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Remark Slighting Mexicans Sparks Anger in Newport

Four council colleagues call on Richard Nichols to step down after comments in a local paper. Latino activists join in the criticism.

June 19, 2003|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

A Newport Beach councilman who recently was rebuked by his colleagues for suggesting that a planning commissioner was taking bribes now faces calls for his resignation after making statements with racist overtones.

Richard Nichols, discussing proposed improvements to Corona del Mar State Beach on Tuesday, told a local newspaper that he opposed expanding grassy areas at the beach because "with grass we usually get Mexicans coming in there early in the morning and they claim it as theirs and it becomes their personal, private grounds all day."

Nichols said Wednesday that his remarks -- reported in the Daily Pilot, a newspaper serving Newport Beach and Costa Mesa -- were taken out of context.

"What I said was, of the people that are grabbing those spaces, those who are willing to come down early in the morning to have them all day, the predominant number are Mexicans."

The comment sparked immediate criticism.

Amin David, president of Los Amigos of Orange County, an Anaheim-based Latino rights advocacy group, said the comment "brings us back to the days of segregation and conjure up very disturbing feelings."

His council colleagues also were angry.

"If this is truly the way Mr. Nichols thinks, and if this is his opinion about certain minorities, he needs to resign his position as a councilman," said Mayor Steve Bromberg.

Councilmen Gary Adams, John Heffernan and Gary Proctor joined Bromberg in calling for Nichols' resignation.

"If he believes this, then there's no other alternative," Heffernan said. "There's no place in this day and age for someone who has a racial bias to hold public office."

Adams said Nichols' most recent statements "speak for themselves. This sounds like a lot more than misspeaking. I think he should step down."

Proctor agreed. "An apology is not enough for making racist comments. You can't hold a position of public trust and make comments like that. You have to resign."

David promised to confront Nichols at Tuesday's council meeting.

"Are we [Hispanics] not considered part owners of public land? Indeed we are. We've paid for it, with the sweat of our brow and the hardness of our coin," he said. "We cannot let this go unchallenged."

Nichols, who was elected in November, said he has no plans to step down. "The question is, am I this raving bigot? My point is [that argument] won't hold water."

One supporter said the latest incident is not evidence that Nichols is a racist.

"I've known Dick maybe 15 years or more," said Republican Party activist Joyce Hill. "Whenever he's been in my presence, I've never heard him say anything derogatory about Mexicans."

She suggested, though, that "he probably should choose his words more carefully."

The owner of a chemical engineering firm, Nichols, 63, joined the council as a supporter of the Greenlight initiative, a growth-control measure approved by voters in 2000.

Nichols previously weathered a political firestorm after suggesting last month that a vote by Planning Commissioner Larry Tucker was financially influenced.

"It looks like you're taking money for this one," said Nichols, according to a transcript of his remarks.

Nichols later apologized at a council meeting when his colleagues told him that the statement was inappropriate. He also wrote an apology that appeared in the Daily Pilot, which is published by Times Community News, a division of the Los Angeles Times.

Nichols said his remarks were misinterpreted.

After the council meeting at which he was chided by his colleagues, Nichols acknowledged that he made a mistake. "I stand properly chastised," he said.

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