RICHMOND, Va. – The billionaire co-founder of Black Entertainment Television apologized Monday for pretending to stutter at a campaign event as she mimicked the Democratic candidate for governor.
BET co-founder Sheila Johnson, for years a major donor to President Barack Obama, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine and other Democrats, stunned Virginia political observers in July by endorsing Republican Bob McDonnell in the governor’s race.
He is running against Democrat Creigh Deeds to replace Kaine, who is barred by state law from running for a second straight term.
Virginia and New Jersey are the only states electing governors this fall, making the races an early barometer for next year’s congressional contests.
In a YouTube video posted by Democratic blogger Ben Tribbett from a Sept. 25 McDonnell reception, Johnson tells a small crowd that Virginia needs a governor “who can really communicate, and Bob McDonnell can communicate.”
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“The other people I talk to, especially his op-op-op-o-opponent, di-di-did this all through my interview with him,” she said to muted laughter. Then she added, “He could not articulate what needed to be done.”
In a statement e-mailed to The Associated Press, Johnson said she sought to highlight Creigh Deeds’ inability to “clearly communicate effective solutions” on important issues.
“I shouldn’t have done it in the manner in which I did and for that I apologize for any offense he, or others, may have taken,” Johnson said.
Deeds, a state senator from Bath County, occasionally hesitates and stumbles over words in ordinary conversation, speeches and media interviews. He sometimes jokes about his unpolished speaking style.
Deeds was campaigning Monday with U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va., and was not immediately available for comment. Senior campaign adviser Mo Elleithee said Deeds never thought the problem warranted speech therapy.
“Creigh is the first to tell you he’s not the smoothest talker, but when he says something, you know it’s personal and it’s honest,” Elleithee said.
Advocates for people with speech problems were outraged at Johnson’s characterization of Deeds.
“It’s never acceptable to mock stuttering any more than it would be to laugh at someone in a wheelchair,” said Jane Fraser, president of the Memphis, Tenn.-based Stuttering Foundation of America.
Dr. Ronald Webster, founder and president of the Hollins Communications Research Institute in Roanoke, Va., said stutterers are used to such jokes.
“What Ms. Johnson did was pretty much what a lot of people who are not mean or nasty or hostile do almost by accident. It’s primarily due to a lack of knowledge about stuttering,” he said.
Both national parties are pouring millions of dollars into this year’s two contests for governor, particularly in Virginia, a 2008 battleground where Obama became the first Democrat to carry the state in a presidential race in 44 years.
The Democratic National Committee, headed by Kaine, put another $1 million behind Deeds over the weekend in addition to $5 million already pledged to the Virginia governor’s race and to Democrats in two other statewide and legislative races.
In a contest grown markedly meaner and more personal in recent weeks, candidates for governor and their proxies can attack with impunity on policy issues, but turning a speech impediment into a punch line appears cruel and risks the wrath of voters, said Mark Rozell, a George Mason University political science professor.
“She would have been fine if she noted the fact that (Deeds) had not made a good case for his transportation proposals and left it at that, but making fun of his way of speaking, that’s way out of line,” Rozell said.