SEVIER COUNTY, Tenn. — Warning: The following story contains language that some readers may find offensive.
A longtime Tennessee county commissioner is experiencing blowback from the public, as well as county, city and tourism officials, after he ranted against the Democratic Party Monday night -- saying, in part, that a “queer” running for president is “about as ugly as you can get.”
Warren Hurst, who the Mountain Press in Sevierville reported has been a member of the Sevier County Commission for more than 36 years, made the inflammatory comments during a commission meeting. According to WVLT in Knoxville, which caught the episode on video, the topic of the meeting was the commission's pending vote on whether to become a gun sanctuary city.
After Hurst veered far off topic in what many observers have described as homophobic and racist ranting, dozens of people took to social media to call for a boycott of Sevier County and its many tourist attractions, which include the Great Smoky Mountain Park, Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, and the sights and outdoor attractions in Gatlinburg.
Dollywood is the Appalachian-themed park created by country music icon Dolly Parton.
Tami Winterton, of Franklin, Tennessee, told WVLT her family canceled its fall vacation to Pigeon Forge because of Hurst's outburst and the reaction in the commission meeting room.
"My family has interracial marriage. One family member is a lesbian. How could we all travel to Pigeon Forge to attend Thanksgiving with such hate for our family members?" Winterton told the news station.
Todd E. Scott, who lists his location as Minneapolis and Charlotte, North Carolina, tweeted, "No more vacations, stopping for gas or a bite to eat in @SevierCounty until Warren Hurst resigns."
James Yoakley, a Tennessee teacher and LGBTQ student advocate, tweeted that he knows “a lot of people who spend a lot of money” in Sevier County.
"Until Hurst resigns, we will not spend another penny in this county," Yoakley wrote. "This includes renewing @Dollywood passes or visiting @Ripleys attractions."
Ripley’s Believe It or Not has eight attractions in Gatlinburg, including its 85,000-square-foot Aquarium of the Smokies.
‘We got a queer running for president of this country’
Hurst, a toothpick jutting from his mouth, told people in the audience: "It's time, folks, that we wake up. It's been time. It's past time," according to WVLT's video.
As some members of the crowd waved tiny American flags, Hurst voiced his opinion about the Democratic field for the upcoming 2020 presidential election -- specifically South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who, if elected, would be the nation’s first openly gay president.
"We got a queer running for president of this country, if that ain't about as ugly as you can get," Hurst said.
Some of the 25 county commissioners, who are all white and, all but one, male, could be seen laughing openly. Many audience members clapped and cheered, and there were a few shouts of “Amen.”
Watch Hurst’s entire speech below. Warning: The video contains language some viewers may find offensive.
One woman, identified as Sara Thompson, chair of the Sevier County Democrats, stood up and shouted, “Excuse me!”
As Hurst’s rant continued, Thompson stormed out.
"This is not professional. This is (expletive)," Thompson said as she left.
Thompson told WVLT after the meeting that she was angered by Hurst's homophobic comments.
"I was actually incensed. I think that was a very demeaning and nasty thing to even talk about," Thompson said.
She said Hurst’s outburst should be a reminder to county commissioners about who they are supposed to serve.
"They're elected to represent everyone in Sevier County, even those who don't love, look or vote like they do," Thompson told the news station.
Hurst’s diatribe, which ran for several minutes, didn’t stop with Buttigieg. He insulted the entire slate of Democratic presidential candidates.
"Look what we got running for president in the Democratic Party. We can go over here in (Sevier County Sheriff) Hoss' jail and get better people out of there than those running for the Democratic president of the United States," Hurst said to laughter from the crowd. "There ain't personal morals in this country anymore."
Hurst railed against liberals, appearing to argue that despite Democratic attempts to establish sanctuary cities for immigrants across the country, liberal Americans aren’t against killing. He ventured momentarily onto abortion.
"They don't want you to protect yourself and your home," he said. "But now, they'll kill babies. Oh, they'll kill babies just as fast as they can get them."
‘Thugs from other countries’
Hurst at one point brought up the immigration stance of President Donald Trump, who in his 2015 speech announcing his candidacy, said Mexico wasn't "sending their best" when immigrants come into the United States. Trump called Mexican immigrants criminals and rapists before stating that "some, I assume, are good people."
"We're letting people come in here -- you can hate Trump or like him, it doesn't make no difference -- but now when he tells you they're only sending their thugs and a few of the good ones may be following, he's telling you the truth," Hurst said Monday.
The commissioner claimed the U.S. is “being run by these thugs from other countries” and indicated some are running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
He then appeared to refer to former President Barack Obama, the country’s first black president, as a thug.
"We just got rid of one … one president like that," he said.
Hurst’s comments moved on to the state of rights for white men.
“I’m not prejudiced, but by golly, a white male in this country has very few rights, and they’re getting took more every day,” he said.
Hurst said the Democratic candidates do not stand up for white men.
“Now you’ll hear them stand on the stage and say, ‘Oh, I’m for the poor and the black and the whatever.’ But you’ll never heard one of them say, ‘I believe white people have rights, too.’”
