KNOXVILLE, Tenn – County officials in Tennessee moved swiftly Tuesday to distance themselves from a county commissioner who used a homophobic slur to describe presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg during a public meeting.
In a video of Monday’s Sevier County commission meeting recorded by Knoxville TV station WVLT-TV, Commissioner Warren Hurst went on to say, “I’m not prejudice, but by golly, a white male in this country has very few rights, and they’re getting took more every day.”
The county has since received a flood of criticism, including some calls for a tourism boycott of one of the nation’s most popular travel destinations.
Sevier County’s official Twitter account on Tuesday morning disavowed Hurst’s comments, saying, “The statements made by Commissioner Hurst at the Sevier County Commission meeting of October 21, 2019, do not reflect the opinion or position of Sevier County administration. Sevier County is an Equal Opportunity Employer and does not discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or status in any other group protected by law. “
At the meeting, one woman challenged Hurst’s comments, saying, “Excuse me, this is not professional. This is (expletive),” as she walked out. But many in the crowd, which was there to hear about a pending vote on a gun issue, applauded Hurst, and some added, “Amen.”
No one answered the door at Hurst’s home on Tuesday. He did not return phone and text messages.
A growing number of social media users are calling on Hurst to resign and are asking for tourists to think twice before spending money in Sevier County. The community is the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the country’s most visited national park.
Sevier County also includes Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, which host dozens of tourist attractions, including Dollywood and restaurants owned by Paula Deen and Blake Shelton. Many social media posts criticizing Hurst’s statements have tagged the tourist attractions and organizations.
Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, said the comments made by Hurst in Sevierville, which is about 30 miles southeast of her district, were “embarrassing.”
“It was just horrific, and the way people just laughed and mocked was really embarrassing,” she said. “I’m embarrassed by that behavior. We would hope that Tennesseans would be better than that. And folks in Sevier County who rely on tourist dollars – it’s that sort of thing that’s going to chase people away from their county.”
Dollywood, Johnson said, is “the most open and welcoming place.”
“And then to hear something like that, I could see it just killing anybody’s desire to try to come up there,” she said. “You’ve got a fabulous place that’s opening and welcoming and friendly, and then you’ve got officials like that. It just sends a terrible message.”
Pete Owens, vice president of marketing and public relations for Dollywood, said the park has no comment at this time.
The flashpoint in Monday’s meeting came as commissioners discussed a resolution declaring the county’s commitment to the Second Amendment.
Commissioner Mike Chambers said the resolution supporting the so-called Second Amendment sanctuary status was something constituents had been asking for.
“We just had a lot of people that contacted us in the county and all my constituents that talk to me – I talk to several – they all wanted to be supportive of it,” he told Knox News.
“We stand by our gun owners, and we do support that. The other things that went on,” he said, referring to Hurst’s comments, “I had nothing to do with.”
Follow Tyler Whetstone and Travis Dorman on Twitter: @tyler_whetstone and @travdorman