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GOP chairman issues apology as heat rises after ‘witches’ comments

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Michigan Republican Party Chairman and University of Michigan Board of Regents member Ron Weiser issued an apology of sorts Saturday after he called the three highest-ranking elected female leaders in the state “witches” who should be “ready for the burning at the stake” and referenced “assassination” in the context of ousting GOP congressmen. 

The move comes as Weiser scrambles behind the scenes this weekend to tamp down growing outrage over comments he made during a recent speech. 

“In an increasingly vitriolic political environment, we should all do better to treat each other with respect, myself included. I fell short of that the other night,” Weiser said in the statement. 

“I apologize to those I offended for the flippant analogy about three women who are elected officials and for the off-hand comments about two other leaders. I have never advocated for violence and never will. While I will always fight for the people and policies I believe in, I pledge to be part of a respectful political dialogue going forward.” 

More: U-M regents call on Ron Weiser to resign after ‘witches,’ assassination comments

More: Michigan GOP leader mentions assassination, calls Democratic women ‘witches’ during event

In addition to the comments he made Thursday about Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Attorney General Dana Nessel and Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, Weiser brought up the idea of “assassination” in reference to U.S. Reps. Fred Upton and Peter Meijer, two Republican congressmen who voted in favor of impeaching former President Donald Trump. 

Despite Weiser’s statement late Saturday, earlier in the day the Michigan Republican Party tweeted, “Dana Nessel should spend less time on her manufactured outrage about an animated local political meeting and more time protecting victims of Larry Nassar.” 

Nessel told the Free Press on Saturday a university regent asked her if Weiser could have the attorney general’s private cell phone number. 

“A private conversation means absolutely nothing, it’s the public that needs to hear an apology. And it’s the public that needs to hear him walk back these statements of hateful rhetoric that can inspire others into conduct that can be harmful to any of the five of us that he’s talked about,” Nessel said in a phone interview before Weiser issued his statement. 

“I can only assume that his language was intended to be as hostile and violent as it was. Because when you say something that you realize you’re mistaken about, the way that you phrased it, you apologize for it, you walk it back. And he’s refused to do so.” 

Weiser was also attempting to get private numbers for Whitmer and Benson, sources told the Free Press. Their representatives told the Free Press that Weiser had not reached out directly to either the governor or secretary of state.

He has reached out to university administrators and donors, two sources with knowledge of the calls said.  They requested anonymity because they were not cleared to speak with the Free Press.

The private efforts came the same day University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel blasted Weiser for his comments, saying, “It is never appropriate to raise the specter of assassination or perpetuate misogynistic stereotypes.” 

Also Saturday, U-M Regent Paul Brown became the fourth board member to call for Weiser to resign. 

Weiser tweeted Friday that he could have chosen his words more carefully, but did not apologize then and eschewed calls to resign from the U-M board. 

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Nessel said she also does not trust Weiser enough for him to have her private number.She already receives many threats, and fears Weiser may later share her contact information. 

Weiser did not respond Saturday, beyond his statement, to requests for comment.

“I think it’s worth noting that Ron Weiser revealed his true colors again on Twitter last night,” Whitmer spokesman Bobby Leddy said on Saturday. 

“When he had an opportunity to retract his remarks and publicly apologize, he instead doubled down on the same repulsive and divisive rhetoric that so many Michiganders are tired of hearing.”

Despite public calls on Friday for Weiser to step down from the Michigan board, a Schlissel spokesman said at the time the president had no comment. That changed on Saturday, when Schlissel said Weiser’s comments do not reflect the values of the university. 

“I condemn any suggestion of violence against a duly elected state or federal official. Such words are particularly abhorrent in a climate where so recently the use of language has engendered violence and attempted violence directed at elected officials, our democratic institutions, and the individuals who guard them,” Schlissel said. 

“Elected officials must adhere to a higher standard regardless of the context of their remarks.” 

In the fall, Nessel’s office worked with the FBI and others on a massive operation to thwart a group of men who allegedly planned to kidnap the governor. Benson and Nessel regularly face death threats, and the two Republican congressmen received a litany of threats after their votes in favor of impeachment.  

Weiser is in a powerful position, and made his comments about the elected leaders at a local GOP meeting, Nessel noted. It only takes one person to consider Weiser’s words a call to action, Nessel said. 

“What you do is you provide a basis for those who want to harm us to be able to rationalize it, and to say, well they are evil people, so the world would be better off without them. I’m doing our state a favor by taking action and taking up arms against them,” Nessel said. 

“So, how at this point, Ron Weiser cannot draw that parallel and does not see that connection or that nexus between violent, angry, rhetoric and violent, angry action — I think it’s inescapable. And I don’t for a second believe that he doesn’t know that. If he didn’t know that, of course, you would hope he would apologize for it. But he hasn’t. So he either doesn’t understand that connection, or he doesn’t care.”

More: University of Michigan names building after former school president Mary Sue Coleman

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Besides Brown, the three other board members who have called for Weiser’s resignation are Mark Bernstein, Jordan Acker and Michael Behm. All are Democrats.

Brown issued his statement Saturday morning, hours before Weiser’s apology.

“The recent comments by Regent Weiser were misogynistic, divisive and reckless,” he said. “Degrading and inflammatory speech by any public official is inexcusable and should not be tolerated by good people. 

“I believe in redemption and try to practice forgiveness. I am troubled by the inclination to condemn an individual for an unfortunate slip of the tongue or word choice, and I believe we should not judge a person by his worst day or define him by his worst moment. I did not become aware of Regent Weiser’s comments until late in the day and I hoped that the initial reports were inaccurate or, if true, that Regent Weiser would release a sincere apology. Disappointingly, I have since learned that the reporting is accurate. … So, particularly at this moment in our history when such extreme rhetoric from too many political leaders has sewn deep division in society, hurt individuals, and threatened our democracy, I can only come to the conclusion that any official, including Regent Weiser, who would unrepentantly engage in such speech should not remain in public office, especially at an institution like the University of Michigan, which so values upholding gender equality and protection of women’s rights.”

On Friday, Nessel, Whitmer and Benson each posted images or references to witches on Twitter. While their efforts to respond to Weiser’s statement may have been jokes, Nessel said they all live every day knowing they serve in roles where their own lives — and the lives of family members — are under threat. 

There is room in politics to debate the merits of COVID-19 policies and health orders, Nessel said. But the continued demonization of political opponents will result in someone getting hurt, she said. 

“It’s not atypical I will say, with, with a lot of folks that I have worked with across the aisle, that sometimes they, you know, they’ll pound their chests publicly but then privately actually be much nicer and try to be more collaborative and work with you,” Nessel said. 

“But not to the extent that they’re using, you know, what ultimately are remarks about you being murdered.” 

In response to Weiser’s statement late Saturday, Benson spokesman Jake Rollow said: “The people of Michigan deserve more than a half apology when the leader of one of our two major political parties suggests violence over democracy.”

Contact Dave Boucher at dboucher@freepress.com or 313-938-4591. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.

Read or Share this story: https://www.freep.com/story/news/education/2021/03/27/gop-chairman-ron-weisner-apology-witches-comments/7030332002/

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