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You Don't Have to Ride Jim Crow!

Jean Birkenstein Washington

Boston Herald

MSNBC feature

Robin Washington

Nelson’s slavery gaffe outranks Imus

Duluth News Tribune, April 12, 2007

At the St. Louis County Board meeting, Feb. 27:

Bill Kron: “If Commissioner Nelson was an elected official 155 years ago and there was a referendum in his district, let’s say, in support of slavery … just because a majority of the people said ‘yes, we should continue slavery,’ then he would automatically say, ‘I have to support what my people think’? Or are there issues that you need to stand on principle?”

Keith Nelson: “If the people in my district had voted for slavery, and the vast majority had, and I was representing them, the answer is yes, I would have voted for it.”

Now that everyone on the St. Louis County Board has had more than a month to think about it, here’s what Commissioner Bill Kron should have said to challenge Keith Nelson on his I-always-vote-the-will-of-my-constituents remark: If your voters wanted you to be shot at sunrise, would you support it?

Maybe then, if Kron had chosen as his analogy something Nelson could personally relate to, the commissioner from the Range would have gotten Kron’s point that no, you don’t always vote the wishes of the electorate, which more than a few times in the history of this country has been dead wrong.

And that’s why Kron chose slavery as his example, which, for Nelson’s edification, was as wrong 155 years ago as it is today. A lukewarm apology and a week’s worth of whining about the whole thing being a guerilla attack by anti-smoking activists proves Nelson still doesn’t get it. Instead of issuing a mea culpa as everyone from Mel Gibson to Michael Richards to Don Imus has had the sense to do, Nelson on Tuesday apologized with the qualifier “If I offended anyone” and then said he stood by his statement — implying he would say it again. So did he apologize or not?

What’s especially disturbing about the Nelson episode is that he’s not an actor or comedian or shock jock radio host, but an elected official. His explanation of the flawed thought process behind his votes wasn’t just insulting, it was an unsettling view into how he would put moral issues aside to make public policy. And while nobody is forced to see a Gibson film or Richards comedy skit and advertisers are tripping over themselves to pull out of what’s left of the Imus show, the County Board is stuck with Nelson until the end of 2010. Depending on how long their memories are, a majority of Nelson’s constituents could have other plans for him by then.

Before that, though, it’s high time to reverse Nelson’s spin that the scandal began when an anonymous tobacco teetotaler posted a clip of the infamous slavery remark on YouTube. No, it began when Nelson made the remark on Feb. 27, even if it initially escaped media attention.

That bye notwithstanding, it eventually made it into the paper in a letter to the editor published in this section on March 31 (“ ‘Man of the people’ thinking only goes so far”), three days before the YouTube posting.

On Apr. 2, before writing an editorial on the subject, I asked Nelson to verify the comment. “I never said that,” he said at first. But his memory must have kicked in because he changed that to say slavery had been discussed after all. “If I got into a position such as slavery, I would have to resign,” he said — an explanation that sounded plausible until the News Tribune editorial page staff requested a DVD of the meeting and viewed his actual remark.

In a new twist on Mel Gibson’s I-was-drunk defense or the even lamer I-said-it-but-I’m-not-racist excuses of Richards and Imus, Nelson at Tuesday’s County Board meeting blamed his verbal mistakes on being diabetic. County Board meetings can force him to miss meals, he said, leading him to confuse words like “indigent” for “indigenous” and, at that very meeting, to utter inanities such as “I am offended even today that we would try to justify slavery with the smoking issue.” Justify?

So now, Nelson has not only insulted the descendants of slaves and every other freedom-loving person in the country, he’s labeled people with diabetes as blubbering idiots. But not to worry. If a majority of Nelson’s voters get together to push for a ban on insulin, surely Nelson would support it.

Robin Washington is editorial page editor of the News Tribune and a commentator on public radio stations across the country.

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