- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 19, 2008

Talk about a hot-button issue.

Texas Republicans are wincing over a cultural gaffe that has put their party on notice - a campaign button with a stark message: “If Obama is President … will we still call it The White House?”

The button was sold during the state Republican Party convention in Houston last weekend by Republican Market, a Florida-based vendor that was one of 200 officially sanctioned retailers. The diminutive pin was spotted by a sharp-eyed blogger and later showcased in the Dallas Morning News, which billed the situation as “pin-gate.”

The 12-word message created hubbub in both the mainstream media and the blogosphere, sparking a discourse on racism that ran the gamut from rough to ridiculous. Online commentary included admonitions to “lighten up, people,” as well as accusations that “Baracknophobia” is alive and well in the Republican Party.

“I didn’t think that selling a racist pin rose to the level of a news story,” said Christy Hoppe, the Dallas Morning News staffer who posted the original blog Monday.

The single item has received more than 45,000 hits since then, many yielding emotionally charged messages, she said.

“I don’t think it teaches me anything in particular about the state GOP. What it does inform me is how close to the surface the issue of race is in this presidential contest and how electrifying it is. This is an exposed nerve in this country to many people,” Ms. Hoppe said.

Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, now a consultant with Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign in Texas, has called for his Republican counterparts to apologize to the Illinois Democrat, the first black candidate to secure a major party’s nomination.

“Pin-gate” has created a succinct teaching moment for Lone Star politicos.

“We were just so disappointed this happened. We’re so sorry. Some of the bloggers, Perez Hilton in particular, really played it fast and loose, making it sound like we printed that button ourselves, which is certainly not the case,” said Eric Opiela, executive director of the Texas Republican Party.

“We had a great convention, with lots of grass-roots enthusiasm, only to find out two days later that this happened. This vendor had been exhibiting with us without incident for 18 years. He’d set up at Democratic events, too,” Mr. Opiela said. “We’ve since donated the $1,500 we received from his registration fees to charity.”

The money was donated to the Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund to help flood victims in Iowa, state party officials said Wednesday.

Mea culpas aside, the Texas Republicans administered swift justice, banning from future events Jonathan Alcox, a vendor who owns Republican Market and Democrat Mall. The group also recommended that the Republican National Committee ban Mr. Alcox’s enterprise from the national convention in St. Paul, Minn., in September.

Mr. Alcox’s merchandise is definitely bipartisan - emblazoned with such mottos as “I miss President Reagan” and “The road to hell is paved with liberals” for Republicans and “The religious right is neither” and “2008, end of an error” for Democrats.

It has been a teaching moment for him as well. Mr. Alcox was besieged by critics who called his business number or e-mailed expletives; he granted a sole interview to the Austin American-Statesman.

“I’m not crazy. Why would I go out there and purposely put a button out there that’s going to offend people? We’re in this for business,” he told the paper’s online edition Wednesday. “I thought what we were doing was clever and funny. We’ve never had a black president. It was just a mistake.”

He said he sold only four of the offensive buttons.

His best-selling button at the Republican event? It read “NOBAMA.”