Merced mayor boots campaign volunteer over culturally insensitive email about opponent

10/28/2013 7:11 PM

10/29/2013 3:20 AM

Mayor Stan Thurston cut ties with a member of his re-election committee Monday after condemning an email message the campaign volunteer sent that attempts to use opponent Noah Lor’s ethnicity to drum up voter support for the incumbent.

The email, obtained by the Sun-Star, was written by Denis Kenshalo, a volunteer for Thurston’s committee. It was dated Oct. 21 and sent by Kenshalo to at least 10 people and was forwarded to dozens more. Kenshalo has admitted writing and sending the email. He issued an apology on Monday.

In the message, Kenshalo asks his “good friends” to vote for Thurston, saying that he’s done a “great job” for Merced. As the email continues, however, Kenshalo states that Thurston needs “all the support he can get” because Lor will have “all of his own kind” voting for him.

Lor, who is Hmong, was born in the southeast Asian country of Laos and came to the United States at age 15. Kenshalo incorrectly refers to him as being from Vietnam.

“Trust me this guy Noah Lor doesn’t know a thing about running a town. He just wants to make a statement by being the first Vietnam (sic) Mayor. He will be having all of his own kind going out to vote for him and we need to get all of the votes we can for Stan Thurston, Our Mayor,” Kenshalo stated in the email.

The email continues: “We know that a lot of Vietnamese have been registering to vote, People (sic) that never voted before they are just voting for one thing a Vietnam (sic) for Mayor.”

The email also states Thurston’s “opponent is from Vietnam and he has been getting a lot of money from out of state, Looks (sic) like the Vietnamese just want to do like Obama did, To be the first Vietnam Mayor.”

Thurston condemned the email Monday in a phone interview with the Sun-Star. He said he was not aware of the email until the Sun-Star brought it to his attention. “That absolutely was not authorized, and I condemn that kind of conversation,” Thurston said. “I’m awfully sorry that happened.”

He said Kenshalo would no longer have responsibilities within the mayoral campaign. Thurston also pointed out the email’s inaccuracy about Lor’s ethnicity.

From the beginning, Thurston said, he told his campaign volunteers to stick to the issues and stay away from personal attacks. “When we were planning our first fundraiser, I made it clear to our committee that we were only going to give out positive messages,” Thurston said, adding he wanted to focus on what he considers a good record during his first term.

“I don’t want to hear anything about ethnicity, race, how people talk or nothing else,” he said, recounting what he told volunteers. “Stay on message.”

Lor on Monday said he wasn’t concerned about the email, saying elections should be about jobs, business development and prosperity in Merced. “This election, it’s not about me, it’s about the Merced community,” he said. “How can we best move forward?”

Lor said he does not know Kenshalo and has never spoken to him. Lor said some members of the community could perhaps benefit from more education about who the Hmong people are and what their link is to the United States.

He added that people from all walks of life should be encouraged to register to vote and to run for office. “I’m here. I’m a citizen,” he said. “I have the right to run for mayor.”

Bill Baker, the chairman for Thurston’s committee, said Kenshalo was removed Monday from the committee, which is made up of nearly 30 volunteers. He said racially motivated rhetoric is not welcome within the campaign. “I cannot believe that (Kenshalo) wrote something like that,” Baker said. “That is definitely not something we approved or even had knowledge of.”

Baker said the mayoral race should be about the issues that Merced is facing.

The email, which was apparently forwarded, lists about 40 email addresses that received the message.

Kenshalo, 68, called the email a mistake and denied any racist intentions. He said that when he wrote the email, he was upset about Lor’s campaign dollars coming from out of the area.

After being removed from the campaign, Kenshalo said he sent an apology Monday to the same people to whom he sent the email.

“In reference to an email I sent on October 21, 2013,” the email stated, “first, this was an email to my regular email list only, (personal friends) it wasn’t intended for publication, and was not approved or sent to either Stan Thurston or the members of his campaign committee.

“I want to extend my apologies to all who received the email including Noah Lor. I said things out of anger that I did not really mean, and I sincerely apologize to anyone in the community that I may have offended.”

As a volunteer Kenshalo carried out such tasks as hanging campaign signage.

More than half of the $53,341 in campaign money Lor raised through Sept. 21 came from outside of Merced County, but within the state. About $4,000 of the money came from Missouri, Minnesota and Wisconsin, among other states, according to campaign statements.

The Hmong people are originally from the mountains of Laos, China, Vietnam and Thailand. They were recruited by the CIA to fight during the Vietnam War, and many emigrated as war refugees after the United States left Vietnam and communists took over Laos.

About 9,500 people of Asian descent live in Merced, according to the U.S. Census.

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