Remarks may spur Buttars to resign

He could step down today over comments about gay-rights activists

By Lisa Riley Roche and Aaron Falk

Deseret News

Published: Friday, Feb. 20 2009 12:00 a.m. MST

Sen. Chris Buttars' chair remains empty in the Senate chambers on Thursday at the state Capitol in Salt Lake City. The senator was attending to other business and was excused.

August Miller, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

Sen. Chris Buttars could resign Friday as a result of the controversy surrounding anti-gay comments he made to a documentary filmmaker.

The West Jordan Republican left the Capitol Thursday afternoon after a two-hour, closed-door Senate GOP caucus where concerns were raised about an interview where he compared gay-rights activists to Muslim terrorists.

Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, scheduled a 9:30 a.m. Friday news conference about Buttars' fate. None of the Senate GOP leaders were willing to say what that fate might be, but did acknowledge resignation was a possibility.

If Buttars, who was re-elected to a third four-year term last November, does not decide to leave office, Waddoups could strip him of his committee chairmanships and even his committee assignments. Buttars chairs the Senate's health and human services, judiciary and judicial confirmation committees.

Republican senators have been through this with Buttars before. Last session, he drew criticism for a remark seen by some as racist. During a floor debate, he used the word "black" to negatively describe the "baby" being split by a bill, saying, "This baby is black, I'll tell you. This is a dark and ugly thing."

Although there were calls for his resignation then, by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and others, Buttars weathered the controversy with only apologies. He later lost his chairmanship of the judicial confirmation committee after a letter he sent to a judge, complaining about a court decision, surfaced.

Buttars' colleagues are clearly not happy at the prospect of another session being disrupted. Some are already hearing from their constituents that it is time for Buttars to go.

Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse, called the caucus discussion "very pointed" but respectful. And Senate Majority Whip Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said the discussion was "somewhat sober" and "very serious. No fun and games in there."

As for a resignation, Jenkins said, "Absolutely, you're right. He could resign like that" and snapped his fingers. But, he said, that decision "isn't for sure right now."

Killpack said he couldn't comment on whether Buttars would step down.

"I'll be very clear on the resignation. That will be a decision for Sen. Buttars," Killpack said. "He's the only person who can answer that question." He said Buttars "went home to spend the day with his family and talk about it."

Waddoups, who won the Senate presidency after complaining about how Buttars was treated last year, said, "this isn't an event I would have chosen." He declined to say whether he had asked for Buttars to resign, saying if he did, it would only be "as a peer and a friend."

The Senate's only openly gay senator, Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake, said the minority Democrats were ready to address the issue from the floor Thursday afternoon had Waddoups not announced the Friday news conference.

"Something has to be done. We didn't have anything particular in mind," McCoy said, adding that Democrats will wait and see what happens Friday morning.

Gay advocacy groups in Utah are not asking for a resignation — or even an apology.

"It was hurtful, demeaning and demoralizing," said Stephanie Pappas, chairwoman of Equality Utah's board. "We're not willing to play on that level. If he said exactly what he said about another group of people … it would have been completely unconscionable. We need to educate. It doesn't matter who it's said about, it's wrong."

Pappas said extreme views, such as Buttars' remarks and the recent full-page ads America Forever ran in the Deseret News and The Salt Lake Tribune, help to bring people together in the middle.

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