Tweet from McKenna policy aide draws protest in International District

By Tiffany Ran
Northwest Asian Weekly

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Frank Irigon speaks to reporters. Nearby, stands Ron Chew, Al Sugiyama, and staff from ReWA and Sea Mar Community Health Centers (Photo by Rebecca Ip/SCP)

The area around Rob McKenna’s campaign office in the International District was quiet around 11:50 a.m. on July 18, but a crowd was expected to show in 10 minutes. The attitude of the crowd was greatly different from the one that gathered in front of the same space just two months prior in May when McKenna celebrated the opening of his campaign office in the International District. At the time, the choice of location signified a special concern and added support for Asian voters.

On July 16, The Stranger’s online news blog, “Slog,” broke the story about tweets from McKenna’s policy staffer Kathlyn Ehl’s Twitter account that were offensive to Asians and the elderly. According to screen captures posted by The Stranger, Ehl first tweeted in November, “If it takes you an entire green light to walk in front of my car GET A WHEELCHAIR,” and then tweeted in January, “shut up and speak english (hash)asians.” The post generated a series of reactions including demands from members of the Asian community that Ehl be fired from the campaign. The blog post also noted that Ehl started deleting tweets from her account shortly after the news was posted.

By 11:50 a.m. when the first protestors turned up in front of McKenna’s office, the campaign had already announced Ehl’s resignation, but community leaders still gathered  to address the issue and express their thoughts on McKenna’s response. Supporters who attended the program included former Washington state Representative Velma Veloria , staff from the Sea Mar Community Health Centers,  Korean American Coalition executive director Shari Song, ReWA executive director Someireh Amirfaiz, and other community leaders.

“Her statements were not only offensive but it reflected an attitude, an anti-Asian, anti-immigrant, refugee, and other communities of color [attitude]. Those are the types of statements that create conflict between Asians and others,” said Douglas Chin, president of Seattle’s Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA).

“That’s the type of rhetoric that we hear around the military harassment and slurs that [were involved] with the death of Private Danny Chen and others. Those are the types of words that lead to the bullying of Asian students and others, which is so common.”

A joint statement issued by Sen. Paull Shin, Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, Sen. Steve Hobbs, Rep. Bob Hasegawa, and Rep. Cindy Ryu condemned Ehl’s tweets saying, “Kathlyn Ehl’s blatant attack on Asians and the elderly reveal an attitude of bigotry, conscious or subconscious, that has no place in our society, but especially not in the offices of anyone who would aspire to serve all of the people in our great state. ”

“The Ehl rant was not merely offensive but incredibly mean-spirited and, given her position in the McKenna campaign, raises significant credibility questions about her professional judgment as well as the judgement and biases of those who hired her,” continued the statement.

Certain attendees of the protest criticized that McKenna’s apology and actions regarding the statement were delayed not sufficient.

“We don’t really appreciate the fact that [McKenna] has taken so long to come out and obviously pressure this individual to [resign]. For someone who wants to be governor, we expect that person to be decisive and for him to come out and say, ‘Racism will not play a part in my administration.’ He did not do that, and that’s why we’re so disappointed in him. His reaction was more like an afterthought,” said Frank Irigon, a former Board of Trustee of Renton College who helped organize the protest.

Charles McCray III, McKenna’s communications director, spoke of immediate actions taken after the news of Ehl’s tweets were made known.

“She was a 22-year-old recent graduate who made a mistake, a serious mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. I think when she realized that, she did what she could to put a stop to any more offense that was occurring. Obviously, The Stranger had already reported that and this took on a life of its own, but that was her initial reaction,” said McCray.

“Some of the folks here today might suggest that their actions are forcing Kathlyn out the door, but as soon as this happened, we started gathering feedback. She was put on suspension without pay. We started calling folks who had a strong opinion about this.”

According to McCray, Randy Pepple, McKenna’s campaign manager, and Ehl’s supervisor discussed the repercussions with Ehl after news about the tweets went public. Pepple arranged a phone conversation between Ehl and McKenna’s Asian American Coalition. McCray admitted to having a hill to climb, saying that the campaign is ready and willing to provide assurances to voters and earn the trust of the community.

“The relationship we’ve built with this community is fantastic. … We’re going to work to make sure that if any folks are wavering that we prove to them that we’re committed to them,” said McCray.

“We’ll make sure that people know that Kathlyn’s views are not ones that Rob carries.”

When asked by a reporter what the protestors are hoping to get from McKenna, Alan Sugiyama, founder and former executive director of the Center for Career Alternatives, presented a possible road to redemption.

“We think [McKenna] should meet with Asian American groups, not just his supporters. Obviously, he doesn’t know the community, he doesn’t know what we stand for. If he’s going to let something like this go through, the question is, what else? We found out about this, but if we didn’t find out about this, what else would’ve happened?” said Sugiyama.

“He needs to meet with other strong, community minded individuals that understand the community and maybe he’ll be able to understand and move forward. But until he does that, there will always be that question mark that he tolerated a racist individual on his staff.” (end)

Tiffany Ran can be reached at tiffany@nwasianweekly.com.

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