Official resigns after defending racist slur
TRAVERSE CITY — An elected official in a mostly white county in northern Michigan who used a racist slur prior to a public meeting to describe Black people in Detroit will resign, the county administrator said Friday.
Leelanau County Administrator Chet Janik said Tom Eckerle, a member of the county road commission, would step down after receiving criticism from across the U.S. for his comments.
“I personally and professionally think it’s in the best interests of Mr. Eckerle, the road commission and Leelanau County,” Janik told The Associated Press.
The Traverse City Record-Eagle reported that Eckerle had informed the newspaper of his plans to quit, saying he didn’t want to “burden” a newly hired road commission manager scheduled to begin work this month. Eckerle did not return a call from the AP. But in a phone interview earlier Friday, he repeated the slur while maintaining he was not a racist.
Eckerle spent much of the interview attacking Black Lives Matter, saying a mention of the decentralized movement against racial injustice and police brutality is what set him off ahead of a Tuesday meeting.
“I’m not a racist,” Eckerle told the AP. “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,” he added, then used the full racist slur.
“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 added.
Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Eckerle’s fellow road commission members were among those demanding he step down.
“His comments are atrocious,” Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said Friday. “The governor has been very clear–there’s no place for hate and racism in Michigan.”
Eckerle’s original comments were first reported by the Leelanau Enterprise, which said they were not officially recorded because the Tuesday meeting had not started.
According to the newspaper, a colleague asked Eckerle why he wasn’t wearing a mask. Eckerle replied, “Well this whole thing is because of them (racist slur) down in Detroit.”
Road Commission Chair Bob Joyce told Eckerle that he couldn’t say that, the newspaper reported, to which Eckerle responded: “I can say anything I want. Black Lives Matter has everything to do with taking the country away from us.”
Joyce later rebuked Eckerle a second time.
Asked by the AP whether he had used the racist slur, Eckerle replied, “I did say that, and I will not go away from it.”
But he insisted it had “nothing to do with me wearing a mask” and “nothing to do with coronavirus.”
He said it arose during a conversation involving Whitmer “and her liberal ideas” and with keeping children out of school because of the pandemic. “They need to be back in school,” said Eckerle, a Republican.
At some point, he said, the subject of Black Lives Matter came up. “That’s what got me over the end,” he said.
He also complained about removal of Confederate statues, calls to cut police funding and “cities being held hostage.”
Eckerle, a farmer, was elected to a six-year term on the Leelanau County Road Commission in 2018. The panel oversees snow removal and other maintenance and repair work in the rural county about 270 miles (436 kilometers) northwest of Detroit. The county has about 21,700 residents, about 90% of whom are white. Black people make up less than 1% of the population.
Janik said he had been flooded with emails and calls from people around the nation upset about Eckerle’s remarks. Some vowed never to visit Leelanau County, a Lake Michigan tourist haven that is home to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, as long as Eckerle remained in office, he said.
The county board of commissioners, which is separate from the road commission, plans to consider a resolution condemning Eckerle’s statements during a meeting Tuesday, Janik said.
“They strongly want everyone to know this type of behavior is not typical of Leelanau County residents nor it is condoned by Leelanau County residents,” he said.
State Rep. Jack O’Malley, a Republican whose district includes the county, said in a Facebook post that he had urged Eckerle to resign.
“This type of racial slur is flat-out unacceptable and ignorant,” O’Malley said in a statement.
Local activists had planned to meet over the weekend to discuss a recall effort and other steps to pressure Eckerle to step down.
A letter posted on the road commission’s Facebook page and signed by the panel’s other four members — including Joyce — made the same demand.
“We will not tolerate any kind of racism in our meeting room or in our organization,” the letter said.
Marshall Collins Jr., 44, a Black resident of Leelanau County, said Eckerle should be removed from office “by any means necessary.”
“When people say there isn’t racism any more, the proof is in the pudding. It’s right here in front of us, and we choose to ignore it,” said Collins, a member of the Northern Michigan Anti-Racism Task Force.