Illinois Guv Appeals for Racial Calm After Hate Panel Controversy

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich said Thursday that the furor over his hate crimes commission has revealed simmering tensions and that people need to calm down and find common ground.

Five Jewish members of the commission have resigned rather than serve with Sister Claudette Marie Muhammad, chief of protocol for Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

Opponents of the appointment argue Muhammad should repudiate Farrakhan's record of harshly criticizing Jews, gays and other groups. Muhammad says she's devoted to fairness for all.

The governor said he has begun contacting black, Jewish and gay leaders to see if they will "begin meaningful dialogue."

But that dialogue won't focus on the dispute over Muhammad, Blagojevich said during an appearance in Bolingbrook. Rather, he said, the target is deeper divisions that have been revealed.

"What we need to do here is ask people to cool their passions, reduce their tempers and try to bring people together to find understanding and try to reach common ground," Blagojevich said.

Reaction to his comments was mixed.

"It's about time," said commission member Rick Garcia, political director for the gay rights group Equality Illinois. "It's completely out of control and someone needs to exert some leadership."

Others said Blagojevich is not addressing the real problem.

"This has nothing to do with the core issues of the controversy surrounding the governor's commission, and focusing on it in this way distracts from what that is really all about," said Michael Kotzin, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.

Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff would not say whether the governor has asked anyone to fill the vacant positions on the commission.

Ira Youdovin, executive vice president of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, said his group sent a statement to 200 members last week asking them not to serve on the commission.

"They need to come back or shut up," Leonard Muhammad said.

Claudette Muhammad urged her critics to leave her alone.

"For those who try to condemn me because of the honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan's remarks," she said, "it's ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous."

Claudette Muhammad said she and her family have been victims of hate crimes and discrimination, and that she has Jewish family members, has traveled to Israel and has worshipped in synagogues.

"Please know I am not the victimizer here, OK, but instead I am the victim," she said. She refused to repudiate Farrakhan and recommended that people who disagree with him, speak with him.

Three Jewish commission members resigned, saying her support for Farrakhan contradicts the panel's goals. They called on her to repudiate Farrakhan's remarks. A state lawmaker whom Blagojevich appointed to fill one of the vacancies also resigned.

Former member Richard Hirschhaut said the commission is compromised and likely will need a complete overhaul to re-establish its credibility.

"I have no intention of returning to the commission until it is cleansed of the stain and stench of bigotry caused by Sister Claudette's continued presence," said Hirschhaut, executive director of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.

The Democratic governor said Monday that Claudette Muhammad is not responsible for any racist remarks Farrakhan has made. He has said he didn't realize he had appointed a Nation of Islam official until learning about it from news reports.