When the power of words obscures the search for facts
Is state Rep. Amy Grant a homophobic racist unfit for office? Or is she someone who was set up in a deceitful phone call and then compounded her problems with careless language?
Our editorial board has struggled with these two questions for the past two weeks. We had endorsed Grant, a Wheaton Republican, just before three Democratic leaders released selected excerpts from a 25-minute phone call in which she made statements regarding LGBTQ issues and the legislative Black Caucus. We were forced to consider the unusual step of rescinding that endorsement.
In the process, we had to grapple with most of the day's pressing issues -- systemic racism, widespread bias against the LGBTQ community, the cancel culture, society's recent tendency to rush to judgment and the ugly, brutal cynicism that seems to preoccupy modern politicking.
In exploring all of this, we greatly understood that words matter. That what anyone says or writes or tweets, even if offhand or cavalier, has impact.
We sincerely wish that Grant had been more cognizant of this truth and had been more circumspect in her language and her surprising openness to someone whom she had never met who identified himself as a potential donor.
But facts matter, too.
And the more we examined this episode, the less we could make the facts we heard mesh with the narrative Grant's detractors are trying to weave.
Those critics brand Grant, a one-term incumbent in the 42nd District, with the epithets "homophobic" and "racist" on the basis of two phrases in her 25-minute conversation. In one, she complains that her Democratic opponent -- Ken Mejia-Beal, who is Black and gay and lives in the suburban DuPage County legislative district -- is "just another one of the Cook County people, another Black Caucus." In another, she says he won't campaign in the heart of the district "not because he's Black but because of the way he talks, he's all LGBTQ."
The Democrats did not immediately make the full recording of the three-week-old conversation available, so our first option was to call Grant back for an in-depth meeting with the editorial board to explain her comments. She agreed and openly acknowledged that her statements had been "clumsy" and "insensitive." She insisted, though, that they did not reflect her true positions on race or sexuality issues, and she said a full hearing of the conversation would provide important context missing from the simple phrases that had been released.
We were able a few days later to get that full hearing, after a copy of the recording was provided to Republicans.
We agreed completely that some of the comments Grant made were clumsy and insensitive, but in the full context of the conversation, it also seems clear her statements were not about race or sexuality as much as about politics. The Black Caucus reference is slightly ambiguous but follows from a line of discussion about her fears of support in the House for Mike Madigan, an issue she repeatedly tries to steer the discussion toward. Her remarks on "the way he talks" appear to refer not to Mejia-Beal personally but to how he campaigns. The LGBTQ line is not the end of a sentence, but is the first sentence in reference to a group of issues she says her opponent is promoting. Elsewhere during the call, her tone is unquestionably respectful and measured, even as it becomes increasingly evident that she is being enticed, goaded even, to say something offensive.
The call did give us pause. We acknowledge that Grant is generally more conservative on political and especially social issues than our board, and her statements reinforce that impression. We were, indeed, more concerned about careless statements she made regarding rape and incest related to abortion than about the two points that Democrats had cited.
But we also have always emphasized that our endorsements are based less on philosophical dogma than on potential for collaborative governing. In this case, we came to believe that it was much more likely that Grant's references were poorly phrased but benign than that they represented prejudice. Rescinding this endorsement under these circumstances, we felt, would be based on the deliberate misrepresentation of a candidate's positions and, further, could serve to encourage the underhanded tactics that had been used. In many ways in today's political environment, taking back our endorsement would be the easy thing for us to do. But, we decided, it would not be the right thing to do.
Grant's experience does remind all of us, whatever our station in life, that words have power and careless use of them, even in off-handed situations, can have powerfully bad consequences. For the moment and given what we know today, we have decided to let our judgment of her campaign rest on that lesson.