Gov. Whitmer urges county official in N-word, coronavirus controversy to resign

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has joined local and state officials calling for the resignation of an elected official from northwest lower Michigan who used the "N-word" before a public meeting this week.

Leelanau County road commissioner Tom Eckerle uttered the racial slur Tuesday in an angry outburst, according to the Leelanau Enterprise newspaper, a commission colleague, and a state lawmaker who represents the county.  

“Governor Whitmer believes that Road Commissioner Tom Eckerle must resign immediately. His comments are atrocious," said the governor's spokesperson Tiffany Brown in an email to The News on Friday. "The Governor has been very clear – there’s no place for hate and racism in Michigan.”

Brown added “By law the governor can only remove a road commissioner upon submission of a proper request for removal that satisfies certain standards. The governor has not received a request at this time, but there’s a more quick and sure path: Commissioner Eckerle should resign.”

Eckerle is accused of making the racial slur after he went on a "tirade" about why he refused to wear a mask for safety precautions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The newspaper quoted Eckerle, a Republican, as saying, "Well, this whole thing is because of them n-----s in Detroit ... I can say anything that I want. Black Lives Matter has everything to do with taking the country away from us."

Bob Joyce, the chairman of the Leelanau Road Commission, told The News Thursday he heard Eckerle use the racial slur and wants him to resign, calling his remarks "appalling.

 Joyce said he quickly admonished Eckerle for using the racial slur, which his colleague uttered after Joyce asked for his thoughts about children returning to school amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"(Eckerle) said 'I can say whatever I want' and I said 'no you can't,'" Joyce said during a phone interview Thursday. "It's horrible. It's absolutely horrific."

Joyce said he and the other three commissioners plan to give Eckerle a letter Thursday asking him to step down from his post.

 "We do not tolerate that," he said. "That's not who we are."

State Rep. Jack O’Malley, a Republican who represents Leelanau County, also urged Eckerle to resign.

State Rep. Jack O'Malley

“After speaking with a number of individuals in the district today, I must say that I am shocked and disappointed to hear of the comments that were made by Leelanau County Road Commissioner Tom Eckerle before a recent road commission meeting," O'Malley said in a statement Thursday.

"I called Mr. Eckerle to confirm he made these comments. He confirmed that he did," O'Malley said. "This type of racial slur is flat-out unacceptable and ignorant. I asked Mr. Eckerle to resign his position as road commissioner in light of these comments and shall he refuse, the citizens of Leelanau County have every right to recall him from office." 

“It saddens me to have to even make this statement.” 

Joyce said Eckerle made the remarks about 1 p.m. Tuesday before the start of a meeting of the road commission. He added that while he and his colleagues cannot force Eckerle to resign, voters can recall him.

Efforts to reach Eckerle, who is paid a $500 monthly stipend for serving on the commission, were unsuccessful Thursday. Eckerle is a retired employee of a construction company.

Leelanau County administrator Chet Janik said Thursday he was in a "state of shock" over Eckerle's use of the racial slur but could not take legal action against Eckerle because he is an elected official.

Janik, who is one of five road commissioners, said Eckerle could be recalled by voters or removed from office by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. A message seeking comment was left with the governor's office Thursday afternoon.

Whitmer declared racism a public health crisis Wednesday and said she is pursuing ways to stamp out and prevent racial discrimination and disparities.

Janik said Thursday that his phone had been ringing off the hook with calls from people who want to recall Eckerle. "Every single one of them requests he resign or be removed from office," he said.

Janik said the county commission plans a special meeting Monday to discuss the situation.

CAIR-MI Executive Director Dawud Walid

Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations-Michigan, demanded that Eckerle leave office in a statement Thursday.

"We call for the immediate resignation of Mr. Eckerle from his position in Leelanau County because of his racist comments," Walid said. "Dropping the n-word, along with falsely claiming that police accountability activists who are American citizens are taking the country away, is discourse that that must be repudiated by all public officials." 

Walid also urged Michigan Republican Party Chairwoman Laura Cox to denounce Eckerle's racist statements since he is an elected official in the Michigan Republican party.

Leelanau County, which is a 4 1/2 hour drive north of Detroit, is a favorite vacation spot for Metro Detroiters.