MIAMI — A Florida Democratic National Committee member is resisting a chorus of resignation calls from African-American activists and party officials — including his own wife — after he referred to blacks as “colored people.”
DNC member John Parker, a Democratic state committeeman from Duval County, told POLITICO he simply mangled the phrase “people of color” and he didn’t mean to say “colored people” at a January 22 party meeting at a Jacksonville burrito joint.
He later apologized for his words, but not before igniting a divisive election-year controversy that distracts from what Democrats say should be a focus on President Trump’s bigotry.
The problem, local activists say, is that Parker’s remark was not simply an errant remark. Diallo-Sekou Seabrooks, an African American who said he heard the remarks at the Burrito Gallery restaurant after a Democratic meeting, told First Coast News that Parker “freely used” the phrase “colored people” at the event and that he was concerned that Jacksonville would become like Atlanta, a city with a majority-black government.
"Why would you still think that 'colored' was cool? Because to me it's a Jim Crow terminology and it's unacceptable," Seabrooks told the station.
Parker denies those and a variety of other claims that have become the subject of local and state Democratic Party complaints filed against him — that he spoke pejoratively of the aftermath of integration that evening, and on other occasions called an unnamed woman the “mayor’s mammy” and allegedly referred to the local Working People Caucus as the “Poor Black People Working Caucus.”
“I misspoke and used the term colored people when I meant people of color,” Parker told POLITICO on Feb. 13, when first asked about his remark. But he said any other claims that he used racially insensitive remarks “did not happen.”
The controversy, which has local and state Democrats running for cover, has caught fire in one of the more crucial battlegrounds of the battleground state. Though Republicans have long carried Duval County, it has a sizable African-American population of about 30 percent. About 55 percent of the county’s registered Democrats are African-American. Without them, Democrats statewide would struggle to counterbalance big Republican margins across much of rural North Florida.
Now that GOP Gov. Rick Scott is likely to next week to formally challenge U.S. Sen Bill Nelson, Democrats say they need a united front and an energetic base.
“The last thing we need is racial turmoil and John is doing nothing to help us,” said one top Democratic consultant who didn’t want to be identified for fear of speaking out school. “The fact is that the more we talk about this the more Republicans, Rick Scott and Trump win.”
As the complaints against Parker appeared to stall, word spread in African-American Democratic circles in Jacksonville that the controversy was being ignored because Parker’s wife, Lisa King, is the chairwoman of the Duval County Democratic Executive Committee.
“Because Mrs. King is the wife of John Parker, there may be a conflict of interest. Constituents are complaining that the case may have been swept under the rug,” state Rep. Kim Daniels, an African-American Democrat from Jacksonville, wrote March 14 to the Florida Black Democratic Party, which had fielded some of the initial complaints.
Daniels on Monday night issued a press release that called on Parker and King to resign, echoing the local and state Democratic black caucuses as well as the local Republican Party, which eagerly piled on.
At that point, Parker’s wife, King, publicly called on him to quit.
“Though it is painful and awkward to air this conflict publicly, I have told John from the beginning that the most appropriate course of action for him was to resign,” King told First Coast News in a written statement.
In the statement, King said she didn’t know how to handle a complaint filed against Parker because the local party “bylaws do not have a grievance process, our Central Committee will be meeting this Thursday to create one.”
She also said that, in 23 years of marriage, “I have never before heard him refer to African-Americans as anything other than black or African-American. When we returned home I told him that his choice of words and statements offended people. When I spoke to others present they confirmed their concern and offense.”
Rep. Daniels, though, said there’s no excuse.
“Mrs. King’s silence on the matter, until released in the media, demonstrated her complicity,” she said in a written statement to POLITICO.
Florida Democratic Party officials have refused to comment, citing confidentiality rules governing an active complaint.
Jacksonville still bears fresh political scars over race and schools after a 2013 school board fight over Nathan B. Forrest High School, which was originally named after the Civil War general and likely KKK Grand Wizard in 1959 at the urging of the Daughters of the Confederacy. It is now called Westside High School.
“I've tried to turn a blind eye to the disrespect, sexism, fascism, and racism for the sake of the party. On several occasions, both on the local and state level, I've tried not to pile on the already fragile Democratic Party, and not air our dirty laundry in the media and in the court of public opinion,” James Morton, a member of the Duval County Democratic Black Caucus, told the Sunshine State News.
For some African-American Democrats and Republicans, Florida Democrats appear to have separate standards when Parker’s case is compared to a 2017 uproar in the Florida Senate, when party officials united in loudly calling for the resignation of Miami state Sen. Frank Artiles, a Republican, who used a slang variant of the N-word in talking to two African-American colleagues.
One of those colleagues was state Sen. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville, who has vouched for Parker as someone who isn’t a racist.
In a Feb. 8 letter to state Democrats and Florida Democratic Party Chairwoman Terrie Rizzo, James Deininger, a Jacksonville-based secretary of a group called the Florida Democratic Senior Caucus, complained about Parker and worried about the message sent by the official silence over his remarks.
“In a time when many believe the Republican President of the United States makes racist remarks towards Blacks, Dreamers, and immigrants such behavior cannot be tolerated by anyone in our Party — especially those who hold leadership positions,” Deininger wrote. “It should be clear, that protecting leaders in our Party who are perceived to make racist remarks is nothing more than defending and preserving institutional racism.”
Rizzo didn’t reply. But Evelyn Garcia, founder of the Democratic Haitian American Caucus of Florida, reminded him in a letter that she hailed from a place that Trump allegedly disparaged in gutter terms.
“As a first generation American from one of the current president's sh..hole countries, I look forward to our cleaning up our own house,” she wrote back. “I look forward to a favorable response and resolution.”
But nearly two months later, and nothing has changed.