Mississippi lawmaker apologizes over 'black judge' comment

AP News
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Posted: Oct 19, 2015 5:18 PM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — A white Mississippi lawmaker apologized Monday for saying at a local Republican meeting that "a black judge" would decide how to spend money on public schools if state voters approve an education funding initiative.

Rep. Lester "Bubba" Carpenter, who lives in the northern Mississippi town of Burnsville, issued his apology hours after a cameraman posted a video online of a speech Carpenter made at a Tishomingo County Republican meeting.

Mississippi's Nov. 3 statewide ballot includes Initiative 42, which would allow people to sue if the state fails to provide "an adequate and efficient system of free public schools."

"If 42 passes in its form, a judge in Hinds County, Mississippi — predominantly black, it's going to be a black judge — they're going to tell us where the state education money goes," Carpenter said in the speech Saturday.

The speech was posted online Sunday by a cameraman for Ivy Broadcasting, which runs WRMG, a radio station and a local-access cable TV station in northern Mississippi and Alabama.

Carpenter said in a written statement Monday: "I am deeply sorry for the comments I recently made. They were inappropriate, and I was completely out of line. There is no excuse for what I said. Please forgive me."

The voicemail at Carpenter's home phone number was full Monday, and The Associated Press was unable to leave a message for him there. He did not immediately respond to an email requesting an interview.

Republican legislative leaders oppose Initiative 42 and have been saying for months that it could give one judge in Hinds County control over a substantial portion of the state budget.

"The comments of Rep. Carpenter were completely inappropriate," House Speaker Philip Gunn, a Republican, said in the joint statement with Carpenter. "His comments do not reflect the attitude of the Republican Party or the leadership of the House."

The chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus, Democratic Sen. Kenny Wayne Jones of Canton, criticized Carpenter's reference to race in a discussion about school funding.

"We really don't have room for that in the state Legislature," Jones told the AP on Monday. "We're all trying to work together at this point to come up with the best policy we can for Mississippi. I'm sure Rep. Carpenter disappointed a whole lot of people with his remarks about the judge. He knows better, and he's still going to have to come to the table (to discuss budgets), regardless of what he expressed."

Democratic Rep. Robert Johnson of Natchez, who's also in the Black Caucus, said of Carpenter's comment about a judge: "This whole notion is just race baiting."

Michael Rejebian is co-manager of 42 For Better Schools, the group pushing for the initiative, which got on the ballot after more than 100,000 registered voters signed petitions. Rejebian did not respond directly Monday to Carpenter's mention of race.

"Our supporters understand that this campaign is about ensuring that the Legislature follows its own law to fully fund public schools and nothing else," Rejebian said in a written statement. "The 'one judge' argument has no basis in fact."

Any lawsuit over school funding would be filed in chancery court in Hinds County, which is home to Jackson, the state capital. Hinds County has four elected chancery judges — two black and two white. The county is majority-black.

Even if a lawsuit were filed, any ruling by a chancery judge likely would be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .