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In his first extensive comments since he was called on last week to resign over racially insensitive remarks, Sen. Chris Buttars said he regrets the pain it has caused, but his political enemies have formed a "hate lynch mob" over the issue.
"By last weekend, including in your paper, I was being called a monster," Buttars said Monday in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. "It was a bad statement, but the statement as I used it had nothing to do with human beings, certainly not a black human being." He apologized for his "breach in decorum" last Tuesday, and endured the early criticism. But, he said, the reports in the news media and the scores of e-mails and phone calls he has received have become more hateful.
"To have it taken to the extreme of hate that it has achieved is . . . I have no idea how people could act like that," he said. "I thought once again the first couple days, 'Well you're getting beat up but you deserve it, you made a mistake.' But then they started getting meaner and meaner and meaner to the point it is just a hate lynch mob."
Last Tuesday, during Senate debate on a school construction bill, several members said the measure was an "ugly baby." Buttars went further. "This baby is black, I'll tell you. This is a dark, ugly thing," he said.
Jeanetta Williams, president of the Salt Lake and regional chapters of the NAACP, called on Buttars to resign and he has scarcely been seen at the Capitol for several days. A hearing on one of his bills was postponed Monday, and he was on the Senate floor briefly to cast votes. He has avoided reporters until agreeing to be interviewed Monday evening.
Williams said a meeting is in the works. Asked to respond to Buttars' comments Monday, including the use of the phrase "lynch mob," she said she needed to know more about the context. She said the term is recognized in the black community as racially charged.
Buttars' supporters, including members of the Utah Eagle Forum, met at the senator's house over the weekend to plan for a rally, newspaper advertisements and a petition drive this week in support of the senator who has championed numerous morals causes. That may be on hold, Buttars said.
He blames people who disagree with his stance on moral issues, including homosexual groups, for using his misstatement to pummel him for his politics.
"I think it's a reaction to Chris Buttars . . . from people with different political opinions than I," he said.
But amid the fallout over the statements, Buttars said that he never considered quitting and that he plans to seek re-election this year.
He said Monday that his health is good and he has a sizable campaign account, $68,000, according to his latest report.
In his Capitol office, Buttars has boxes of T-shirts that read, "We Support Chris Buttars," that his backers planned to wear at a rally on Wednesday.
Buttars said he may still hold the rally and run the ads, but felt that first he needed to answer questions about the incident.
Eagle Forum president Gayle Ruzicka said the goal is "getting out the message of who the real Chris Buttars is." They point to his work with troubled teens at the Utah Boys Ranch.
Buttars said he spent 15 years working at the ranch, and has seen 7,000 kids of all races come through the program.
"I've dealt with black kids, red kids, brown kids at the Boys Ranch more than half of my adult life and I've never been accused of racial anything. I see a kid in trouble," he said. "I suppose that's what bothered me so much that I'd make such a statement because that isn't who I am."
Buttars said the last several days, he has been unable to represent his constituents because of the flap, but he expects he will be able to get back into the mix as the legislative session enters its final days.
His Senate colleagues also appear intent on keeping Buttars from becoming more of a distraction for the body, issuing a statement Monday that they believe the matter has been dealt with appropriately.
"Senator Buttars is a good man. He made a poor choice of words in the heat of debate. He did so carelessly, but not maliciously," Senate Republican leaders said in a joint statement Monday. "The Senate does not think Senator Buttars should resign. We have not asked him to resign, neither have we pressured him not to run in November. We will support whatever decision he makes."