A Louisville Metro Councilman is criticizing his Democratic colleague Dan Johnson’s hiring of a legislative aide who was fired from a previous job for allegedly using racial slurs.
The controversy may inject race back into the discussion for the Council Democratic majority, which grappled with issue in the beginning of the year during leadership elections.
Jefferson County Judge-Executive Bryan Mathews is accused of using the N-word while working as executive director of the Kling Center, a senior health and wellness center.
Earlier this month, Mathews was hired as the top assistant for Johnson, who is vice chair of the council’s Democratic majority.
The Kling Center is in Councilman David James’s district. He said the non-profit’s board members and visitors had first mentioned Mathews’s alleged language last December.
“So I was kind of surprised that Councilman Johnson hired him even after that had allegedly taken place,” said James. “Pretty offended by it actually, because we’re talking about the use of the N-word currently in the caucus, as you know. And I would say the best way I could describe it right now is I’m a little shocked and concerned.”
James said he plans to address the allegations against Johnson’s aide at next week’s caucus meeting. Mathews has denied using any racial slurs, telling WFPL the accusations are “malicious lies.”
Johnson, who is the Democratic caucus’ vice chair, declined requests for an interview. On Thursday, Johnson said in a statement he’d never known Mathews to use that type of offensive language and “the past is in the past.”
The Kling Center is located in the Old Louisville neighborhood, and about 60 percent of its visitors are African-American, according to staff. Its programs include providing seniors with nutritious meals and delivery service to some residents in Old Louisville.
Three of the center’s staffers—board president Steve Gahafer, receptionist Peggy Owens, and co-director Theresa Carter—told WFPL Mathews often referred to visitors as “ghetto.”
On Friday, another former colleague of Mathews, former board member Robert Phillips, said Mathews used the N-word in his presence.
In an interview, Phillips said Mathews first used the N-word in November when telling staff that a visitor to the center had used it.
When Mathews used it repeatedly during the conversation even after being asked to stop, the 63-year-old Phillips said he confronted the executive director at the center.
“I finally said, Bryan you’re out of pocket using that word,” he said. “And he said, ‘Everybody uses that word.’ I let him know right then, as an older black man, that word has been barred out of my language for years and years and years, and I thought everybody knew that.”
Earlier this year council Democrats dealt with race during their unusually tense leadership elections.
When the 17 Democrats elected Councilwoman Vicki Aubrey Welch as their chair and Johnson as their vice-chair, African-Americans members voice concerned about the lack of diversity in their leadership.
Welch said she plans to speak with Johnson next week about the situation, but noted the caucus has little power over how members run their office.
“If the council members bring that up then I will certainly see what it is that we need to do with it,” said Welch. “But as we all know a council member can hire and fire at will. We don’t get involved with each others hirings, so it’s certainly up to Councilman Johnson to do what it is he wants to do with his office staff.”