WALLA WALLA — State Sen. Mike Hewitt said this morning that he has counseled a “staffer (who) lost his temper and made an inappropriate comment” about gays that launched a firestorm of criticism.
The brouhaha went viral after the Huffington Post reported the staffer in Hewitt’s Olympia office told a caller that “gay people can just grow their own food” if a bill allowing businesses to refuse to serve customers on religious beliefs passes.
Hewitt, a Walla Walla Republican, is a co-sponsor of the bill authored by Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick. He said the bill is currently undergoing revisions.
After the staffer’s comment was reported he called Hewitt and told him what had transpired.
“And we had a conversation about treating people appropriately when they call,” said Hewitt, who declined to identify the staffer.
Hewitt said the staffer is a father of an 8-year-old son and has been known for his compassion and work ethic.
“When you see him interact with the disability people, you would be totally impressed,” Hewitt said. “He is a very, very nice person.”
Hewitt, who did not return several calls from the Union-Bulletin on Tuesday when it reported the local furor the staffers comment ignited, said he was working in his yard and unable to hear his cell phone over the din of the lawn mower, and later in the day he’d left his phone in a jacket at the Walla Walla Fairgrounds.
The Senate bill in question as it has undergone various rounds of negotiations and is not where he wants it now, Hewitt said.
“I probably did not read the bill as well as I should have,” said.
The bill, written in response to a Richland florist’s refusal to sell flowers for a same-sex wedding, seeks to ensure the right of business owners to exercise their religious or philosophical beliefs when doing business. It was crafted in response to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit against the florist that contends the woman who owns the shop was discriminating against gays.
The committee working on the senate bill will ask Brown to redraft it with a narrower focus, according to Hewitt. With the legalization of same-sex marriage in the state, committee members foresaw a need to protect the rights of some businesses.
“These people have rights of their own,” Hewitt said. “We did not think this lady was supposed to be able to get sued.”
His own stand on gay marriage is “ambivalent,” Hewitt said. “When I am in a legislative situation, I could care less one way or the other. But I can tell you, the comments I am getting are thank you’s for supporting the silent minority. A lot of these people won’t speak up and say anything.”
A polling of voters in his district was more than 60 percent in favor of the Defense of Marriage Act, which granted recognition only to opposite-sex marriage, Hewitt said.
On Monday, the staffer’s comment prompted and outcry from Walla Walla tourism professionals, fearing it would damage the city’s reputation as a world-class wine destination cause a backlash of business and tourism boycotts.
Hewitt, however, said no one “is more supportive of tourism in Walla Walla than me,” adding that he owned a wholesale beer and wine company in town for 25 years. “I’ve been supportive of tourism since the ’70s.”
He also said he works with gay colleagues and has a number of gay acquaintances. But his outlook on individual rights and marriage remain traditional.
“I’m just an old-fashioned guy and I have strong beliefs,” he said.
Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8322.