As an Oregon senator weathers near-universal criticism for a press release he sent last week, House Speaker Tina Kotek wants to spread the blame further.
Kotek told reporters Monday that state Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, should apologize for his statement that high tobacco taxes caused the death of Eric Garner. Garner is the black man who was killed by New York City police in 2014 after being stopped for selling individual cigarettes.
But Kotek also noted Linthicum’s position isn’t new.
“I don’t think you all realize: This talking point about Eric Garner is a talking point from the tobacco industry,” she said. “This didn’t come out of nowhere. People can say it’s a bunch of conservative bloggers, but this particular topic has been used in other states and other places to talk about why we should be fighting an increase in tobacco taxes."
The Legislature is poised this year to debate a $2 per pack tax increase on cigarettes, a change that would bring the state more in line with California and Washington. The proposal is a key part of Gov. Kate Brown's plan to fill a funding gap in Oregon's Medicaid system for the next six years.
The proposal has yet to get a substantive hearing, and its likelihood of passage isn't clear. That didn't stop Linthicum from issuing a news release Feb. 7, accusing Democrats of "ramming their tobacco tax… through the Legislature."
“Eric Garner’s death shows us exactly how disproportionate and abusive state power can become,” the senator is quoted as saying in the release.
The argument is not a new one. Since Garner’s death, some conservatives have argued New York’s high tobacco taxes, and the resulting black market, were to blame. Like Linthicum, they point out that Garner’s wife has said he was targeted because he was breaking a law and not for racial reasons.
Kotek argues that it’s not just conservative outlets making that case.
“I don’t think you should give a pass to the tobacco lobby,” she said Monday.
Since Linthicum's press release, lawmakers from all corners of the Capitol have condemned it. House Republicans called the statement "unsavory and offensive," and two-dozen House Democrats sent a letter to Linthicum last week requesting an apology.
In the Senate, top leaders from both parties issued statements Friday evening decrying the press release. Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger, Jr., R-Grants Pass, and Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, even apologized “for any additional pain and suffering” the statement caused.
Kotek told reporters Monday that she agreed Linthicum should apologize for his remarks. And she repeated a sentiment voiced by state Rep. Teresa Alonso Léon, D-Woodburn, earlier in the day in remarks on the House floor: that Linthicum should follow any apology with action.
“Apologizing for something you’ve done makes sense, but is there a learned moment here that he might then want to support something else that could make up for that?” Kotek said. “We all learn in this process. Hopefully he’s learning from this discussion.”
Linthicum has stood by his release, and called pushback from lawmakers an "attempt to shut down an honest conversation about the disastrous impacts of flawed public policy."
Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly reported when House Speaker Tina Kotek made her first public comment on the press release. OPB regrets the error.