Michigan county official resigns after doubling down on N-word, says he's not racist

John Flesher
Associated Press

Traverse City — An elected official in a mostly white county in northern Michigan who used a racist slur prior to a public meeting to describe Black people in Detroit will resign, the county administrator said Friday.

Tom Eckerle

Leelanau County Administrator Chet Janik said Tom Eckerle, a member of the county road commission, would step down after receiving criticism from across the U.S. for his comments.

“I personally and professionally think it’s in the best interests of Mr. Eckerle, the road commission and Leelanau County,” Janik told The Associated Press.

The Traverse City Record-Eagle reported that Eckerle had informed the newspaper of his plans to quit, saying he didn’t want to “burden” a newly hired road commission manager scheduled to begin work this month. Eckerle did not return a call from the AP. But in a phone interview earlier Friday, he repeated the slur while maintaining he was not a racist.

Eckerle spent much of the interview attacking Black Lives Matter, saying a mention of the decentralized movement against racial injustice and police brutality is what set him off ahead of a Tuesday meeting.

“I’m not a racist,” Eckerle told the AP. “Black Lives Matter is racist. If I believed in Black Lives Matter, I would be racist. … Black Lives Matter has no heart. And that is as offensive to me as the N-word,” he added, then used the full racial slur.

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

“If I could get a few people that, when they see a Black Lives Matter sign up, to think the N-word, I have accomplished what I’m after,” he added.

Eckerle, 75, has drawn criticism and calls to resign his elected post, including from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and his fellow commission members.

“His comments are atrocious,” Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said Friday. “The governor has been very clear — there’s no place for hate and racism in Michigan.”

Eckerle’s original comments were first reported by the Leelanau Enterprise, which said they were not officially recorded because the Tuesday meeting had not started.

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 Detroit News on Thursday that 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."

Asked by the AP whether he had used the slur, Eckerle replied, “I did say that and I will not go away from it.”

But he insisted it had “nothing to do with me wearing a mask” and “nothing to do with coronavirus.”

He said it arose during a conversation involving Whitmer “and her liberal ideas” and with keeping children out of school because of the pandemic. “They need to be back in school,” said Eckerle.

At some point, he said, the subject of Black Lives Matter came up. “That’s what got me over the end,” he said.

He also complained about removal of Confederate statues, calls to cut police funding and “cities being held hostage.”

Eckerle, a farmer, was elected to a six-year term on the Leelanau County Road Commission in 2018. The panel oversees snow removal and other maintenance and repair work in the rural county about 270 miles northwest of Detroit. The county has about 21,700 residents, about 90% of whom are white. Blacks make up less than 1% of the population.

State Rep. Jack O’Malley, a Republican whose district includes Leelanau County, said in a Facebook post that he had spoken with Eckerle, who rejected O’Malley’s request that he resign.

“This type of racial slur is flat-out unacceptable and ignorant,” O’Malley said in a statement.

Asked by the AP whether he intended to resign, Eckerle said, “That’s my business.”

Brown said the Democratic governor could 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.”

Because road commissioner is an elected position in Leelanau County, the request to Whitmer would have to come from the commission, said Chet Janik, the county administrator.

A letter posted on the commission’s Facebook page and signed by the panel’s other four members — including Joyce — demanded he step down.

“We will not tolerate any kind of racism in our meeting room or in our organization,” the letter said.

Late Friday, the Detroit Branch NAACP also called for Eckerle to resign. 

"The commissioner has demonstrated his inability to remain on the open road towards respect and dignity of all people," the Rev. Wendell Anthony, the branch's president, said in a statement. "In this era, while suffering from the global pandemic of COVID-19, the last thing we need is for a racial pandemic to remain on the scene."

Marshall Collins Jr., 44, a Black resident of Leelanau County, said Eckerle should be removed from office “by any means necessary.”

“When people say there isn’t racism any more, the proof is in the pudding. It’s right here in front of us and we choose to ignore it,” said Collins, a member of the Northern Michigan Anti-Racism Task Force.

Detroit News Staff Writer Oralandar Brand-Williams contributed to this report.