Michigan politician Tom Eckerle, who sat on the Leelanau County Road Commission, is resigning after blaming the spread of the coronavirus in Michigan on the Black population in Detroit and using a racial slur to do so, the Associated Press reported.
He made the comment before a public meeting, which was also available by phone and overheard by a reporter, according to this tweet. Eckerle was quoted as saying, “I can say whatever I want,” when another commissioner admonished him for using the slur, according to reporting from the Washington Post. Local news station WZZM-13 reported that Eckerle has since insisted that he is not racist.
Although Eckerle initially refused to resign, late into the night on August 7, Leelanau County Administrator Chet Janik said he would step down, the Associated Press reported. Eckerle, a farmer, was elected to the commission in 2018.
1. Eckerle Used The Slur In An Angry Response To Why He Wasn’t Wearing A Mask
According to the Leelanau Enterprise, Eckerle was asked by another commissioner before the meeting started why he was not wearing a mask. In response, Eckerle said, “Well, this whole thing is because of them n****** down in Detroit.”
Commission Chairman Bob Joyce rebuked Eckerle, telling him “You can’t say that,” to which, the Enterprise reported he said, “I can say anything I want. Black Lives Matter has everything to do with taking the country away from us.”
The Associated Press reported that Eckerle was “set off” by the mention of Black Lives Matter and told the paper, “If I could get a few people that, when they see a Black Lives Matter sign up, to think the N-word, I have accomplished what I’m after,” he said. He also said he was frustrated by Governor Whitmer’s “liberal ideas,” children being kept out of school because of the coronavirus pandemic and calls to remove Confederate statues.
According to Detroit News, despite being a 4-5 hour drive north of Detroit, Leelanau County is a “favorite vacation spot for Metro Detroiters.” The county, according to the Associated Press, “has about 21,700 residents, about 90% of whom are white.”
Eckerle’s initial comments were condemned by nearly everyone, including State Representative Jack O’Malley, who represents Leelanau County. “I reached out to this Commissioner and asked for his side of the story. He confirmed to me he did use the racial slur,” O’Malley wrote in his statement condemning Eckerle’s remarks. “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.”
2. The Governor And Other Politicians Called On Eckerle To Resign
In a statement, O’Malley publicly called on Eckerle to resign after admitting that he had asked privately, but Eckerle had refused. “I did remind him he represents everyone in Leelanau County as I do….and his comments were and are beyond stupid,” he said. “I hope Mr. Eckerle can come to see his mistakes and resign.”
If not, O’Malley said there were two other options if Eckerle continued to refuse to resign: a citizens’ recall petition or the County Board asking Governor Gretchen Whitmer to remove him.
Whitmer has released a statement saying that she believes Eckerle should resign, according to 9 To 5 News:
Governor Whitmer believes that Road Commissioner Tom Eckerle must resign immediately. His comments are atrocious. The Governor has been very clear – there’s no place for hate and racism in Michigan.
Eckerle’s Road Commission colleagues also called on him to resign, according to an email the commission posted on Facebook.
The email – signed by the Road Commission’s chairman, Bob Joyce; vice-chairman Grek Mikowski; member Jim Calhoun and member John Popa – read, “We do not condone the racist comments that you made in the Leelanau County Road Commission meeting room on August 4th. We will not tolerate any kind of racism in our meeting room or in our organization. This behavior has had a serious effect on our excellent Road Commission, and we are asking that you resign immediately.”
3. Leelanau County Residents Are Also Angry That Eckerle Used the Racial Slur
Northern Michigan E3, which used to be the Northern Michigan Anti-Racism Task Force, expressed disappointment to Interlochen Public Radio that Eckerle still has his job after using the racial slur and it wants all of Michigan’s elected officials to undergo anti-racism training.
Marshall Collins, a Black man and member of the group told the station that he is worried about how Eckerle’s words will influence others: “If nothing is done, he has made it okay, he said. “So what do I tell my kid who goes to school and someone decides to call him the N-word again.”
Dawud Walid, the Council on American-Islamic-Relations-Michigan executive director, released a statement about the controversy on August 6:
We call for the immediate resignation of Mr. Eckerle from his position in Leelanau County because of his racist comments. Dropping the N-word, along with falsely claiming that police accountability activists who are American citizens are taking the country away, is discourse that that must be repudiated by all public officials.
Ellen Fred, a voter, told Up North Live, that she was shocked by Eckerle’s use of the slur and wants to initiate a recall petition. “I think as an elected official. he needs to understand that he does not represent and his actions make it very clear that he does not represent the people of this county,” she said. “It’s intolerable and it’s my understanding that it’s one of many statements that he has made. It’s one too many. we just can’t have that type of behavior and attitude in this county. It’s time to make it stop.”
4. Eckerle Doubled Down On Using The Slur
Despite calls to resign, Eckerle has since doubled down on his comments.
According to reporting from Interlochen Public Radio, which conducted a phone interview with Eckerle, he said his comments weren’t meant to be heard outside the room and also said that he didn’t think of “n*****s” as people – then repeated the racial slur three more times:
He said he reacted out of frustration with the racial unrest and violence in American cities, which he said was caused by the Black Lives Matter movement.
When asked if he regretted saying the N-word, he doubled down.
“No, I don’t regret calling it an n*****,” Eckerle said. “A n***** is a n***** is a n*****. That’s not a person whatsoever.”
He went on to say it was the same as saying he was German, or “Polack.”
Eckerle also repeated the word again when speaking to the Associated Press, when he told a reporter that he was not racist because he used the word. “I’m not a racist,” the Associated Press reported Eckerle saying. “Black Lives Matter is racist. If I believed in Black Lives Matter, I would be racist. … Black Lives Matter has no heart. And that is as offensive to me as the N-word.”
According to the Associated Press, he then used the full racist slur again.
5. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer Has Declared Racism A Public Health Crisis
On the same day that the Leelanau Enterprise reported Eckerle’s use of the racial slur, Governor Whitmer declared racism a public health crisis with an official order, and she created a Black Leadership Advisory Council. According to her directive, all Michigan Department of Health and Human Services employees would need to undergo implicit bias training and focus on health equity.
Whitmer had already appointed a Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities to address the disproportionate rates of death among Michigan’s African-American population.
Whitmer pointed out that Michigan’s Black residents were four times more likely to die from COVID-19 than white residents due to economic and health inequality as well as racism. Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist, a Black man who, according to the Detroit Free Press, has lost 23 people close to him to the virus, will head the council.