Originally Published: June 28, 2018 6:06 a.m.
PHOENIX — Hoping to put the controversy behind him, Rep. David Stringer came to Phoenix Wednesday to tell a group of African-Americans that he is working on issues of interest to their community, and his comments last week about immigration and assimilation were misconstrued or misunderstood.
But he did not exactly apologize for anything he said, blaming the dust-up on a “Democrat hit piece’’ that excerpted 51 seconds of a speech he gave in Prescott where he said immigration is “an existential threat’’ to this country.
“It distorted my remarks and I think misled and, unfortunately, offended a lot of people,’’ he said. “So if there are people in this room who were offended, I am going to apologize for making statements that allowed someone else to excerpt them, misrepresent them to the community.’’
In seeking to explain what he was saying, though, Stringer repeated his stance that rapid immigration is “very, very destructive and destabilizing to any country.’’ And he acknowledged that in a separate interview he said that the melting pot that is the United States works best for people of European descent because “they don’t have any accents, they’re indistinguishable.’’
He also sidestepped, at least a bit, the direct question of whether he is a “white nationalist.’’
“That phrase, I suspect, is used in many different contexts,’’ Stringer said. “I am not a white nationalist, as I understand the term,’’ saying it is being used most recently by those in the alt-Right movement, which has become associated with white supremacy.
“I have absolutely no association whatsoever with any kind of extremist organizations,’’ he said.
Instead, Stringer sought to refocus his meeting with members of the black community, pulled together by the Rev. Jarrett Maupin, to explain his efforts at criminal justice reform, including curbing mandatory sentencing laws and eliminating felony provisions for simple possession of small amounts of drugs.
“The criminal justice system that incarcerates so many people disproportionately incarcerates members of minority communities,’’ he told Maupin and others who came to the meeting.
And his earlier comments, Stringer said, are an irrelevant distraction.
“What Rep. Stringer said up at a forum in Prescott is not the issue,’’ the lawmaker said of himself. “The issue is how do we advance criminal justice reform to help the citizens of Arizona of all color.’’
Maupin, noting Stringer’s earlier comments, said he could not tell if Stringer was apologizing, in particular in this case to members of the black community.
“I do apologize for anyone who was offended by my remarks,’’ the legislator responded, quickly adding that the segment that made it onto the Internet “was taken out of context.’’
Stringer’s efforts to put all this behind him with the meeting with Maupin and others at the south Phoenix restaurant do not appear to have dulled the criticism he is taking from his own party.
Even before the event, Gov. Doug Ducey said was not interested in taking back his comments that he thinks Stringer should resign.
“I stand by my statement,’’ Ducey said.
And in a press release after the hourlong meeting, state GOP spokeswoman Ayshia Connors chided Stringer for what she dubbed his “apology tour.’’
“I find this to be highly offensive, insensitive and counterproductive,’’ she said, saying her views are shared by party Chairman Jonathan Lines who was the first Republican to call for Stringer to step down.
“The optics of this are despicable and it just goes to show how tone-deaf David Stringer is,’’ Connors continued. “I don’t know who put him up to this, but it was an awful move.’’
Maupin said the meeting occurred, at least in part, because Constantine Querard, a political consultant who has Stringer for a client, reached out to him.
And Stringer said it was never meant to be about his comments, but instead simply to provide information about his efforts at criminal justice reform.
Those efforts took a hit in the wake of Stringer’s comments. House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, abolished the special bipartisan study committee that he had formed at Stringer’s request, with Stringer as chair.
That move by the speaker drew a stringing rebuke from Maupin, even before Stringer arrived at the meeting.
“To me, that is as racist as the remarks as Stringer made,’’ he said.
“The fact that he said something bad about demographics or assimilation, therefore blacks lose their criminal justice reform committee, that doesn’t make sense,’’ Maupin continued. “Why are we being punished for Stringer being a racist?’’
And Maupin, like Stringer, said he sees criminal justice through a racial lens.
“It disproportionately affects blacks and Latinos,’’ he said.
Mesnard, however, told Capitol Media Services he abolished the committee because there is no other Republican who wants to take it over. But he said that Stringer and other committee members can still continue their efforts informally.
Maupin also made it clear during Stringer’s comments at the restaurant that he was coming to the defense of the embattled lawmaker. In fact, he also took a swipe at both Ducey and Lines.
“I think that the governor and the chairman of the Republican Party are as estranged and as alien to our community as Rep. Stringer,’’ he said. “So to me it’s been very entertaining, as a Democrat, to have the kettle call the pot black.’’
Howard Fischer is a veteran journalist who has reported on state government and legal affairs in Arizona since 1982, the last 27 for Capitol Media Services which he founded in 1991. Fischer’s news reports appear in daily and weekly newspapers around the state, and are heard on Arizona Public Radio.