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'Not A Person Whatsoever': Michigan County Official Defends Use Of N-Word

A county official in Michigan is defending his use of the N-word — by repeatedly saying the slur, and insisting that it does not imply he is a racist.

Leelanau County Road Commissioner Tom Eckerle has been facing calls to resign since Tuesday, when he reportedly used one of the most taboo words in U.S. society to explain why he would not be wearing a face mask.

"Well, this whole thing is because of them n****** down in Detroit," Eckerle said, according to the Leelanau Enterprise.

Commission Chairman Bob Joyce quickly challenged Eckerle's use of the word: "You can't say that!" he is quoted saying.

"I can say anything I want," Eckerle reportedly replied. "Black Lives Matter has everything to do with taking the country away from us."

Eckerle made the comments in the commission's meeting room Tuesday, just before a public meeting was to begin. Discussing the incident later in a phone interview with Interlochen Public Radio, Eckerle doubled down.

"No, I don't regret calling it an n*****," Eckerle told IPR. "A n***** is a n***** is a n*****. That's not a person whatsoever."

IPR reports that the commissioner compared using the word to saying someone is German, or a "Polack," a derogatory term for people of Polish descent.

"No, it is not racism," Eckerle said.

Some of Michigan's top officials disagree, and they're urging Eckerle to resign. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer added her name to those calling for Eckerle's departure Friday.

"Governor Whitmer believes that Road Commissioner Tom Eckerle must resign immediately," said Tiffany Brown, the governor's press secretary. "His comments are atrocious. The Governor has been very clear – there's no place for hate and racism in Michigan."

The road commission's members are elected officials, holding office for six-year terms. Eckerle, a Republican, was elected in 2018.

State Rep. Jack O'Malley, a Republican whose district includes Leelanau County, says he sought out Eckerle to hear his side of the story — and that after hearing it, he asked the commissioner to step down. Eckerle refused, O'Malley says.

"I did remind him he represents everyone in Leelanau County as I do," O'Malley said via Facebook, "and his comments were and are beyond stupid."

O'Malley says there are at least two ways to remove a road commissioner. Voters can petition for a recall, he said; or the county's board can ask the governor to remove him.

Eckerle's colleagues on the Leelanau County Road Commission signed a joint letter on Thursday, asking him to resign immediately.

"We will not tolerate any kind of racism in our meeting room or in our organization," the commission's four other members wrote. They added that Eckerle's behavior has had "a serious effect" on the commission.

The Northern Michigan Anti-Racism Task Force, an advocacy group, is calling on county officials to seek Eckerle's removal. The group also says a recall petition is being set up.

"We are working with other community members to begin the recall petition effort," the task force said Friday, in an email to NPR. "There is no place for hate in our beautiful communities of Northern Michigan."

One day after Eckerle used the slur in a official setting, Whitmer signed an executive order declaring racism to be a public health crisis in Michigan.

The COVID-19 pandemic, Whitmer said, has exposed "the deadly nature of pre-existing inequities caused by systemic racism."

The road commission's next meeting is slated for Aug. 18.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.