter and applause from many in the room, Thompson said. Hurst then decried the plight of white men in the United States.
“I’m not prejudiced, but by golly, a white male in this country has very few rights, and they’re getting took more every day,” Hurst said. “You’ll hear ’em stand on the stage and say, ‘Oh, I’m for the poor and the black.’ You never heard one of them say ‘I believe white people have rights, too.’ ”
Thompson’s exit was captured on video, too. The woman recalled standing up during Hurst’s remarks to comment on his lack of professionalism. But no one was supporting her sentiment, she said, so she left.
“I found it totally unprofessional, demeaning, bullying; I could not stay there any longer,” she said. “Think about how many people were in that room. I’m the only one who stood up and objected to it.”
Many Democrats in Sevier County keep their political affiliation private out of fear, Thompson said. But as Hurst’s rant has drawn national attention, leaders in Sevier and its surrounding jurisdictions have insisted that the commissioner’s views do not align with those of other officials in local government.
Hurst’s statements “do not reflect the opinion or position of Sevier county administration,” according to the Sevier County Twitter account. The city of Sevierville, the county’s seat, was more explicit in its condemnation, writing that its administration rejects “bigotry and prejudice toward any and all persons.”
In his own statement, Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters said he disapproved of Hurst’s comments, which were “his and his alone.”
“I have lived in Sevier County my whole life and know it as a place that is welcoming to everyone, as evidenced by the more than 12 million people who visit annually,” Waters said in a statement. “Generations of families have enjoyed our beautiful county and know that our citizens are caring and compassionate.”
Sevier County’s nearly 100,000 residents are more than 95 percent white, according to census data, and that racial majority is reflected in its leadership. Assistant Mayor Perrin Anderson told The Washington Post that the county’s 25 commissioners are all white. The commission consists of 24 men and one woman. The primary focus of Monday’s monthly meeting was the resolution to make Sevier a Second Amendment sanctuary — which means legislators will refuse to enforce laws they believe will infringe on the constitutional right to keep and bear arms. It passed in a unanimous vote.
Anderson stressed that Hurst’s comments were not related to anything on the meeting agenda. Hurst, who was elected to the commission in 1982, could not be reached for comment Tuesday but told WVLT he stands by his words. He also said some of his best friends were African American.
State Rep. Gloria Johnson (D), whose Knox County district is 30 miles west of Sevier County, said Hurst should resign from the commission. Johnson underscored the importance of tourism in Sevier, which lies near the popular Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The county also contains the mountain towns of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, both known for their tourist attractions.
Johnson lamented the dozens of social media posts she’s seen from tourists to the area, some of whom have vowed not to return as long as Hurst remains on the commission.
Pigeon Forge City Manager Earlene Teaster in a statement to WVLT said her city “in no way condone[s] Sevier County Commissioner Hurst’s disturbing comments” and “welcomes everyone with open arms. We do not discriminate.”
“It’s so frustrating because they rely a lot on tourists. It’s such a welcoming, wonderful place,” Johnson said in an interview. “But then you’ve got those elected officials there that are making statements like that, and the reality is, they represent everyone in the county — including the LGBTQ community. To lash out at their constituents like that is ridiculous.”
Johnson called Hurst “wrong and ignorant” and said she was perturbed to see others laughing and clapping when he spoke.
“That should not be who we are; it’s frightening,” she added. “Someone said ‘Amen’ as if he was preaching a sermon. It’s all unacceptable, and we’ve got to do better.”
Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, which advocates for LGBTQ rights in the state, echoed Johnson’s call for Hurst to resign. The other option, he said, would be for the commission to introduce inclusive ordinances for Sevier County to bolster protections against discrimination on the basis of race, gender identity and sexual orientation.
“There may be ways for him to make up for what he said, but they have to be concrete. We’re beyond an apology at this point,” Sanders said. “We need to see some real change backed up by public policy in that county.”
Correction: A previous version of this story referred to Warren Hurst as chairman of the commission.