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SOUTH JORDAN - "Who?" asks Helen McCoy.

"Senator Chris Buttars," I say.

"I don't know much about him," says McCoy, a 13-year resident of South Jordan unloading groceries outside Smith's.

She's not the only one.

I went to Buttars' district Wednesday to try to find out who is voting for him.

In the course of one week, the West Jordan Republican has managed to become the craggy face of homophobia and racism in Utah. Never one to pause before he speaks, Buttars tried to one-up another senator's joke Tuesday on the Senate floor. "This baby is black. It's a dark, ugly thing," he said.

And Utah let out a collective gasp.

Suddenly a legislator who for years has wallowed in his disgust for gay Utahns - and Planned Parenthood and high school science teachers for that matter - had gone too far. Passing out a flier with graphic descriptions of gay sex on the Senate floor didn't raise an eyebrow a few years ago. But his attempt to bask in another lawmaker's lame joke was too much.

Of course, Buttars' Republican colleagues in the Senate didn't catch it at first. It took Salt Lake City Democratic Sen. Ross Romero to point out that the West Jordan Republican might have said something racist. Senate President John Valentine insisted Buttars apologize. So he did, with a classic deflection: "I apologize to anyone who took offense."

Buttars isn't the first Utah politician to trip up with a flip racial comment. U.S. Sen. Bob Bennett had to apologize 10 years ago after ruminating that the only thing that would stop then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush from becoming president was if a "black woman comes forward with an illegitimate child that he fathered." After arguing that black Americans, not gays, should be protected from discrimination because they have "no choice," Sen. Orrin Hatch apologized the same week - not to gays but to the NAACP.

But Buttars' history shows a long pattern of bad behavior.

This isn't his first bone-headed outburst. Two years ago, he told public radio station KCPW that the landmark desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education was "wrong to begin with." He called Sen. Scott McCoy "The Gay," when the Salt Lake City Democrat was appointed to the Legislature. One Salt Lake Tribune online poster calls him "Archie Buttars." He's more like former Alabama Gov. George Wallace - a festering relic of an uglier time.

His body of legislative work - directed every step along the way by Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka - is equally damning. His most notable accomplishment is protecting Utah from gay marriage; he sponsored both a state law and a constitutional amendment. He was re-elected in 2004 on that record. Emboldened, he took on Gay-Straight Alliances in Utah high schools again and again. He signed on with evangelical evolution doubters in 2006 and sponsored a bill to require teaching "intelligent design" in high school science classes. His colleagues gave it a hearing before letting it die quietly.

This year, Buttars has carried on with his caricature of a statesman: sponsoring legislation to keep police misconduct files secret, nullify Salt Lake City's domestic-partnership registry and strip Planned Parenthood out of a bill meant to curb growing rates of chlamydia in Utah teens.

Two years ago, Buttars told The Salt Lake Tribune he didn't plan to run for a third term in 2008. Instead, he hopes to go on a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After using campaign funds to fix his car, he still has $68,000 in political donations he can take with him when he leaves office.

In the meantime, his hand has been slapped.

This isn't the U.S. Congress and Buttars will not be treated like Strom Thurmond-loving Trent Lott. Conservative Utah legislators will not censure or expel one of their own - even if they should. Buttars provides cover: He sponsors the bills they are too squeamish to put their names on, but vote for in droves. And every so often, he says something that makes the rest of them look positively sophisticated.

Back in the middle of his district, I drive around aimlessly.

No one remembers voting for Chris Buttars.