Topeka Kansas House Speaker Ray Merrick's comment about people wearing red shirts in the Statehouse is stirring a backlash from Democratic leaders and teachers representatives who said Friday that they're not buying his explanation.
“His comments are unacceptable and his spokesperson’s attempt to downplay them is pathetic,” said Senate Democratic Leader Anthony Hensley, of Topeka.
“I think my reaction would be, 'Poppycock,'” echoed Mark Desetti, lobbyist for the Kansas National Education Association, the state's largest teachers union.
Merrick made the comment Thursday in response to a reporter's question about allowing people with concealed-carry permits to bring weapons into the Statehouse.
When asked by a Wichita Eagle reporter whether that might make other visitors to the Capitol uncomfortable, Merrick replied: “I'm uncomfortable with people being here for other reasons. There are a lot of red shirts around here.”
In April, during the final days of the 2014 session, scores of teachers converged on the Statehouse, with many wearing red T-shirts, hoping to block passage of a bill stripping them of tenure rights. That provision was part of a larger school finance and education policy bill that was strongly supported by Republican leaders and that narrowly passed both chambers.
But hours after the Journal-World posted a story about his comment online, Merrick's spokeswoman called the newspaper to say his “red shirts” remark was not a reference to teachers but to British soldiers, known as "Redcoats," during the Revolutionary War.
“It's a term of art, a saying,” said spokeswoman Rachel Whitten. “I think it can be boiled down to the fact that we should have our ability to protect ourselves.”
“That's just patently absurd,” Desetti said. “With everything that's been going on since April, or even since last year, if anybody thinks he made a mistake, I don't know what they're on. They're crazy.”
Both Desetti and Hensley recalled that when the bill passed the House on April 6, with the bare minimum 63 yes votes needed for passage, Merrick appeared to be gloating over the victory.
“Speaker Merrick walked through a group of teachers in ‘red shirts’ holding up his phone playing the Marines Hymn as if it was some sort of tactical victory to be celebrated,” Hensley said. “He has little respect for teachers and I find it hard to believe that he simply ‘misspoke.’”
But Whitten said that incident was also being taken out of context.
“It was his ringtone; it goes off all the time,” Whitten said in an email statement. “This is an unfortunate misunderstanding that has been made into a political game.”