Friday, June 10, 2005

Who says blogs in Nebraska get no attention?

by Kyle Michaelis
The Nebraska Democratic Party's blog has finally gotten some of the media exposure it needs to reach citizens of the state, but it didn't go exactly as they would have wanted. Rather, a post by the party's Executive Director, Barry Rubin, has caused something of a firestorm because of its alleged use of a racial slur in reference to outgoing Douglas County election commissioner Carlos Castillo.

Rubin, celebrating Castillo's resignation, referred to him as "Tio Tomas," Uncle Tom latinized to reflect Castillo's ethnicity, for his role in the systematic disenfranchisement of Omaha's low-income and minority voters in the last election.

It wasn't a very tactful statement, but it was very obviously written with a lot of passion and outrage at what was either Castillo's shameless behavior or his gross incompetence during the November vote. Having read the post on the blog (which has since been removed), it did seem a bit exaggerated and personal to be coming from one of the state party's top people. However, the faux outrage from Republicans hoping to use this matter for political gain has been exaggerated beyond belief in their estimation of Rubin's offense.

Today's Lincoln Journal-Star contained the following:
Castillo said he hopes Democratic leaders will condemn the party's state executive director, Barry Rubin, for posting the blog item on Tuesday and ask him to resign...

"I am disappointed Barry would use a racial slur to describe me," said Castillo, who was born in the United States and whose father is Mexican...

"I don't know Barry," Castillo said, "and he's never met me. No wonder people don't want to get involved in the political process when people talk about other people's race..."
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Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson should denounce his party and Rubin, GOP executive director Jessica Moenning said...

Nebraska Democrats should be outraged by Rubin's posting, Moenning said, and send a message that "personal attacks, racial slurs and East Coast-style politics are out of touch with Nebraska values...."
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Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel characterized the Web site entry as "truly one of the more irresponsible pieces of political garbage I've seen in Nebraska politics."

Hagel said he hopes every Democrat, beginning with Nelson, would disavow those remarks and call upon Rubin to apologize. "I'd even go so far as to remove every party official with responsibility for that," he said.

Wow! Wow! That is some amazingly over-blown rhetoric, but you've really got to admire how well these Republicans stay on message, even with attempted career assassination. Meanwhile, here's the Democratic response in the same article to such an unflinching, unabashed onslaught of hyperbole:
Rubin said his reference was "absolutely not a racial slur," but rather a description of the kind of activities that resulted in changed polling locations, long voting lines, an insufficient number of ballots and the challenge of a disproportionately large number of voters in north Omaha.

"Several hundred, if not thousands of, people were denied the right to vote," Rubin said. That's the real slur, he suggested.

In recent days, Republicans have described Nelson, an avid hunter, as "a panda killer" and state Sen. Nancy Thompson, who changed her mind about leaving the Legislature, as "a runaway bride," Rubin said.

"I apologize for stooping to their level," he said.
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Democratic State Chairman Steve Achelpohl said the reference was "unfortunate," but he agrees with the substance of Rubin's criticism about what had the appearance of "voter suppression activities" last November.

That was the message of the posting, Achelpohl said, and it came in the form of a blog entry, not a press release or public statement. "Republicans like to create distractions," he said.
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(Sen. Ben) Nelson had no comment, said David DiMartino, his media spokesman.
Besides Nelson's all-too-predictable non-response, I'd say the Democrats handled that quite well and can hopefully move beyond this unnecessary incident that will surely serve as a learning experience.

All in all, referring to anyone as an Uncle Tom, as a traitor to his or her people - be it in Spanish, English, French or Farsi - is a highly offensive accusation that should not be tossed around lightly. But, it's more than a stretch to claim this as a racial slur. Simply making reference to a person's ethnicity, even in an attempt at being clever, can not and should not be considered offensive in and of itself.

Achelpohl had something of a point about this being posted on a blog and not in a general press release. They are different creatures as the internet demands more openness and less holding-back if people are going to give a damn. Rubin was right to be passionate in this format but will need to be more careful with his words in the future.

Honestly, though, the biggest disappointment from the whole incident is actually the NDP's removal of Rubin's post from the blog archives. It reeks of having something to hide and covering their tracks rather than properly acknowledging and apologizing for any over-statement as an addendum to the original post, allowing people to vent and see for themselves what this mess was all about. Such action would have been more in keeping with the idealist spirit of the blog, as well as the committment to a new, more open and honest relationship with the people of Nebraska that it represents.


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