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‘I can say anything I want’: Michigan official defends using racist slur while refusing to wear a mask

Google street view of the Leelanau County Road Commission building in north Michigan. (Google) (Google)

A local road commission meeting in northern Michigan on Tuesday started with one commissioner asking another why he wasn’t wearing a mask amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The unmasked official responded with a racist slur and an angry rant against the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Well, this whole thing is because of them n-----s in Detroit,” Tom Eckerle, who was elected to his position on the Leelanau County Road Commission in 2018, told his colleague at the start of the public meeting.

The commission chairman, Bob Joyce, immediately rebuked his colleague, but Eckerle, who is White, continued his diatribe.

“I can say anything I want,” Eckerle said at the meeting, which the public could listen to via a dial-in number, the Leelanau Enterprise first reported. “Black Lives Matter has everything to do with taking the country away from us.”

Eckerle’s remarks came the same week Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Mich.) declared racism a public health crisis because of the disparate impact the coronavirus pandemic has had in Black, Native American and Latino communities. Michigan has reported at least 94,656 cases and 6,506 deaths since the start of the pandemic.

In the last month, people in the U.S. have started to look more critically at how we deal with race and incorporate anti-racism into our everyday lives. (Video: The Washington Post)

At least 156,000 people have died of coronavirus in the U.S.

“#COVID19 has highlighted what Black & Brown communities have always known — inequities caused by systemic racism can be deadly,” Whitmer said in a tweet on Wednesday. “We’re confronting this head on.”

The racist remark spurred widespread condemnation of Eckerle, who is a Republican, and calls to resign from party officials. Despite the backlash, Eckerle doubled down on his comments Thursday, defending his position and using the slur repeatedly in an interview with the local public radio station.

“I don’t regret calling it a n----r,” Eckerle told Interlochen Public Radio. “A n----r is a n----r is a n----r. That’s not a person whatsoever.”

About 93 percent of Leelanau County’s 21,761 residents are White, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Less than 1 percent of the people who live there are Black.

“It’s horrible,” Joyce told the Detroit News. “It’s absolutely horrific.”

He told the News that the other three road commissioners are pressing Eckerle to resign.

“We do not tolerate that,” he told the newspaper. “That’s not who we are.”

But Eckerle has not wavered. State Rep. Jack O’Malley (R), who represents Leelanau County, said he had a conversation with Eckerle and also asked the commissioner to step down.

“I reached out to this Commissioner and asked for his side of the story,” O’Malley said in a statement on Facebook. “He confirmed to me he did use the racist slur. After some discussion I asked Mr. Eckerle to resign. He refused.”

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O’Malley said Eckerle is two years into a six-year term. To oust him before the next election, voters would have to petition to recall him or the county could request that the governor remove him, he said.

“This language and reasoning is ignorant and wrong,” O’Malley said, referring to Eckerle’s use of the racist slur. “We will see how this plays out, but in today’s emotional and highly charged climate to say what he said is ignorant and has no place, especially as an elected official. I did remind him he represents everyone in Leelanau County as I do … and his comments were and are beyond stupid.”

The Leelanau County administrator, Chet Janik, told Up North Live that if Eckerle was a county employee rather than an elected official, he would have faced “severe” disciplinary action for using the racist slur.

Daniel C. Scripps, who lives in Leelanau County and is the chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission, said Eckerle should be recalled.

“At its core, racism is an attempt to dehumanize, though I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it laid so bare,” he said in a tweet. “But let’s be clear: Eckerle’s resignation/recall is the first step, not the last. All of us, including we who call Leelanau home, also need to do the hard work of coming to terms with, confronting, and overcoming the racism in our community.”