An Oregon state senator blamed the death of a black man choked by police officers in New York City on high tobacco taxes Thursday in an effort to convince his fellow lawmakers not to increase cigarette taxes.

Eric Garner died in July 2014 after a New York City police officer wrestled him to the ground and choked him. Garner was selling individual cigarettes on a Staten Island sidewalk when he was killed.

In an emailed press release titled, “I can’t breathe: Tax hikes might be a death sentences,” Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, is quoted as saying the “partisan majority is ramming their tobacco tax hikes — and billions in other tax hikes — through the Legislature.”

“Eric Garner’s death shows us exactly how disproportionate and abusive state power can become,” the press release reads, saying the root cause of Garner’s death was tobacco taxes.

“New York tobacco taxes were so high it created a black market. It created violence that led to a situation that led to Eric Garner being killed,” said Jonathan Lockwood, a spokesman for the senator.

Oregon state Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, sits on the Senate floor at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Oregon state Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, sits on the Senate floor at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

Lockwood is a well-known and divisive figure in the statehouse who is known for his incendiary press releases and tweets. He worked briefly for Republican gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler in 2018 but left the campaign early in the GOP primary campaign. And it was his tweet criticizing Democrats for taking campaign donations from Harvey Weinstein that prompted state Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, to come forward with allegations of sexual harassment against then-Sen. Jeff Kruse. Kruse later resigned from the Legislature.

Lockwood’s party isn’t sticking behind him on this one.

When OPB called the House Republican caucus to get their thoughts, they already had a response written.

“We are prepared, because it’s horrific,” said Greg Stiles, a spokesman for the House Republican Office.

“No purpose is served in relating a cigarette tax request to the tragic death of a man of color,” their official statement reads. “At best, the remarks are unsavory and offensive. Such a comparison is indefensible and has no place in Oregon political discourse.”

Lockwood said he stands by his press release, adding “everything in the press release is backed up by studies and reports.” 

House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, told her fellow lawmakers on the House floor on Thursday that she wanted to publicly register her disgust.

“The invocation of Eric Garner’s tragic death for a press release on taxes is completely abhorrent. Unequivocally, Eric Garner did not die because tobacco taxes are too high in New York,” Williamson wrote in an email later. “He died because law enforcement officials engaged in an act of brutality against a black man and then watched him die on a sidewalk as a direct result of their actions. His death has shown a light on the lack of accountability many in our society face and on the systematic racism that plagues our institutions. This press release is a low point. I think Sen. Linthicum owes everyone an apology and explanation.”

Gov. Kate Brown is backing a proposal to raise the state tax on cigarettes from $1.33 to $2 per pack. That would put Oregon much closer to California and Washington, which taxes cigarettes at about $3.50 a pack.

Garner’s wife has said publicly she believed her husband was targeted because he was breaking local laws by selling loose cigarettes and not because he was a person of color. That’s become a frequent argument made by some conservatives, including Rush Limbaugh and U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, against tobacco tax increases.