Last Wednesday, a 24-year-old legislative staffer was “urged” to resign a post he had just attained less than a month previous. An intern for the majority of the session, Blake Graves had only recently become a temporary legislative assistant in the office of Rep. Karen Camper (D-Memphis). He was expected by many to achieve full-time status but, instead, Democratic Caucus Chair Mike Turner had him sacked.
The reason? Politics.
Graves was a pawn in a great big game of racial sensitivity one-upsmanship. If the expression “at the wrong place at the wrong time” ever applied to anyone it was Graves.
On Monday, June 15, Blake Graves forwarded an e-mail that contained several very insensitive parodies of inspirational posters. The images transmitted were offensive to Asians, the mentally handicapped and the elderly. It was the kind of thing you might receive from a less-enlightened associate and promptly delete.
Graves, however, did not. He forwarded that e-mail to a huge list of both Democrats and Republicans working in the legislature. Later, after more fully examining the e-mail, Graves promptly sent out a notice apologizing for his transmission.
“Everyone, please excuse that e-mail I sent, I totally missed the words used in it. So please accept my apologies for that e-mail. Nonetheless, have a great Monday!” Graves e-mailed. And had it been any other Monday in the Legislature, the recipients would have put it out of their minds and done just that.
However, that Monday was not just any other Monday. That Monday was the day that Sherri Goforth, an aide to Sen. Diane Black (R-Gallatin), had been exposed as the sender of a far more inflammatory e-mail.
Goforth's e-mail contained portraits of our 44 presidents — save one. Instead of President Barack Obama there was simply a black background with two big bug eyes staring out from the darkness. This e-mail was not just outside the bounds of propriety. It was a throwback to a style of racism many would like to forget or pretend doesn’t exist. When the content and the originating office of the e-mail was revealed, the blogosphere erupted.
Broken by noted blogger/journalist Trace Sharp, the story was immediately picked up by other blogs, local media and the national press. It was a bona fide media firestorm. Goforth’s boss, a Republican, did not defend the e-mail and made clear that her aide had been sternly chastised. Democrats, however, were not satisfied, they called for blood.
As the Goforth saga reached its peak, a conservative blogger, Ken Marrero, posted the details of Mr. Graves’ e-mail on his blog. A similar, though more muted, firestorm developed. By day's end, Graves was no longer a legislative employee.
The state Democratic Party followed the forced resignation with a press release.
“I am saddened to see another incident like this, but I welcome this swift, decisive action by Speaker Williams and Democratic Caucus Leader Turner. They have sent the unequivocal message that, going forward, this sort of offensive behavior by employees of the State of Tennessee will not be tolerated,” said Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Chip Forrester.
Of course, we’ll never know, but one can’t help but wonder if Graves’ e-mail would have raised as many hackles had it not come the day a Republican staffer had failed to be fired for a similar incident.
While no e-mail like Graves’ should ever be sent through a state e-mail address (or ever), I think clearly most people would agree that Graves' e-mail was far tamer than Goforth’s.
Granted, nobody wants to get into business of ranking bigotry, but any kind of familiarity with our current culture would lead one to admit that Goforth’s e-mail takes a flying leap over “the line” where Graves’ saunters more leisurely across it.
But the occasion called for human sacrifice and Graves walked into the bonfire.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not blaming just the players here, I’m blaming the game. Because clearly Graves' dismissal wasn't about right and wrong, it was about public perception. Democrats couldn't continue to stoke the Goforth fire while protecting a staffer one could argue did the exact same thing.
I just can't help but think that had Sherri Goforth never sent her e-mail, 24-year-old Graves might still be employed. This whole fiasco seems like little more than a series of political calculations.
If tomorrow, Sen. Black had a moment of clarity and decided Goforth should be fired, she certainly wouldn't do it now. The political price for capitulation would be too high. It would be too obvious a show of weakness.
And, on the flipside, in a rush to make the Republicans look worse than they already did, Democrats may have dismissed an ambitious young person who would have been fired under no other circumstances.
Seems like a situation where a lot of people are acting righteous, but where very few are doing right.
Kleinheider is NashvillePost.com's political blogger. Visit Post Politics at http://postpolitics.net