Miami Republican Sen. Frank Artiles dropped the n-word to a pair of African-American colleagues in private conversation Monday night — after calling one of them a “fucking asshole,” a “bitch” and a “girl,” the two senators said.
Over drinks after 10 p.m. at the members-only Governors Club just steps from the state Capitol, Artiles told Sens. Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville and Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale that Senate President Joe Negron of Stuart had risen to his powerful GOP leadership role because “six niggers” in the Republican caucus had elected him.
Artiles later told Gibson and Thurston that he’d used the word “niggas,” suggesting the slang term was not meant to be insulting, Gibson and Thurston said. It’s unclear whom Artiles was referring to, since the only black senators in the state Senate are all Democrats — and none of them backed Negron’s bid to lead the chamber.
“He called Joe Negron a pussy,” Thurston said.
Artiles apologized to Gibson late Tuesday afternoon, after he’d been reported to Republican leaders and news reporters started asking questions.
“In an exchange with a colleague of mine in the Senate, I unfortunately let my temper get the best of me,” Artiles said in a statement. “There is no excuse for the exchange that occurred and I have apologized to my Senate colleagues and regret the incident profusely.”
By Tuesday night, the Florida Democratic Party had called on Artiles to resign. Negron, after initially saying little on the incident, said in a statement late Tuesday he was “appalled” by Artiles’ comments — and that Artiles will publicly apologize to Gibson on the Senate floor Wednesday.
“Racial slurs and profane, sexist insults have no place in conversation between Senators and will not be tolerated while I am serving as Senate President,” Negron said.
The Black Caucus has scheduled an emergency Wednesday meeting.
To Gibson and Thurston, it was clear Artiles wasn’t referring to them or to any other Democrats as “niggas” but apparently to six Republicans who favored Negron for the job over Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater.
The discussion began Monday night after Artiles approached Gibson at the Governors Club to suggest that a series of questions he’d asked of one of her bills earlier in the day were payback for questions she’d asked before of one of Artiles’ bills.
At one point, Artiles referred to Gibson as “this fucking asshole” and “this bitch,” Gibson said.
Gibson complained to Thurston, who had been talking to other people at Gibson’s table during the exchange. Thurston asked Artiles if he had in fact referred to Gibson in those terms. Artiles denied it, Thurston said — but urged by Thurston, apologized.
Then, someone else at the table — not an elected official — asked Artiles about another word he’d used in reference to Gibson: “girl.” Artiles said he meant no disrespect.
But when the conversation turned to Senate GOP leadership, Artiles used the n-word.
“He said, ‘If it wasn’t for these six niggers,’” Gibson said. By way of explanation, he added, “‘I’m from Hialeah,’” she said.
“I said, ‘OK, Perry, I’m done,’” Gibson said.
Gibson left the conversation to go to the restroom.
“I said, ‘Dude, did you say ‘niggers?’” Thurston recounted. “‘No, I said ‘niggas,’” which is different in his mind.” But not in Gibson’s and Thurston’s, they said.
Thurston urged Artiles to apologize to Gibson upon her return.
“Let’s kind of nip this in the bud,” Thurston said.
But Gibson was so upset she didn’t come back.
“I’m very respectful to this process. I’m very respectful to everyone,” Gibson said. “And the way he was characterizing the vote — it wasn’t nice.”
Thurston offered to meet Artiles at Thurston’s office at 9 a.m. Tuesday so Thurston could accompany him to Gibson’s office to say sorry.
Artiles never showed up, said Thurston, who by then had notified Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon of Miami Gardens about the incident. Though Artiles and Gibson coincided Tuesday on the Senate floor and at a transportation budget committee, Artiles didn’t apologize on either occasion, Gibson said.
“I’m at a loss for words,” Braynon said. “You just don’t speak to someone like that.”
By Tuesday afternoon, Negron’s office had been notified of the incident. Artiles, escorted by incoming Republican Senate President Bill Galvano of Bradenton, showed up after 6 p.m. to apologize to Gibson, Thurston and Braynon.
“It is my understanding that this matter has been resolved by the Senators involved,” Negron said in his initial statement.
Before Artiles apologized, Gibson had told the Herald saying sorry would be “meaningless.”
“You’re just talking — loud — to a table of people about leadership. It made me sad,” she said. “I can’t remember a time in my life when anybody called me either one of those things,” she added, referring to the two insults directed at her. “It’s just the most disrespect I’ve ever encountered.”
Florida Democratic Party spokeswoman Johanna Cervone said in a statement that Artiles should “resign now.”
Artiles, a Cuban-American ex-Marine who represents Southwest Miami-Dade County, has gotten into notorious trouble in Tallahassee before. Two years ago, a college student in town for spring break said Artiles punched him in the face at Clyde’s & Costello’s, a downtown bar a couple of doors away from the Governor’s Club, just hours before the start of the 2015 legislative session. Artiles denied it.
Voters elected Artiles, a former state House member, to Senate District 40 in November. He defeated former Democratic state Sen. Dwight Bullard, who is African-American.
Artiles’ slur came the night before a racially diverse group of lawmakers from both parties gathered in the Capitol Rotunda on Tuesday to offer an emotional apology to the Groveland Four, the four African-American men who were wrongfully convicted in Lake County in 1949.
Gibson said Tuesday she couldn’t look at Artiles after he started railing against her Monday night because she had “never, ever, ever” been treated that way.
“Maybe I should’ve asked him to leave the table,” she said.
Tuesday afternoon, Artiles, Gibson and Thurston coincided at a Senate transportation budget meeting. When Artiles sat next to the place where Gibson had set down her things, Gibson picked them up and moved over, leaving an empty chair between them.
Herald/Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.