CARSON CITY, Nev. — A Nevada assemblyman apologized Tuesday and criticized the media as he tried to explain his explosive comments that he would vote to allow slavery if that’s what his constituents wanted.
“The media is having a good time with a clearly facetious statement I made in a town hall meeting earlier this year,” freshman Republican Assemblyman Jim Wheeler said in a statement. “They’re attempting to spin an extreme example I used about supporting my constituents to accuse me of being racist.”
Wheeler of Minden said he intended his comments on slavery to be an extreme example of something unacceptable and hoped they would be taken that way.
“If my comments were taken with offense by anyone, I sincerely apologize,” he said.
Wheeler’s comments have been swiftly denounced by Nevada’s top elected Republicans and Democrats alike.
Fred Lokken, political science professor at Truckee Meadows Community College, said Wheeler’s remarks were frightening.
“That kind of lack of moral compass is what has brought some really bad things into the world,” Lokken told The Associated Press. He said politicians are not elected to be “autotrons.”
“There is an arrogance that he’s just a pawn doing what his constituency wants,” said Lokken, who identified himself as a nonpartisan voter.
Wheeler’s comments surfaced Monday after Laura Martin, communications director for Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, received a YouTube video link from someone sharing Wheeler’s comments about a proposed constitutional amendment on Nevada mine taxes.
Wheeler, speaking to the Storey County GOP Central Committee in August, addressed the mining question at the start of the roughly hourlong video clip.
“Then I just let it play while I did other things,” Martin said. About 40 minutes into it, she heard the comment about slavery and sent out a tweet.
“Just saw a video of Jim Wheeler saying he’d vote to bring back slavery if his constituents wanted it,” she tweeted.
Martin said Tuesday that she knew the remarks were controversial but underestimated the reaction.
“I did not realize that it was going to blow up the way it has,” she said.
On the video, Wheeler says he believes it is his job to represent his constituents regardless of his own beliefs. He referenced an earlier blog by conservative activist Chuck Muth, who in June 2010 wrote about Wheeler’s candidacy and said, “what if those citizens decided they want to, say, bring back slavery? Hey, if that’s what they want, right Jim?”
Wheeler told his GOP audience he responded to Muth and said, “yeah, I would.”
“If that’s what they wanted, I’d have to hold my nose, I’d have to bite my tongue and they’d probably have to hold a gun to my head, but yeah ... if that’s what the constituency wants that elected me, that’s what they elected me for,” he said.
Top Republicans, including Gov. Brian Sandoval and U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, and Democratic Party leaders and elected officials all quickly criticized Wheeler.
Assemblywoman Michelle Fiore, a conservative Las Vegas Republican, condemned Wheeler’s remarks.
“As someone who believes wholeheartedly in listening to our constituents, I’m confident that they would agree with me that there is no place in our society for the comments made by Assemblyman Wheeler who doesn’t even understand that the United States is a republic because we protect the voice of the minority,” she said.
The state Republican Party posted Wheeler’s page-long statement on its website. Chairman Michael McDonald did not respond to requests for comment.
In his statement Tuesday, Wheeler said, “Despite the media spin that claims I don’t think for myself, I give careful consideration to the votes I cast and I find that 99 percent of the time my constituents agree with me. That makes sense — they elected me because they know that my beliefs align with theirs.”
Wheeler’s multi-county district leans GOP by a 2-1 margin.
Lokken said the reasoning was flawed because it fails to recognize “that as an elected official he’s there for all of the people, not just those who voted for him.”