House Speaker Ray Merrick is facing a backlash over a comment he made that many people think was aimed at teachers, but Merrick claims was in reference to the Revolutionary War.
Merrick, R-Stilwell, and Senate President Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, fielded questions from reporters Thursday about the prospect of allowing visitors to carry concealed handguns at the statehouse, a policy that will go into effect in July.
“I’m uncomfortable with people being here for other reasons,” Merrick said in response to a question about the possibility that allowing concealed weapons might make some visitors uncomfortable. “A lot of red shirts in here that I’m uncomfortable with,” he said.
Teachers from the Kansas National Education Association wore red shirts as they packed the Capitol in April to protest a bill that eliminated mandatory hearings before a public school teacher can be fired. After several days of debate the bill passed the House by a single vote, as teachers wearing red filled the gallery.
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After the comment was reported by the Lawrence Journal-World, Merrick faced a backlash online. Teachers took to Twitter to express their anger at the comment, which seemed to imply that protesting teachers posed a danger, and the story was picked up by the liberal blog the Daily Kos.
Merrick’s office has attempted to quell the outrage. Rachel Whitten, Merrick’s spokeswoman, said in an e-mail Friday morning that the comment was in reference to the Revolutionary War.
“It was a term of art that Ray used flippantly in reference to the British army during the Revolutionary War about being able to protect yourself and knowing who your enemy is,” Whitten said.
British soldiers during the Revolution were referred to as Redcoats rather than Red Shirts. In a subsequent phone conversation, Whitten said Merrick misspoke.
“He misspoke,” she said. “When we walked back to the (House) chamber, he said, ‘They’re going to think I meant teachers but I was talking about the Revolutionary War.’ ”
Whitten also pointed out that lawmakers were allowed to carry guns before the new policy. She said that Merrick’s comments were about making sure that Kansans had that same protection.
Mark Desetti, the KNEA’s legislative director, called the remark offensive and said that the claim that it was aimed at the British Army after months of heated debate on education policy was impossible to believe.
“That is so patently absurd with the context of what’s been going on in this state that it defies any common sense,” Desetti said in a phone call.
Desetti promised that red shirts would continue to follow Merrick on the campaign trail this summer and fall.
“This is clearly a statement about people who exercise their rights as citizens are not appreciated if their beliefs are counter to Ray’s,” Desetti said. “There’s this idea around the state anymore that dissenting viewpoints are not allowed, that you have to march lockstep with the administration and with the conservative Republican block or you will be marginalized.”