Two dozen Democratic members of the Oregon House sharply criticized a Republican senator Friday for referencing the death of Eric Garner, a Black man killed in New York by police, in a statement opposing cigarette taxes and using Garner's last words: "I can't breathe."
Garner was killed in 2014 after officers stopped him for selling single, unpackaged cigarettes, thereby ducking a sales tax.
Rep. Diego Hernandez took to Facebook, saying he believes the press release from Sen. Dennis Linthicum is racist and unacceptable.
"Yesterday, on the day the Oregon Governor signed the 2019 Black History Month Proclamation, State Senator Dennis Linthicum released a press release that blamed the death of Eric Garner ... on high tobacco taxes. In order to oppose a proposed cigarette tax," said Hernandez, a Democrat from Portland.
The Oregon Health Authority is seeking a $2 increase in the cigarette tax, from $1.33 to $3.33 a pack.
Linthicum, who is from Klamath Falls and whose district covers a huge swath of rural southern and central Oregon, said in an interview that he intended no racism and was only trying to draw attention to disproportionate and abusive power of local governments.
The furor over the news release came as the Legislature is under scrutiny after the state labor commission denounced persistent sexual harassment in the Capitol.
"At a time when the Capitol is working hard to improve its culture and build a better, safer environment for everyone who comes through its doors, actions like this demonstrate how much more work we have to do," the 24 House Democrats told Linthicum in the letter.
The statement at the center of the controversy, issued Thursday by Linthicum's spokesman, says a tobacco tax was the root cause of why Garner was tackled and put into a chokehold by police. It goes on to say Garner "was heard gasping 'I can't breathe.'"
"Eric Garner's death shows us exactly how disproportionate and abusive state power has become," Linthicum was quoted in the press release, which did not mention Garner was black.
Asked in his office Friday in the Oregon State Capitol if he had been referring to police brutality or to the imposition of a cigarette tax, Linthicum said "Both, absolutely both."
"I'm making the claim that taxing cigarettes leads to the consequences of black markets, and black markets often cause violence," Linthicum said.
Minutes later, a letter landed on his desk from 24 House Democrats demanding an immediate apology and an explanation.
"The subject line of your email manipulates Eric Garner's dying words, "I CAN'T BREATHE" to serve as inflammatory click-bait for a press release about tax policy," the lawmakers said, adding that they found it disturbing and abhorrent.
They said Garner died because of police brutality against a black man, not because New York has a high tobacco tax.
The House Republican Office also criticized Linthicum's news release, saying "No purpose is served in relating a cigarette tax request to the tragic death of a man of color," Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.
After the letter arrived, Linthicum said he would analyze the situation.
"I will think with rigor and precision, because I didn't think my original press release would be so misconstrued," he said.
During the interview, he criticized racial and socio-economic profiling by police in traffic stops, and said he often crusades against government overreach "whether they're cops on the street or land managers in the bureaucracy."
"If everyone thinks I'm being racist, I'm not being racist," Linthicum said. "I'm just trying to bring attention to unaccountable power."
House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, registered her disgust on the House floor Thursday.
Linthicum said the response to his press release is diverting attention.
"The discussion shifted from cigarette taxes and unaccountable state power to Dennis is a racist, which is not true," he said.
On Friday evening, Linthicum added in a statement that the attempt to shut down an honest conversation about the disastrous impacts of flawed public policy and the abusive power of the state is doing a disservice to Oregonians, especially for the people who are disproportionately harmed by the nexus between the two.
"I am welcoming a rational conversation about tax policy, and the tragedies like Eric Garner's needless death because we need to fix a broken system in our state that is hurting underprivileged communities."
Republican Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. and Republican Sen. Jackie Winters, who is African American and the former Senate minority leader, said in a statement late Friday that Linthicum's recent rhetoric has no place in Oregon politics, and it does not reflect the opinions or beliefs of the Oregon Senate Republicans.
"Using the death of a human being to make a policy statement is offensive and serves no purpose. We are deeply saddened by the death of Mr. Garner, and would like to apologize for any additional pain or suffering this may have caused," the statement said.