Just one day after the Republican Party received some promising news regarding its potential ability to appeal to black voters, the party experienced an embarrassing setback. Shaquille O’Neal’s endorsement of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, generated heavy media coverage, since black voters supporting Republicans remain a statistical rarity. But a new story generating media attention is providing a stark reminder of why some black voters remain suspicious of the GOP.
According to reports, state Assemblyman Jim Wheeler of Nevada was caught on video telling a Republican gathering that if it had been an issue before him, he would have voted for the institution of slavery. “If that’s what they wanted, I’d have to hold my nose … they’d probably have to hold a gun to my head, but yeah.”
The remarks were quickly denounced by Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, as well as a number of other Republican officials in the state, including one who suggested that Wheeler “find a new line of work.” In a statement to The Root, a Republican National Committee spokesman said he is “glad his comments were quickly condemned.”
Wheeler‘s larger point was about fulfilling the desires of his constituents, even if he may not agree with them. He later issued a clarification that he in no way condones bigotry, writing this:
During the meeting, I was asked how I would vote if I believed one way on an issue, and my constituents believed the opposite. I stated the truth that I believe, which is that in a Representative Republic I‘m hired by the people to represent their views. I used an over the top example of something that I absolutely do not agree with, and even mentioned that to get me to vote for such a thing, my constituents would literally have to hold a gun to my head. In reality, that isn‘t the case at all. If my constituents wanted to do something as outlandish as bring back an abhorrent system, then I simply couldn‘t represent them anymore. They would remove me from office, or I‘d have to resign.
But of course this is not what he said at the meeting he is referring to. The larger problem for Wheeler is that it called to mind previous Republican statements deemed insensitive, such as when Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul intimated that he would not have voted for the Civil Rights Act, not because he condones segregation but because he considered it a government overreach.
As previously covered on The Root, a number of high-profile verbal gaffes regarding race have hampered the GOP’s efforts to diversify the voters it appeals to. But the RNC is continuing to invest in expansion efforts aimed at growing the party’s support among black voters. Recently the RNC announced the hiring of Orlando Watson, a seasoned Hill veteran, to lead the party’s media strategy for African-American audiences. But as Wheeler’s misstep shows, the party’s own members may be its own worst enemy when it comes to its efforts to rebrand.
Keli Goff is The Root’s special correspondent. Follow her on Twitter.