A Kansas county commissioner who made a “master race” comment to a black city planner has resigned amid swift backlash over what many officials saw as more than just a poor attempt at a joke.
Louis Klemp insisted in a resignation letter Tuesday that his comments were “well-meaning,” not racially motivated, and misinterpreted. But a chorus of local and state officials disagreed, decrying Klemp for invoking the Nazi-tinged language and calling for his resignation.
“It is with great sorrow that I am submitting this letter to the community that I love and have been a part of for more than 80 years. In order to maintain a focus and prioritize the needs of the county I have made a decision to resign,” Klemp wrote in a letter to Leavenworth County Clerk Janet Klasinski, adding that he regrets the comment and has apologized to the city planner.
Klemp did not return calls from The Washington Post.
The comment in question happened a week ago during a Leavenworth Board of County Commissioners meeting. The city planner, Triveece Penelton, was making a presentation about a development project that Klemp did not seem to approve of.
“I don’t want you to think I’m picking on you because we’re part of the master race. You know you got a gap in your teeth. You’re the masters. Don’t ever forget that,” Klemp, who is white, told Penelton, as he motioned toward his own teeth.
Klemp told a local television station that he made the comment in jest. He also explained in his resignation letter that he was trying to identify a similarity between him and Penelton — a space between their front teeth. In an earlier statement seeking to explain Klemp’s comments, Leavenworth County Administrator Mark Loughry said that Klemp meant to say that he and the woman are part of a master race because they both have a gap between their teeth. Klemp had made such a reference several times in the past about people who have a gap in their teeth.
Though “ill-advised,” the comments were not a reference to Nazis, Loughry said.
But Penelton, a city planner from Kansas City, Kan., said commenting on her appearance and referencing “master race” were “unbelievably inappropriate.”
“Global history and racial/ethnic concerns in the United States describe the tremendous damage use of such terminology and similar wording has caused. It is inexcusable,” she said in a statement. “As a successful African American planner with 16 years of professional experience, I have been subjected to a wide range of tactless and at times covertly racist comments. However, no one’s words have been more unthinking than Mr. Klemp’s. In fact, his careless remarks have gone viral.”
The term “master race” refers to Adolf Hitler’s belief that blond, blue-eyed and tall Aryans were the superior race, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. It was more than a belief system: German scientists began a program of forced sterilizations of people they considered inferior: ethnic minorities, the physically disabled, the mentally ill and Jews.
Klemp’s comments have placed Leavenworth County, just outside of Kansas City, in an unflattering national spotlight and tainted perceptions of residents, businesses and organizations in the community, officials said.
The Leavenworth City Commission said it “unequivocally denounces” the use of “master race” or any other language with historical ties to racism.
“Racial and discriminative language have no place in our society, and most especially when spoken by someone holding a public office,” Kansas Gov. Jeff Colyer (R) said earlier in a statement calling for Klemp to resign.
Last week, Leavenworth Mayor Mark Preisinger called a special meeting during which he denounced Klemp’s comments and urged him to apologize.
“He’s been an embarrassment to the county, which reflects on the city and reflects on everyone,” Preisinger said last week, hinting at Klemp’s history of making comments with racist overtones.
In December, Klemp went on a meandering monologue during a discussion about the holiday schedule and mentioned historical figures who he felt should be honored. Robert E. Lee, the Confederate general, was a “wonderful part of history,” he said.
He said he’s bothered that there’s a holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. but not for George Washington. “I think George was a pretty important guy. Studied him in grade school and junior high. I guess they don’t study him anymore,” Klemp said.
(Washington is honored each year, along with other presidents, on Presidents' Day, which falls on the third Monday of February. The federal government calls the holiday Washington’s Birthday, although it doesn’t usually fall on his birthday — Feb. 22 — and it’s known in many states as Presidents' Day.)
Klemp also said that his great-great grandfather owned a slave, that some black people don’t support President Abraham Lincoln, and he wondered whether Oprah Winfrey should have a federal holiday.
Facing criticism, Klemp said his comments about the holiday schedule were “disappointing and lacking in clarity.”
Cleve R. Wootson contributed to this article.