Topeka — State Rep. Connie O’Brien, R-Tonganoxie, on Wednesday issued an apology for comments she made about a woman when she said she could tell the woman wasn’t a citizen because of her “olive complexion.”
“After contemplating the statements I made in the Federal and State Affairs Committee meeting, I understand how they could have been misconstrued,” said O’Brien. “I misspoke and apologize to those I offended. I have learned from this situation and will be more careful with my choice of words in the future.”
In her statement, O’Brien continued to maintain that the woman was in the country illegally.
“The student in question did not have a driver’s license, government identification or any other form of documentation. From the situation, it was clear that the student was not a United States citizen. However, I should have been more precise in stating why it was clear that she was not a legal citizen,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien’s original statement had caused an uproar. The Kansas Democratic Party said her comments to the committee were racist.
The dispute was over testimony O’Brien gave last week to the House Federal and State Affairs Committee in support of a bill that would repeal in-state tuition for certain undocumented students.
O’Brien told the committee about an incident last year when she accompanied her son to enroll at Kansas City Kansas Community College.
A woman near them in line was requesting her scholarship money, but when the clerk asked for her photo identification, the woman said she had none, O’Brien said.
The woman then asked for someone else to help her, O’Brien said. O’Brien told the committee that the woman was going to get financial assistance, and her son, who was born and raised in Kansas, wasn’t.
“We didn’t ask the girl what nationality she was. We didn’t think that was proper, but we could tell by looking at her that she was not originally from this country,” O’Brien said.
Rep. Sean Gatewood, D-Topeka, had asked O’Brien how she could tell, and O’Brien replied, “She wasn’t black, she wasn’t Asian, and she had the olive complexion.” O’Brien said she had a son-in-law from Afghanistan, who had olive complexion, so the woman could have been from Afghanistan.
Another committee member, Rep. Mario Goico, R-Wichita, told O’Brien during the committee hearing that the woman O’Brien had been speaking about, if she was an undocumented student, could not have received any federal or state scholarship funds.
On Monday, Kenny Johnston, executive director of the Kansas Democratic Party, said O’Brien should apologize to the state’s minority student population for her “extremely inappropriate comments.” He added, “Apparently in Rep. O’Brien’s world, all students with ‘olive complexion’ should be banned from receiving financial aid.”
When asked to respond on Monday, O’Brien had said she wanted to think about it for a day or two. But she did say the Democrats were making a big deal out of nothing “like they did with Bill Otto.” Otto, a Republican state legislator from LeRoy, was criticized for making a video in 2009 in which he criticized President Obama in a “RedNeck Rap,” while wearing a hat that said “OPOSSUM the other Dark Meat.” Otto said he didn’t mean for his video to have any racial overtones.