An embattled state senator says he's being unfairly characterized as "the bad guy" and as unwilling to meet with the NAACP after negatively using the word black to describe a bill.
"I reached out to them, I said I'd like to meet with them," Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, said Tuesday. "I extended myself to them and they changed the deal."
Buttars was referring to a meeting scheduled for Tuesday evening with Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake Branch of the NAACP, and members of the civil rights organization's executive committee. The meeting's intent was to discuss Williams' call for Buttars resignation.
Buttars, who plans to run for re-election, said he decided not to attend after Williams had told him the meeting would be public.
"They're angry at me, it would be just another angry exchange," Buttars said. "I wanted to meet with them in private."
But Williams pointed out it was in a public setting that Buttars, during a Senate debate, had referred to a school equalization bill, saying, "This baby is black, I'll tell you. This is a dark and ugly thing."
So, she said, he should be comfortable apologizing to the NAACP publicly.
"We wanted the media to be here to see that we, the NAACP Salt Lake Branch, we're not a lynch mob as we were so-called," said Williams. She was referring to Buttars' reference to critics calling on him to step down, often in angry e-mails, as a "hate lynch mob" during an interview this week with the Salt Lake Tribune.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, a life member of the NAACP, had arranged the meeting between Williams and Buttars. He said he was disappointed that it didn't work out.
"I just felt like I could maybe be somebody who could get them together," Shurtleff said. "Even though I don't believe what he said was racist, he still hurt people, and he needs to apologize to the African-American community."
Williams said she doubted Buttars could have said anything to change the committee's mind about the call for Buttars to step down. But based on comments made during the meeting with reporters at the Law and Justice Center it was apparent that the senator would have had a tough sell.
NAACP branch member Ed Lewis Jr. said Buttars' remarks about the black baby could only be taken one way: "This is a black baby and it's ugly ...That's what he meant. That's what he said."
And Lewis held up an article as he said he had researched the last lynching in Utah in 1925 in Price.
"The man knows nothing about what a lynch mob is," Lewis said. "It is an insult for a man to say he is getting lynched when we know what real lynchings are."
Williams said her next step will be to send a letter to Buttars, and she said the NAACP will work on circulating a petition in his district and is considering a gathering at the Capitol.
Buttars, meanwhile, continues to plan his bid for re-election and says he is still considering purchasing full- page ads in both the Deseret Morning News and Salt Lake Tribune. He had put those ads on hold after scheduling the meeting with the NAACP.
According to his most recent financial disclosure statement filed with the state, Buttars continued to collect campaign contributions through 2007 and has about $68,000 on hand.
Buttars said Tuesday that he doesn't understand the offense taken at his use of the term lynch mob, and that he wouldn't apologize for that.
"I've never heard of it being a racial term," he said. "It just appears to me they're just looking for things."
However, Buttars said he's apologized, and continues to regret his choice of words during the Feb. 12 debate.
"I've apologized publicly how many times," Buttars said. "They don't care what I have to say ... I'm just moving on."
Salt Lake County Republican Party Chairman James Evans said that Buttars' comments, including his recent reference to lynching, were not racist.
"It is a 'hate lynch mob,"' Evans said, echoing Buttars' words.
"People decide who's a racist and who's not based on their agenda," Evans said. "This is a political agenda to silence a white, conservative male ... race is being used as a weapon to undermine Sen. Buttars' effectiveness."
Evans, who is black, attempted unsuccessfully two years ago to get former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson to apologize for criticizing Evans and others during an anti-war rally for their "slavish" support of President Bush.
Evans said he supported Buttars and had planned to stand by his side during a now-canceled rally at the Capitol.
Bush, speaking last week about nooses hanging from trees in protests and lynching jokes, acknowleged the racial undercurrents in such remarks.
"As a civil society, we must understand that noose displays and lynching jokes are deeply offensive," Bush said at a White House celebration of African-American history month. "They are wrong. And they have no place in America today."
Buttars said he hadn't been using the term jokingly, saying "by the end of last week it was ugly."
This hasn't been the first time Buttars' comments have raised concerns. During a radio interview in 2006, the senator had called the landmark Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation ruling "wrong to begin with."
The Rev. France Davis of Calvary Baptist Church said he's also called Buttars and offered to meet with him but has gotten no response.
"The more he talks the more he reveals about his own self," the Rev. Davis said. "I'm still hopeful that the first thing he'll do is take an opportunity to learn about people who are different than him. After that he might want to asses whether he can genuinely represent all of the people of Utah or not."
The Rev. Davis said Buttars' apology is out there, and it remains to be seen how he'll follow up on it.
"How do you make amends, how do you change things, how do you change yourself," the Rev. Davis said. "Words are one thing, actions are what really count."
Buttars has told the News that the Feb. 12 debate was intense, and before he spoke, he had listened to other senators speak of splitting the "baby" among school districts and labeling it an "ugly baby."
Shortly after the debate ended, Buttars said he told Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem, during a break that he wanted to apologize.
When the senators returned to the floor, Valentine announced there had been a breach of decorum and that the senator involved wanted to apologize. Buttars said he was sorry and apologized a second time in writing on the Senate GOP majority's blog.Valentine declined to talk about Buttars' latest questionable statement. "I'm not making amy more comments about Sen. Buttars," Valentine said. "That's his thing now. He's not speaking for the Senate caucus."