A St. Louis County commissioner's remark at a board meeting in February has taken on new life after it appeared on YouTube.
At a February 2007 St. Louis County Board meeting, Commissioner Keith Nelson said he was against a proposed smoking ban because the majority of his constituents didn't support it, because in every circumstance he supports the will of his constituents. Another commissioner asked Nelson if he would support slavery if the majority of his constituents did. Nelson replied that he would.
Many times his colleagues have heard St. Louis County Board member Keith Nelson say he's there to represent the majority wishes of his constituents.
In February, some say, he took the stance too far.
In a video posted on the YouTube video website, Nelson said that he'd support slavery if his constituents wanted it.
"If the people in my district had voted for slavery, and if the vast majority had, and I was representing them, the answer is 'yes,' I would have voted for it," Nelson said at a Feb. 27 board meeting. " 'Cause that's my job. My job is to represent the people in my district."
The video was posted to YouTube late last week, prompting four citizens to speak out against Nelson at a board meeting Tuesday, and spurring the commissioner to apologize "if I offended anyone in any way," Nelson recalled in an interview Wednesday night.
He said that he remained committed to heeding majority will, but added that if the people in his district advocated slavery, he would have no choice but to resign.
"That is a hypothetical that everyone knows would never occur," Nelson said. "But, absolutely, I could no longer represent them."
The Rev. Denita Williams, pastor of St. Mark's African Methodist Episcopal Church in Duluth, the county seat, said slavery is an absolute moral wrong that any elected official should oppose even if doing so goes against the will of constituents.
"He doesn't seem to understand, and for him to hold a public office and not understand that is offensive," Williams said. She said Nelson must offer a public, unqualified apology, "and he also needs to take a diversity class."
In heat of debate
Nelson's comments came during a board debate over a proposed county smoking ban. He said then that he opposed the ban because most of his constituents wanted him to -- and that he had always followed the will of the people he represents.
It was a philosophy that he had espoused many times before, said Commissioner Bill Kron, who, emboldened by a then-recent viewing of the anti-slavery film "Amazing Grace," decided to pose the slavery question. Though not captured on the YouTube clip, Kron recalls saying to Nelson: "There are some issues of conscience where the majority may not be right; for example, would you have voted for slavery if the majority of your constituents would have?"
Asked to describe the immediate response at the Feb. 27 board meeting, Kron said that he and his colleagues were "stunned into silence."When we broke for lunch," Kron recalled, "we said, 'Did he really say it?' "
On Wednesday night, Nelson accused Kron of drawing parallels between smoking and slavery.
'There's no comparison'
Said Kron: "That's never been said. It's crazy. There's no comparison."
The county board, meanwhile, moved Tuesday to begin developing a code of conduct and ethics policy, an idea Kron said was inspired by more than just Nelson's remarks, but could have come in handy at the time.
"If we have something in writing, we can rightfully call someone on certain behavior that, according to our code of conduct, is out of order," he said.
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