Hurst pondered the future of the country in the video.
"I've got two young grandkids. I hate to think what they're gonna face in this country if we keep being run by these liberals," he said. "By golly, they're gonna be told what time to go to bed and what time to get up and what they can do and what they can say.
“Russia and Cuba won’t be nothing compared to what our grandkids are gonna see if they live to be our age in this country.”
No one on the 25-person commission spoke out, either in favor of, or opposition to, Hurst's words at the meeting, the Mountain Press reported. The gun resolution, which states that the county supports the Second Amendment and is against laws giving police the ability to confiscate guns from people who are deemed an immediate threat to themselves or other people, passed unanimously, the newspaper said.
Hurst's rant drew immediate condemnation from within the Tennessee community and beyond as WVLT's footage went viral.
The response was also swift from officials in Sevier County, which the Knoxville News Sentinel described as the gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Hurst's fellow commissioner, Greg Haggard, told the news station after the meeting that Hurst did not speak for the rest of the commission.
A tweet Tuesday morning on the Sevier County government's official Twitter account disavowed Hurst's comments with a statement that was later added to the homepage of the county's website.
"The statements made by Commissioner Hurst at the Sevier County Commission meeting of October 21, 2019, do not reflect the opinion or position of Sevier County administration," the statement read. "Sevier County is an Equal Opportunity Employer and does not discriminate based on race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, or status in any other group protected by law."
Sevier County Mayor Larry Waters, who just hit 41 years in office, also condemned Hurst’s rant.
“Commissioner Hurst’s comments were his and his alone and I disapprove of those comments. They do not reflect my beliefs or opinions,” Waters wrote on Twitter. “I have lived in Sevier County my whole life and know it as a place that is welcoming to everyone, as evidenced by the more than 12 million people who visit annually.
“Generations of families have enjoyed our beautiful county and know that our citizens are caring and compassionate.”
Officials with the city of Sevierville, which touts itself as Dolly Parton’s hometown, also spoke out, calling Hurst’s comments “offensive.”
"The City of Sevierville Board of Mayor and Aldermen and city administration reject bigotry and prejudice towards any and all persons. As such, we strongly condemn the remarks of Commissioner Hurst," the statement posted on the city government's Facebook page read. "Mr. Hurst's remarks do not reflect the feelings of our residents, who are friendly, caring people and neighbors. The City of Sevierville and the entire Smoky Mountain community is a welcoming place for the millions that visit our region and the thousands who live here."
Earlene Teaster, city manager for Pigeon Forge, called Hurst's remarks "disturbing," the News Sentinel reported, and Dollywood spokesman Pete Owens told the newspaper Hurst's comments "do not reflect the Dollywood experience in any way.
“Dollywood is open and welcoming to everyone, every day,” Owens said.
State Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, agreed. She told the News Sentinel Hurst's comments were "embarrassing" and "horrific," and castigated those who laughed and "mocked" while he uttered them.
“We would hope that Tennesseans would be better than that. And folks in Sevier County, who rely on tourist dollars -- it’s that sort of thing that's going to chase people away from their county,” Johnson said.
Some Tennessee residents wrote on Twitter that local public officials’ response to the controversy was weak.
"Both the City of Sevierville and Sevier County have 'denounced' his comments, but quite clearly, he felt comfortable expressing himself in that forum," Kenny Faught, of Knoxville, tweeted.
Cory Johnson, of Kirkland, Washington, responded that the “laughs and cheers from the crowd speak volumes.”
There have been calls for Hurst to resign and on Twitter, Johnson pointed her followers to a protest planned for the Nov. 18 county commission meeting. The protest, titled "Wear Red Against Racism and Homophobia, is being planned by the Tennessee Equality Project.
“He should apologize and, yes, he should consider resigning,” a representative of the organization said in a statement to WVLT. “If there were some weird extenuating circumstances like he was having a medical issue, but right now it just looks like he made those remarks.”
Hurst told WVLT over the phone following the meeting that he is entitled to his opinion. He also claimed that "some of his best friends" are black, the news station said.
Barry and Bryan Payne wrote on Twitter that they plan to attend the protest next month.
“We live in Sevierville, and we are a same-sex married couple who love our hometown and our diverse community,” the tweet read. “We are coming in protest to his remarks. He does not represent us or our county.”
Taylor Futch, of Gatlingburg, told the couple his family stands with them.
“I am so sorry you both are having to hear and see this garbage,” Futch wrote.
“It does hurt, some,” the couple responded. “It hurts more that, due to his ignorance, so many people have voiced their opinion on our town when there's more love and acceptance here than there is hate and intolerance.
“The fires didn’t take us out. Hurst sure as hell won’t either.”
Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project, echoed Johnson's call for Hurst's resignation, The Washington Post reported. He said the only other option would be for the commission to use inclusive ordinances to strengthen protections against discrimination based on race, gender identity and sexual orientation.
"There may be ways for him to make up for what he said, but they have to be concrete. We're beyond an apology at this point," Sanders told the Post. "We need to see some real change backed up by public policy in that county."
Cox Media Group