State Rep. Bob Thorpe recently got a taste of the perils of social media — and touched off another little political dust devil.
The former Flagstaff Tea Party leader turned state lawmaker has stirred up an odd little succession of sideshow controversies since he won his first-ever public office in the last election. His sprawling district centers on Flagstaff, but includes all of Northern Gila County.
Now several messages blasted into the ether on his Twitter account have spurred charges of — shall we say — racial insensitivity.
First, Thorpe sent out the tweet in response to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement that the U.S. Justice Department would no longer seek mandatory prison sentences for many low-level, non-violent drug offenders. Please note: Holder is black.
In response, Thorpe sent out to his small band of Twitter followers the following message: “Why is Holder now Soft on Crime? Perhaps: blacks=12%-13% U.S. population, but make up 40.1% (2.1 million) of male inmates in jail or prison!”
Democrats immediately accused Thorpe of racial insensitivity, especially when they discovered several other racially tinged messages in previous tweets.
This included a tweet in which Thorpe defended a fired Missouri rodeo clown banned from Missouri rodeos after he wore an Obama mask, stuck a broomstick up his, well, back end, and taunted the bull to run him down. The crowd reportedly loved it and the announcer kept saying “who would like to see Obama run down by a bull,” which drew loud cheers. Although Missouri officials decried the performance, a Texas congressman has issued a blanket invitation to the clown to appear in that state.
Another Thorpe tweet with racial overtones, read: “Florida school bus, three 15 yr old blacks beat 13 yr old white boy, where’s the liberal press, the racial outcry now?”
Thorpe promptly deleted the tweets and locked down the account. Before shutting down the account, he’d sent 227 tweets to 127 followers, according to a report in Capitol Times, which covers the state Legislature.
Democratic candidate for governor Fred DuVal called the tweet “mean spirited” and others decried them as “racist.” Sensing an opening, the Arizona Democratic Party put out a release about Thorpe’s tweets. The release also quoted Rep. Brenda Barton’s (R-Payson) Facebook post in support of Thorpe’s comments about the rodeo clown with the Obama mask. She reportedly wrote: “I hope rodeo clowns this season all wear Obama masks in solidarity with the guy who lost his job because Barry’s hide is so thin! Every president has been the butt end of jokes on late night TV as well as in the rodeo ring. Why should this guy’s hide be so thin?”
President Obama has made no comment on the rodeo clown act although in response to a question a White House spokesman said it was “not one of Missouri’s finer moments.”
Thorpe has displayed a certain knack for headlines that make you scratch your head — impressive for a first-term, freshman legislator. Back in April, he invited a body armor retailer to give lawmakers a personal sales pitch — an invitation he revoked when critics said he shouldn’t have used his legislative e-mail to promote a private business.
He also got some attention when he introduced a bill that would have required high school students to take a constitutional loyalty oath to graduate. He also dropped that measure.
Holder’s original announcement about not seeking prison terms for low-level, non-violent drug offenders stemmed from a Department of Justice study that concluded people with scant previous criminal history and no history of violent crime account for more than 16,000 federal prisoners — 36 percent of all drug offenders and more than 20 percent of all federal prisoners.
The average drug offender gets a sentence of 82 months and must serve at least 69 months before considered for release. Sentences for low-level drug offenders have increased in length by 150 percent since the enactment of mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. The number of prisoners in federal prisons has grown 800 percent since 1980, with half of those sentenced for drug violations.
Annually, taxpayers shell out $57 billion on federal prisons.
The NAACP reports that African-Americans account for 1 million of the 2.3 people in jail or prison, which makes for an incarceration rate six times greater than for whites. The NAACP fact sheet reports that five times as many whites use drugs as African-Americans — but blacks are sent to prison 10 times as often for drug crimes. Blacks spend almost as much time in prison for a drug offense as whites do for a violent offense, said the NAACP fact sheet — based on a study by the Sentencing Project.