By Kent Larsen
LDS Councilman's Racial Jokes Cause Nampa ID Controversy
NAMPA, IDAHO -- An LDS city councilman's racial jokes told at a
public luncheon caused a storm of controversy last week after a
reporter questioned the remarks in a local newspaper column. Nampa
City Councilman and local businessman Martin Thorne told the jokes
from behind a black-face mask as part of a long-running, friendly
exchange of gibes with local black rodeo clown Leon Coffee, who
Thorne was introducing at the Miss Rodeo Luncheon before the Snake
River Stampede rodeo.
The controversy erupted after Idaho Press-Tribune reporter Nathaniel
Hoffman covered the Luncheon, attended by the 19-year-old Miss Rodeo
contestants and "a room full of white faces," according to Hoffman's
report. Thorne introduced Coffee at the luncheon with a a series of
jokes about watermelons, eating fried chicken and sexual potency,
shocking Hoffman, a rookie reporter covering his first rodeo.
The reporter wrote in his column that he was surprised later when he
talked with Coffee about the jokes and discovered that Coffee wasn't
bothered by them. Coffee said that his racial bickering with Thorne
is funny for both prejudiced and nonprejudiced people, and claimed
"I'm killing it by laughing at it." Coffee later added that in
response he tells jokes about Thorne's LDS religion.
Local news reports say that Coffee is a Nampa institution, a 20-year
resident who, after Thorne's introduction, "gave a wonderfully warm
speech for which he received a standing ovation," according to
Hoffman. Both Coffee and Thorne say that they have been joking in
this way for nearly two decades. Coffee's rodeo clown act also
involves racial banter between him and two rodeo announcers.
But Hoffman said in his July 21st column that the incident still
bothered him. "Joking about sexual dysfunction and coercing the only
black man in the vicinity to dance with a woman in a chicken suit in
front of 19-year-old Miss Rodeo Idaho contestants strike me as
strange attitudes to pass on to our children."
After Hoffman's column appeared, the Idaho Press-Tribune received
many letters on the remarks expressing anger and discomfort over
Thorne's remarks. In response, Thorne apologized for the remarks, "If
it was uncomfortable for the community, then an apology is
necessary," he said. "I guess I was out of order, and I apologize for
that. There was no malice. I never intended to offend anyone." Thorne
notes that he and Coffee are still great friends, and that Coffee
once gave him a signed Stampede poster with the words, "To Martin:
The blackest white guy I've ever known." "That's a compliment,"
Meanwhile, Stampede officials claim that the rodeo has gotten better
over the years, and that Coffee's race has always been part of his
clown act, "Way back when, people accepted that type of joking, but
now we've grown above that," said rodeo board member Steve Tester,
speaking for himself and not the board. "We've matured as a
community. We are trying to get away from racial jokes."
But Stampede publicist Jimmie Hurley said that the joking between
Thorne and Coffee was between them, and not a Stampede issue. He says
that the reporter has made an issue out of nothing, "I just think
it's unfortunate when someone isn't familiar with this town's
relationship with Leon and takes offense when Leon doesn't take
offense. It's making something out of nothing."
Nampa official sorry for racial jokes
Boise ID Statesman (AP) 28Jul01 T2
The Associated Press
Thorne apologizes for Coffee jokes
Nampa ID Press-Tribune 27Jul01 T2
By Kristin Rodine: Idaho Press-Tribune
Black humor surprises Stampede
Nampa ID Press-Tribune 21Jul01 T2
By Nathaniel Hoffman: Idaho Press-Tribune