capitol, denver, colorado

Rep. Leslie Herod, Black Caucus chair: “This is what I deal with Every. Damn. Day.” 

In matters of race and politics, the issue is not always clear cut. Racism can take the form of a wink or a nod. Or what they call a dog whistle.

And then, in some cases, as in the case last week in the state Legislature, someone can be speaking from the House floor — that someone, on this occasion, was GOP Rep. Richard Holtorf — and turn to a colleague and call him, yes, “Buckwheat.”

The exact quote went this way: “I’m getting there. Don’t worry, Buckwheat, I’m getting there.” Apparently, there’d been some heckling from Democrats, encouraging Holtorf, who tends to wander, to get to the point of his speech.

“Buckwheat” is not winking. It’s not nodding. It’s not whistling.

That was the remark that lit the fuse that ended in an explosive confrontation between Holtorf and Democratic Rep. Tom Sullivan on the House floor.

As Sullivan explained it to me, when he heard the remark, he jumped out of his seat and started yelling, “Who are you calling Buckwheat?”

Jumping out of your seat and yelling is something that happens in movies, but rarely in the state Legislature. But rarely does someone use an outrageous taunt like “Buckwheat” while discussing an amendment to an appropriations bill. It wasn’t clear at first whom Holtorf was addressing, but apparently it was Democrat David Ortiz, a Latino and not Black, who had corrected Holtorf, who had said Ortiz was from Jefferson County instead of Arapahoe.

When the crowd started to get restless, Holtorf seemed to know he had stepped in it, and had to say something. And so he said this: that Buckwheat was an “endearing term, by the way.” Yes, he did.

And if that’s not a tell, I don’t know what it is. Later Holtorf would say he didn’t know the word had any racial connotation. He’s 56 years old. He would have us believe he missed out on The Little Rascals and on Eddie Murphy’s SNL skits. And that the reason he pointed out that the B-word was an “endearing term” was because, well, what do you think? I tried to reach Holtorf to ask. He didn’t call back.

Sullivan said he had no doubt whatsoever that Holtorf is also fully aware of the racist stereotype. “I’ve been listening to him the whole time he’s been here,” Sullivan said. “He knew exactly what he was saying.”

“We had just had this diversity conversation [with the Black Democratic Legislative Caucus] in our caucus and we’d been asked whether we were allies who were willing to stand up to these people,” said Sullivan, who is white. “I thought to myself, ‘Yeah, I’ll be there.’

“And then I heard this word, and it caught everyone off guard. No. 1, not everyone was paying attention. Holtorf tends to wander from topic to topic when he’s up there, always worrying about whether he’s going to be gaveled down for something he’s saying. And No. 2, I kind of jumped from my seat — I didn’t even know I was standing up — and just started yelling.”

Sullivan said he yelled, “‘Get him out of there! Get him off the floor!’ And that’s when he started yelling back at me.”

Legislators rushed over to stand between them, as if a melee on a baseball field had broken out. The chair was hitting the gavel, and finally a recess was called to bring the House back to order.

In ordinary times, you could call this remarkable. At this point, I think you’d have to call it inevitable.  

It was only a few weeks earlier that members of the Black Caucus — there are no Black Republicans in the Legislature — had spoken up in a powerful article in The Denver Post about racism at the Capitol, with one member, Rep. Dominique Jackson saying it wasn’t one thing, but a lot of things, and that they’d finally “hit a wall.”

“What we’re facing, we’ve been facing our entire lives,” Aurora Sen. Janet Buckner added. “That’s why we’re exhausted.”

The need to speak up followed an earlier incident — the so-called lynching joke from GOP Rep. Ron Hanks, who had been confused with Rep. Mike Lynch when he was called on to speak.

“Being called Mr. Lynch might be a good thing for what I’m about to say. No, just kidding,” Hanks said, before going on to discuss a civics education bill, at which point he’d explain that the infamous three-fifths compromise of 1787, in which slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a person for census and representation purposes, was “not impugning anyone’s humanity.”

That didn’t seem to be a dog whistle either. It made national and international news, as would the Buckwheat comment.

As Rep. Leslie Herod, Black Caucus chair, would tweet afterwards: “This is what I deal with Every. Damn. Day. #onwepress.”

We’re at a momentous point in history, with Black Lives Matter and the George Floyd police killing rubbing up against — and with much friction — the Jan. 6 insurrection, the Confederate flag at the U.S. Capitol and Republican leaders joining Donald Trump in continuing the bogus claim that the 2020 election was rigged. That, of course, has led to Republican-led state legislatures passing bills that make it harder to vote. Yes, let’s call them what they are — voter suppression laws. As a nation, we’ve been this way before.

A few such bills had been brought up in the Colorado Legislature, but were quickly turned away.

For Sullivan, things had been building as well. It was in February during morning announcements that Sullivan had said it was the “448th Friday since my son Alex was murdered in the Aurora theater massacre.” Sullivan speaks about this often. The loss of his son was what pushed him to run for the Legislature. Later, Republicans would embarrass themselves in trying, and failing, to recall him for being a sponsor of gun-safety legislation. The subtext was that Sullivan was exploiting his son’s death.

A few moments after Sullivan spoke about his son, Holtorf spoke about his time in the Army and his understanding of loss. And he said the lesson he had learned “is that you have to let go.”

Yes, Holtorf, in his role as grief counselor, took to the House floor to tell Sullivan he needed to “let go” of his son’s loss.

Sullivan thinks the outrages are part of a design, which we can call the Lauren Boebert strategy of saying outrageous things and watching the campaign money come flowing in. It’s a problem. If you ignore the craziness, the craziness goes unchallenged. If you challenge the craziness, the notoriety that follows is just what the person is hoping for.

But I’m not sure how much strategy goes into someone like Holtorf responding to some muttering from the assembly by calling the person Buckwheat. Or Hanks making a lynching joke. In both cases, we heard the if-someone-is-offended non-apology apology.

More is required. It must come from Republican leadership in the Legislature. House Minority Leader Hugh McKean told The Colorado Sun that he had a lengthy conversation with Holtorf and concluded that Holtorf’s remarks were a matter of “differences in experiences” and said he didn’t feel it was his place to tell legislators what they should say.

Herod told The Sun that more was needed: “Racist behavior needs to be met with swift action. That’s weak leadership.”

She’s right, of course. There need to be consequences. In fact, as McKean and other Republicans must know, there already are consequences. If you’re asking the question as to why Republicans keep losing in Colorado, you can add Buckwheat to a long list of answers. 

Mike Littwin’s column was produced for The Colorado Sun, a reader-supported news organization committed to covering the people, places and policies of Colorado. Learn more at coloradosun.com.