This story was updated at 5:13 p.m. to include a statement from Don Zimmerman’s office.
There are times when we in the news media take what a politician says and run with it.
When I saw the headline to the American-Statesman’s online story: “Zimmerman to largely Hispanic group of kids ‘Do something useful'” I certainly thought that was the case. In this day and age, social media outcry is too often too quick to cry wolf on what a certain politician or public figure (usually one the poster doesn’t agree with) said or meant to say. News outlets, urged by lots of “social media traffic” often pick up on stories that they should actually pass on and do more harm than good to the discourse around heated issues.
Zimmerman, one of the few Republicans on Austin’s City Council, has made a name for himself on the council as a watchdog for taxpayer dollars and espouses socially conservative views that vary widely from the image of Austin as an open and progressive city on social issues. Last year, Zimmerman sparked controversy with Facebook comments asking how those in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage could turn around and justify not allowing pedophiles to marry children.
In short, he’s become a person that many people in Austin do not agree with and do not necessarily like.
So when I first saw the headline, I thought folks might be jumping all over Zimmerman and nitpicking what he said.
I was wrong.
In addressing a group of mostly Hispanic kids who had accompanied their parents to the City Council podium to advocate for more social equity in the city’s budget, Zimmerman said:
“I’d ask for everyone here, including the children, when you grow up, I want to ask you to pledge to finish school, learn a trade, a skilled trade, get a college education, start a business, do something useful and produce something in your society…”
Up until here, Zimmerman is arguably on solid ground. If you edit out the part about Latino kids “learning a trade,” which implies that they are not smart enough to pursue a college degree or be admitted into a university, Zimmerman’s speech is typical of a politician. The message is “get an education and do better for yourself than your folks could.” No major problem up until then, although he could have done without the “do something useful” part, which comes off as condescending. In fact, you might say his message was almost encouraging.
But then, we get to the heart of the problem. He followed that message with: “so you don’t have to live off others.”
The crowd reacted instantly, booing as Zimmerman tried to sign off with a “Thank you.”
I have so many questions for Zimmerman. Why did he make that comment? And, especially, why did he address it to the kids in the audience – presumably the most innocent people in the room?
Does he mean that Latinos in the city are “living off others”? Is he just making a general point about those he believes are “living off others”? Was he misunderstood? Does he wish he had made his point differently? Does he think it’s okay to say these things out loud? Does he feel any remorse for saying it?
Who knows? He hadn’t respond to my request for comment by Friday afternoon. But this was his response to KXAN:
“On behalf of those non-subsidized taxpayers being forced out of our city by legions of special interests, I apologize for the greed and selfishness of those willing to expand city government force, through the ‘political process’ to maintain and increase their own subsidies at the unaffordable expense of others.”
That does not sound like a man who was misunderstood or is sorry about what he said. Given a chance, Zimmerman doubled down on his comments.
The problems with Zimmerman’s comments abound: he’s making insulting comments toward kids, he’s generalizing about Latinos, he’s generalizing about people who turn to the government for assistance. As a freedom loving American I’m fine with people having different opinions, I encourage it. I especially love hearing from minorities in government, who often have different perspectives, so I always like to hear Zimmerman’s take on things.
But when you become a public official, the stakes change. People expect a certain decorum and demeanor of you. What you say and how you say it matters.
The other people on that dais Thursday understood that. Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria took issue with one of the points made by the advocates who brought the kids to the podium. They were asking for a freeze on the Austin Police Department’s budget, arguing that more police officers didn’t make the streets safer.
“When you’re talking about cutting the police budget, you know, District 1, District 3 and District 4 have the highest violent crime there is,” Renteria said. “So I hope you’re not saying you’re satisfied with that. … It’s very important that we have to support our police department.”
Some back and forth followed, which ultimately resulted with a group member telling Renteria: “Your people are here saying they don’t like you.” But Renteria responded that he wasn’t going to get in an argument with a member of the public. Decorum.
Sheri Gallo showed that same decorum when instead of wading into whether she agreed or disagreed with a group giving a public comment, she did as she always does when a large group of kids visits council chambers and asked them to raise their right hands and pledge to register to vote as soon as they turned 18.
Kathie Tovo expressed her thanks to the group, as did Greg Casar who told the families in Spanish how he hoped that one day one of their children would be filling his seat in council.
A clearly emotional Delia Garza later weighed in on the situation, fighting back tears:
“Earlier Council Member Zimmerman said something that was really offensive…I want our community to know that we do not condone what he said. And we have your back, not just the ones that are brown or black on this dais. There are other progressive members of this council that support you and understand your issues.”
As applause broke out in the council chambers, Zimmerman looked down at his desk and read his notes. He did not react or say anything in return.
Later that night and into Friday, he was skewered on social media. Gina Hinojosa, the Democratic candidate to replace Rep. Elliott Naishtat, tweeted that his comments were “unbelievable and completely offensive.”
Late Friday afternoon, Zimmerman’s office put out a statement characterizing his words as an “off-the-cuff comment following a long day of city business” that some City Council colleagues assumed had a racist motive. In the statement, Zimmerman said he would give the same advice to his own son and pointed to several other times when he had made similar statements to children at council meetings.
“If my comment was designed to humiliate our young guests yesterday evening, then that begs the question: why would I say that about my own newborn son, or even myself?”
Sometimes, a politician’s words are taken out of context and morphed into something they did not say. That was not the case with Zimmerman. In fact, with the additional context, his comments come off looking even worse because he followed Gallo’s enthusiastic call for civic engagement from the youngsters with an insult that was uncalled for.
Zimmerman meant what he said, he doubled down on it and he is unapologetic about it.