The controversy surrounding the alleged use of a racial slur by the new legislative aide to Louisville Metro Councilman Dan Johnson boiled over into a Democratic caucus meeting Thursday evening.
Some African-American council Democrats expressed concern over Johnson aide Bryan Mathews’ presence in City Hall, and one council member accused Johnson of suggesting he’d pursue an ethics complaint against a colleague in reaction to criticism of the hiring.
Jefferson County Judge-Executive Bryan Mathews was hired earlier this month as the top aide in Johnson’s office.
Mathews has denied the accusation, but a number of the Metro Council’s African-Americans members said Democratic leaders need to look further into the matter.
“I’ve been reading lately that one of our council members in leadership—in this Democratic caucus—has hired an assistant who was supposedly fired for using this word, the N-word,” said Councilwoman Mary Woolridge, D-3, who is black. “And that’s very disturbing to me, it should be disturbing to this entire caucus.”
Democratic Caucus Chair Vicki Aubrey Welch told lawmakers she spoke with Johnson about the situation, adding that the sort of language Mathews is accused of using would not be tolerated.
“Supposedly that happened at another venue, that did not happen here in City Hall,” she said. “As you know any council member can hire and fire whomever they choose to work in their office. I have spoken at length with the parties involved and they are in agreement that language will not be used here. That’s about all there is to say about that.”
Recently, Democrats have discussed amending council rules to curb the use of profane language, specifically racial slurs, by public speakers who address the council.
The controversy is also a sensitive topic for council Democrats because Johnson is the vice chair of their 17-member caucus. In January, the party had a close leadership election that resulted in no African-Americans in the chair or vice-chair positions.
“We were struggling a few months ago with racial things that were happening in this caucus,” Woolridge said.
After council Democrats concluded their meeting, Johnson approached Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin, D-2, who shared with colleagues that she felt uncomfortable working alongside Mathews.
Last year, Shanklin survived a removal trial on ethics charges. The narrow vote on her removal had racial undertones.
Immediately following Thursday’s caucus meeting, Shanklin said Johnson alluded to filing a new ethics complaint against a lawmaker in reaction to the criticism of Mathews’s hiring.
“He just said that he was going to be (submitting) some ethics charges filed against one of the council members,” she told WFPL. “That’s all he said, so I don’t know what he meant by it.”
Johnson declined WFPL’s interview request. Through a spokesman, he said he would neither confirm nor deny if he threatened to file a complaint against Woolridge or Shanklin directly.
Mathews also declined to speak with WFPL: “Not today.”
The controversy has caught the attention of local civil rights leaders, who told WFPL they plan to reach out to the Kling Center to further investigate.
“I think Mr. Johnson needs to take another look at this to see who he has on his payroll,” said the Rev. Milton Seymour, acting executive director of the Justice Resource Center. “We want to hear all of the sides of the story. If this is true then we would ask Mr. Johnson to remove this person from his office.”
There are other issues surrounding Johnson’s hiring of Mathews, namely a legal question of whether an elected county official can serve as a Metro Council aide.
In a May 23 letter, Mathews’s private counsel argued he could serve as judge-executive and Johnson’s assistant. The county attorney has provided Johnson with an official response, but the councilman has refused to provide their legal opinion to the public.