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Vt. Rep. Knocked For Race Talk

Montpelier — A Vermont lawmaker is coming under fire from some of his colleagues for comments that some of them deemed racially insensitive.

Rep. Douglas Gage, a Rutland Republican, speaking during floor debate Thursday on a measure to expand police training against racial profiling, told his colleagues of a conversation he had had with a neighbor “of color” who came to him with a complaint.

“The complaint was that other people in the Rutland area of color he wished would go back home,” Gage said. “He was upset with them. He said many of them were drug dealers. This is his words, not mine. He said they’re couch surfers. They lived with, he used the word ‘white girls.’ Many of them are drug dealers. ‘They are giving me a bad reputation.’ This was his complaint to me.”

Gage, who told his fellow lawmakers the man had lived in his neighborhood “for 30-35 years, most of his entire life,” said in a later interview he could not remember the man’s name.

During the debate, supporters of the bill said Vermont needed to address a disparity in which half of 1 percent of its population is made up of African-American men, while that group makes up 13 percent of its prison population.

Gage said that “many of people of color have moved into our area, and many other people going door to door have echoed his concerns,” he said, referring to the neighbor. “So it does not surprise me that we have a higher number of people percentage-wise who may be in our jails.”

He also went on to say that he taught at the Marble Valley Correctional Facility in Rutland — he later said he led a Bible-study group on a volunteer basis — and that he had met black inmates at the prison.

“Many of these gentlemen are my friends. ... I probably have a higher percentage of friends who, friends of color than most people in Vermont, just because in my work, I come in contact with them,” said Gage, 54.

Gage concluded his remarks by paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr., that people should “not judge a man by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character.”

Gage ended up voting for the bill in a House roll call. But some of his colleagues expressed shock at his comments.

“To raise those kinds of insulting, generalizing remarks about a group of people on the House floor is something I hope we don’t make a habit of doing,” said Rep. Kesha Ram, a Burlington Democrat who is of South Asian descent.

Rep. Kate Webb, the Democratic majority whip who represents Shelburne, said, “It was embarrassing to hear someone say that with an incredible lack of awareness of how that is presented. I’m sure that, in his heart, that some of what he believed was in support of people of color. It just kind of felt like it was the 1950s or something, that we’d gone back in time.”

In an interview after he spoke on the floor, Gage defended his comments. “For them to say this is a prejudice-type issue,” he said of his colleagues, “I just don’t follow that.”

The lone black member of the House, Democratic Rep. Kevin Christie of Hartford, was more measured in his reaction to Gage’s comments.

“People are going to have their perceptions. I don’t necessarily agree with any of them, but we do have to kind of peacefully coexist,” Christie said. “It’s some of the old biases that exist that are frustrating. You’d think we were beyond some of these conventions, let’s say. But we’re not.”