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Local GOP Leaders Ask S.C. State Senator to Resign Over 'Raghead' Remark

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- A South Carolina senator who referred to the Republican gubernatorial front-runner as a "raghead" was reprimanded Thursday by GOP leaders in his home county and asked to resign. 

The executive committee of the Lexington County Republican Party approved the symbolic resolution 26-7, after striking a clause to revoke his membership from the local party. 

The vote comes a week after GOP Sen. Jake Knotts' comments on fellow Lexington County Rep. Nikki Haley and President Barack Obama on an Internet political talk show. 

"We've got a raghead in Washington, we don't need a raghead in the Statehouse," Knotts said last Thursday on Pub Politics, a show cast as insider politics over beer. Knotts later apologized, saying the remarks were meant as a joke. 

The term is a derogatory reference to people of Middle Eastern or Indian descent. 

News coverage of Knotts' "racial epithets brought shame and disgrace upon himself, his office and his party. ... The Lexington County Republican Party condemns the racist statements," reads the resolution. 

Haley, whose parents immigrated from India, grew up in the Sikh faith but describes herself as Methodist. The gaffe did not hurt her at the polls, as she took a commanding lead in Tuesday's four-way primary with 49 percent of the vote, more than 27 percentage points ahead of No. 2, U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett, but not quite enough to win the outright nomination. They will meet in a runoff. 

Knotts, who did not attend, reiterated after the vote that he will not resign. 

"I don't care what they do. They can call for it all they want to. They can get on the mountaintop if they want to," Knotts said. "We were sitting in a setting sorta like Saturday Night Live, talking, cutting up. I said it. I realized what I said and immediately issued an apology." 

He added, "I'm truly, deeply sorry I used those words and there was no intention for them to be interpreted to be prejudice." 

Joshua Gross, a committeeman who offered the resolution, said the decision is Knotts'. 

"He has the right to not do the right thing," said Gross, who is spokesman for GOP lieutenant governor candidate Bill Connor. Like Haley, Connor is heading to a runoff on June 22. 

He was a consultant for Knotts' 2008 primary opponent, former county GOP chairwoman Katrina Shealy, who announced last Friday she would challenge him again in 2012. Knotts said the resolution "is nothing but pure, drag-out politics." But Gross said the move was unrelated to his campaign jobs. 

"We had to be responsible for our own," he said about the local party fued. "This needs to be about the power of ideas," not racial name-calling. 

Though Knotts and Haley are both Lexington County Republicans, their politics fall on different spectrums of the party. Knotts is a frequent critic of Haley's political mentor, term-limited Gov. Mark Sanford, and a longtime friend of Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who came in last in the gubernatorial primary contest. 

Committee member Mickey Lindler of Lake Murray said she's embarrassed by the party's vote. 

"If we have a meeting every time some elected official says something outside the little box we put them in, we'll meet every night of the month. We all say something off the cuff we all regret," she said, but added, "Would I have said what he said in public? No." 

Lexington County Chairman Rich Bolen issued a statement Saturday condemning Knotts' "off-hand comments" and specifying they don't represent the local party. Bolen said he thought the statement would be sufficient, but more than a dozen executive committee members asked for a special meeting. 

"It's a little sticky. We support the Bill of Rights and right to free speech, but on the other hand, there are consequences for what you do," Bolen said. "It's his right to speak what he thinks, and voters are better served knowing what he thinks." 

Some said it wasn't the county party's business to ask him to resign, since voters will have the chance to remove him again in two years. But Bolen's motion to remove that request was defeated 18-14. 

At a Springdale precinct in Lexington County on Tuesday, voters said the comments made them cringe. 

"I like Jake. But sometimes he just talks too much," said Lynette Hawley, a 72-year-old retired state worker, who voted for Bauer. 

Sara Perry, 63, said she too supports Knotts, "but everyone should stop and think before they talk." 

Curtis Hookes, a 53-year-old engineer, shrugged off the comments. "Aw, that don't bother me. That's Jake," said Hookes, who also voted for Bauer. 

But Lu Williams, a 59-year-old pharmacy technician, said she was appalled, calling Knotts "an embarrassment to South Carolina." She voted for Attorney General Henry McMaster, who came in third in the governor's race. 

In January, the county GOP's executive committee censured U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham on a 13-7 vote. Some complained the proposal was not on the agenda and came late in the meeting.