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Official's use of racial slur prompts calls for his resignation

NBC News logo NBC News 8/7/2020 Elisha Fieldstadt
Gretchen Whitmer et al. looking at the camera © Provided by NBC News

A Michigan county official's use of the N-word at a public meeting has prompted the governor and other officials and residents to call for his resignation.

Tom Eckerle, an elected road commissioner for Leelanau County, north of Traverse City, used the slur moments before the start of a meeting on Tuesday, according to The Leelanau Enterprise.

When asked by a fellow commissioner why he wasn't wearing a mask, Eckerle said in an apparent reference to the coronavirus pandemic, "Well this whole thing is because of them N------ down in Detroit," the Enterprise reported.

When the commission's chair, Bob Joyce, interjected, "You can't say that," Eckerle did not back down. “I can say anything I want. Black Lives Matter has everything to do with taking the country away from us," he said.

The meeting was open for the public to listen to by phone, and Eckerle’s comments were audible to anyone on the call, according to the Enterprise, which added that Joyce and two other commission officials confirmed Eckerle's comments afterward.

In a letter Thursday posted on Facebook and the road commission's website, the other four members of the panel called on Eckerle, to step down immediately.

"We do not condone the racist comments you made in the Leelanau Road Commission meeting room on August 4th," the letter to Eckerle said. "We will not tolerate any kind of racism in our meeting room or in our organization."

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, also called on Eckerle to resign.

"His comments are atrocious," she said in a statement. "The Governor has been very clear — there’s no place for hate and racism in Michigan.”

Eckerle's reported slur came one day before Whitmer on Wednesday declared racism a public health crisis in Michigan. The directive cites the disproportionate rate of coronavirus infections and deaths among the state's Black residents as highlighting "the deadly nature of pre-existing inequities caused by systemic racism."

An online petition that says it was started by a Leelanau County resident and which calls for Eckerle's removal had garnered more than 2,900 signatures as of Friday morning.

On Thursday, State Rep. Jack O'Malley, a Republican whose district includes Leelanau County, also called for the road commissioner to resign. O'Malley wrote in a statement that he had reached out to Eckerle, who according to The Associated Press is a Republican, for "his side of the story."

"He confirmed to me he did use the racial slur. After some discussion I asked Mr. Eckerle to resign. He refused," O'Malley wrote.

"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. I did remind him he represents everyone in Leelanau County as I do ... and his comments were and are beyond stupid," O'Malley wrote. "I hope Mr. Eckerle can come to see his mistakes and resign."

Eckerle has so far refused to relinquish his seat.

He said in a radio interview Thursday that he had not realized his remarks before the commission meeting could be heard by the public.

But he told Interlochen Public Radio that he does not regret using the racial slur and believes it is "not racism."

He said it was the same as saying that he is German.

A woman who answered the phone at Eckerle's home Friday morning told NBC News that he was not available.

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