August 19, 2011
Leaders in the local black community accepted an apology from U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn on Friday morning, two weeks after demanding his resignation for his use of the term "tar baby" in referring to President Barack Obama.
But they urged him to apologize, in person, to Obama and called on him to take diversity classes to sensitize him to issues of race. Lamborn said he'd like to meet Obama but was non-commital about taking classes.
More than 100 people attended the sometimes emotional meeting behind closed doors at the New Jerusalem Baptist Church in Fountain.
The meeting was the first with constituents since the Colorado Springs Republican appeared on a Denver radio show and used what many consider a racial slur.
"I'm here because I respect each person here," Lamborn was heard telling the crowd before his press assistant, Jarred Rego, ordered a Gazette reporter out of the church. Rego said the meeting was closed to the news media on the orders of Rev. James McMearn, pastor of New Jerusalem.
"I need to listen and learn and go forward from here," Lamborn said.
Lamborn spoke from the altar of the church as he was peppered with questions from the audience about why he used a racist term and why he remains in office.
Many in the crowd challenged Lamborn's explanation for why "tar baby" is even in his vocabulary -- he attributed it to his upbringing in Kansas and reading "Br'er Rabbit" stories.
"I have a hard time with that," one man told Lamborn. "I don't believe you didn't know it was offensive. It came off as too natural. You said it too easily."
His remarks, and others from the crowd doubting Lamborn's sincerity, prompted frequent applause from the crowd.
Afterward, McMearn and Rosemary Harris Lytle, president of the local branch of the NAACP, said they believed Lamborn's apology was genuine.
And they were encouraged by Lamborn's "sincere desire to improve relations" with the community.
Lamborn agreed to create a citizens advisory board to broaden communication with constituents and encouraged McMearn and Harris Lytle to take active roles on it.
They, in turn, encouraged him to seek a personal audience with Obama and to apologize to the president in person. Many in attendance echoed that sentiment.
Lamborn said he sent a personal, private apology to the president, but it is up to the White House whether he is allowed to apologize to Obama in person.
Many at the meeting stressed that no one should disrespect the president.
A local pastor offered to lead the congressman through diversity training, noting that dealing with others of a different background or culture could be a personal "blind spot."
Lamborn agreed that increasing one's sensitivity to people from diverse backgrounds is important and said he'll consider such training, but did not commit to it.
The congressman also said he and his staff will consider opening a satellite office in the southern portion of his district, to increase his accessibility to residents and business owners in the area.
Reaction from the crowd was mixed as folks left the church.
"It's a good thing he's doing," said Carrie Price. "We're coming together again."
Price and her husband, Phillip, said they accepted Lamborn's explanation that he didn't realize the term was racist and that he was intending only to refer to budget negotiations with the president as a sticky situation.
But not everyone was convinced of the congressman's sincerity.
Cosmetologist Angela Campbell left her business Friday morning to hear what Lamborn had to say.
"I still don't believe what he's saying. I don't believe he's sincere," she said. But, Campbell added, as a Christian she feels obligated to accept his apology.
Rev. Bruce Kinchens, pastor of the New Resurrection Missionary Baptist Church, said he told Lamborn he should never disrespect the office of the president no matter how strongly he disagrees with Obama.
"I think he knows he made a mistake," Kinchens said. "I think his earlier attempts to apologize were not from his heart. I think now he's sincere."
And Rev. Willie Sutton, pastor of St. John's Baptist Church, said he appreciated Lamborn meeting with the group, but he said the congressman should not "just come around when there's a crisis."
(Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Rosemary Harris Lytle.)