NEWPORT — At a Vermont Transportation Board public hearing on October 30, Vermont State Senator Robert Starr made a remark which angered the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC). In a letter sent to Senator Starr the group requested that he address the matter publicly.
During the public hearing, Senator Starr was addressing members of the Vermont Transportation Board, who were taking responses from participants as to how the state could make up for a loss of gas tax revenue as the use of electric vehicles increases.
The state of Vermont’s energy plan sets a goal of 25 percent of all vehicles to run on alternative fuels by the year 2030.
“Part of the revenue that the state gets for transportation is tied to the gas tax,” Vermont Transportation Board Executive Secretary John Zicconi stated during an interview last week. “When we hit 143,000 electric vehicles, we will loose about 21 million dollars annually in revenue. The question Senator Starr was responding to was if this is coming, how do we make up that revenue?”
Senator Starr voiced his opinion that electric rate increases in the state would make it more expensive in the future to operate electric cars, than to drive gas powered vehicles.
“As far as electric cars go, the way I see it, if our electric rates keep going up at the rate they’ve been going up, I don’t think we’ll ever hit that magic number of 5,000 electric cars, because it’s going to cost more to plug those suckers in than it does to go give the Arabs four dollars a gallon for the gas,” Senator Starr said.
A participant in the crowd that night, who wishes to remain anonymous, was troubled by what he heard. The next day the incident was reported to the ADC. The group, based out of Washington, D.C., is the largest Arab American grassroots organization in the country.
In a letter sent to Senator Starr, the ADC wrote:
“ADC strongly believes that your statement is highly offensive to the Arab-American community and perpetuates demeaning stereotypes of Arab-Americans. Your statement can be interpreted as a generalization toward all persons of Arab ethnicity.”
Starr’s comment was confirmed through an audio recording that exists of the incident.
“What Senator Starr said was very stereotypical, and there is no room for that in politics,” ADC Director of Legal and Policy Affairs, Abed Ayoub, said during a telephone interview.
“Elected officials, and those seeking office need to be more responsible with their words, and need to have a better understanding of different ethnic groups and individuals that make up a part of this country.”
Although the individual who reported the incident demanded full anonymity, he provided this statement regarding his initial shock after hearing Starr’s comment.
“There are many ways his remark could have been taken, all of which were offensive.”
“His metaphor and his words were very careless, and very stereotypical,” Mr. Ayoub stated.
It took a week for Senator Starr to have the opportunity to respond to the letter because he never actually received it. Although the letter from the ADC was sent within a few days, they faxed it to the number given for Vermont State Senators online. Since they do not have offices in Montpelier, any fax that would have arrived for Senator Starr would be waiting in Montpelier until January.
When made aware of the letter, Starr was quick to offer an apology, and to retract what he said.
“I shouldn’t have said it that way,” Starr stated when asked about the incident.
“See our electric rates here in Vermont are the fourth highest in the nation. I should have said with our electric rates so high, we aren’t going to be able to use electric cars. I certainly didn’t want to offend anybody, and should have said it would be cheaper to give our money to the big oil companies and oil men. I did not want to offend anybody, and if I did I am certainly sorry that I did. My statement was more of a reaction to electric rates here in Vermont being so high.”
When made aware of Starr’s response, the individual who reported the incident appreciated Starr’s willingness to address the issue. He had been advised by the ADC that sometimes issues like this go without response.
“He acknowledged what he said, took responsibility for it, and offered an apology. You can’t ask for more than that, and usually don’t get as much,” the individual who reported the incident said. “When someone says something that offends someone else, and you find sincerity in their apology, you move on, and everyone grows from the situation,” he went on to say.
“I’ve worked with the public since I was a kid, and I don’t ever want to offend anyone,” Starr said. “I wasn’t applying gas prices to any individual, or individuals, but we do buy a lot of foreign oil, and our electric rates have gone up considerably over the last four years.”