Members of the Tennessee’s Legislative Black Caucus are demanding Sheila Butt get booted from her position as House Republican floor leader.
The higher-ups in the GOP-controlled lower chamber, however, don’t appear willing to yield that outcome. And judging by the supportive reaction Butt’s fellow Republican caucus members gave her Thursday on the House floor after she addressed fallout from her impolitic Facebook faux pas, neither do the supermajority rank and file who elected her to the post.
A motivational speaker from Maury County, Butt has been under fire the past couple days for a comment she posted online last month suggesting that “it is time for a Council on Christian Relations and an NAAWP in this Country.”
Butt made the comment, which she apparently soon afterwards deleted, on a Facebook post criticizing an open letter by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. The CAIR letter called on 2016 Republican presidential candidates to “Engage Muslim Voters, Reject Islamophobia.”
A story published Wednesday on the Nashville Scene‘s “Pith in the Wind” blog speculated that Butt’s use of the acronym “NAAWP” was a meant to denote “National Association for the Advancement of White People.” Butt later denied that. She claimed she’d concocted it at the spur of the moment when she wrote the comment, telling the Associated Press that in her mind the “WP” referred to “Western People.”
In statement she issued soon after the story broke, Butt wrote, “It saddens me that we have come to a place in our society where every comment by a conservative is automatically scrutinized as being racist.” She added that “liberal groups have once again incorrectly and falsely jumped the gun.”
Criticism of Butt escalated swiftly, with both CAIR and African American lawmakers rejecting her explanation and calling for disciplinary action against her.
On Thursday, Butt took to the podium on the House floor to defend herself, claiming she’s simply been the victim of a lack of understanding. The “acronym that I had made up,” and the comment in general, was “never intended to offend anyone,” she said. Rather, it was “meant to be inclusive of every gender, culture and religion.”
“I am disappointed that some in this body misunderstood,” Butt said. “I strongly believe that this nation is better off when we all adhere to our Christian values and beliefs, when we all work together to solve the problems that beset every single one of us.”
Butt said she was trying to be “inclusive” when she posted the Facebook comment. She suggested critics of her comments, by contrast, are “being divisive.” And that, she said, “is something that should not happen in this body.”
Butt also cast disapproval of her comment as something of an attack on freedom of speech and religion. “I stand today for every one of us, our First Amendment, our religious beliefs and our religious liberty in this body, in this state and in this country,” she said.
Republicans applauded Butt for about ten seconds after she concluded.
On the other hand, members of the Black Caucus, all of whom are Democrats, didn’t regard Butt’s brief homily as inspiring so much as “insulting.” They called a press conference after the House session and denounced her forthrightly.
They expressed outrage that Butt’s remarks contained not contrition but accusations that were “demeaning,” “derogatory” and “divisive.”
“She needs to realize that we too made America,” said Memphis Rep. Johnnie Turner. “It was our blood, sweat and tears that has allowed each of us to be here. It was because of the sacrifices of our forefathers that African Americans were finally elected to the Legislature so that we could have a voice.”
“We want an apology and we want her removed out of leadership, and we want it posthaste,” said Joe Towns on Memphis.
Harwell Taking Hands-Off Approach
House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, pointed out that Butt’s leadership role is a Republican Caucus post. Therefore, Harwell maintains she is not in an appropriate position to intervene in the matter.
“The Speaker does not have the authority to remove a member from a leadership post that is chosen by the caucus,” Harwell’s spokeswoman, Kara Owen, said in an emailed statement.
Brenda Gilmore of Nashville, who chairs the Black Caucus, said Harwell tried to assuage their anger by offering assurances that Butt “did not speak for the Republican Party.” But Harwell’s refusal to commit support for Butt’s expulsion from GOP leadership or even extraction of an apology left Gilmore “with a heavy heart.”
“I feel like that even though formally she did not place Rep. Butt in that position, as the leader and president of this General Assembly for the House of Representatives, she is a woman of great influence just by her sheer positions,” said Gilmore. “When we witness a wrong that is occurring and we stand by and do nothing, and say nothing, then I say we’re just as guilty as the person who has afflicted the victim,” said Gilmore.
Casada Backing Butt
Not to be confused with the role of House majority leader — which is a top-tier agenda-setting post held by Chattanooga Republican Gerald McCormick — Butt’s job as floor leader is essentially an organizational or logistical aide to GOP lawmakers who’re bringing legislation to a vote before the full chamber. Butt was elected to the post in December.
Franklin Republican Glen Casada, on the other hand, is the House GOP Caucus chairman, and is in a position facilitate a disciplinary action of some sort against Butt. Members of the Black Caucus said Thursday they’re planning to take their grievance against Butt to Casada next week.
Casada, though, has already given clear indications that he’s got Butt’s back on this one. He issued two statements Thursday on the matter.
“Instead of using their energy attacking conservatives in Tennessee, CAIR should instead refocus their efforts on stopping the spread of radical extremists in their own religion in the United States and across the world,” Casada’s said in his first release, issued in the morning just after Butt’s floor speech. “I call on my colleagues in the General Assembly to join me in defending western values and culture against radical Islam.”
On Thursday afternoon, Casada declared, “Representative Butt does not need to step down from her leadership position, and she has my full support as Caucus Chairman. The Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Black Caucus need to stop this foolishness and quit acting like they do in Washington, D.C.”
On her Facebook page Thursday evening, Butt posted a message that read, “Equality is not every group demanding preference. Let’s do away with all of the factions and do just what Martin Luther King, Jr. said; let every person be judged, ‘by the content of their character.'”