A photograph of Rob McKenna at last month’s Asian Pacific American Community Summit in Tacoma has been making the rounds on the Web.
It shows McKenna waiting for the sometimes lengthy translations of his and Jay Inslee’s answers during a joint appearance at the summit held every four years. While it is not exactly flattering, it doesn’t display anything more than a guy having to stand on a stage with as neutral an expression as possible while a dozen translations into various Asian and Pacific Islander languages were completed.
If anything, it shows someone deep in thought.
But Kelly Steele, the spokesman for U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell’s re-election campaign, saw an opportunity for a political shot. Harkening back to an incident in which a young McKenna staffer was found to have sent insensitive tweets aimed at Asians and the elderly, Steele created the image above for his personal Twitter account.
It quickly drew some aggressive responses.
Suzanne Pak, a politically active woman who attended the summit and is a supporter of both McKenna and Democratic Secretary of State candidate Kathleen Drew, was contacted by one of those who replied and was asked to take a look.
McKenna has good relations with Asian Americans and was well-received at the summit (though not as warmly as Inslee).
The picture itself doesn’t cross the line to becoming offensive, she wrote. “But by adding the element of racism, Kelly crosses the line and makes a blatantly false accusation about Rob. This may be the sort of thing we can expect from The Stranger or anonymous tweeters, but not from a staff member of a U.S. senator.
“While this was a cheap reminder of the August tweet incident involving a former junior member of Rob’s campaign, Kelly Steele offended many Asian Americans,” she wrote.
The incident she references and that Steele says inspired his post involved a staffer, Kathlyn Ehl, who had tweeted things back in January including “shut up and speak english #asians.” When the tweets were uncovered and reported, McKenna issued this statement:
“They were insensitive and wrong regardless of their context. She has done the right thing by apologizing. I am hopeful that she has learned a humbling lesson that will give her greater perspective about having charity in her heart when considering the challenges faced by others.”
When criticism continued, however, Ehl resigned.
Several conversations with Steele last week about his tweet elicited few concessions.
“My tweet was a satirical reference to a previous racist statement made by Republican Rob McKenna’s own staffer. The language about speaking English and the hashtag #Asians emanated exclusively from McKenna’s own team, and were initially forgiven by McKenna himself until media pressure caused a quiet resignation days later,” he wrote.
I told him I didn’t agree with opponents who labeled him a racist. I did, however, think his tweet was at best ill-advised and at worst an example of the anything-goes nature of campaign politics. Much of this snarky stuff goes on below the surface, often on social media and usually meant for those already among the chorus.
Call them campaign trolls who practice a version of “in-group virtues are out-group vices.” That is, when your side does it, it’s appropriate criticism; when the other side does it, outrage must result.
I thought Ehl’s tweets were insensitive and immature, not necessarily surprising from someone barely out of college. Because of her age, and because she seemed to realize how stupid it was, I didn’t think they were a firing offense. But maybe that’s the thinking of the father of daughters the same age.
With blood on the water, though, the attacks continued until Ehl resigned. Even that act apparently wasn’t enough to keep the incident from being revived when needed.
And now Steele finds himself in the same position as the woman he happily condemned, having to apologize, most likely under pressure from his current employer.
“My attempt at humor was insensitive and inappropriate,” Steele wrote Friday, “and I apologize sincerely to anyone I’ve offended.”firstname.lastname@example.org