OLYMPIA -- A state senator called another legislator a "nigger in the woodpile" during an argument over a bill, prompting some black leaders to demand the senator's resignation while others defended his character.

Sen. Alex Deccio, R-Yakima, used the racist slur against Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Roy, during a meeting about health insurance reforms Thursday night. Both men are white.

His comment sent shockwaves through Olympia, where Deccio is generally regarded as a kindly old man and respected for his knowledge of health care issues.

"I was absolutely incensed by that racist remark. It's indicative of a black heart and a foul mouth," Campbell said Friday. "This is a very serious public problem, in my mind."

Deccio has apologized to Campbell, the other people in the meeting and the House Republican caucus. The 81-year-old senator said he also plans to personally apologize to all the black members of the Legislature.

"I grew up as an Italian in a very bigoted neighborhood, where racial epithets were used against me, and I should know better," Deccio said in a statement he issued Friday. "I realize a slip of the tongue like this is very hurtful to members of the African American community, and for that I am truly sorry."

The phrase Deccio chose is used to convey a similar meaning to the term "snake in the grass." The Oxford English Dictionary defines the expression as "a concealed motive or unknown factor affecting a situation in an adverse way."

Deccio's apology did not satisfy Campbell or NAACP leader Carl Mack.

Campbell said the Senate Republican leadership should formally reprimand Deccio and strip him of his leadership position as chairman of the Senate Health and Long-Term Care Committee.

Mack, president of the Seattle chapter of the NAACP, said if Deccio is truly sorry, he should resign.

"That word is arguably the most explosive racial term in the world," Mack said. "It conjures up lynchings, separation of families, telling a group of people that they're less than, not even worthy of being in the human equation.

"It hurts, that particular word," Mack continued. "I look forward to accepting his sincere apology, upon his resignation."

It's unclear what the consequences will be for Deccio. The retired owner of an insurance agency, Deccio has served in the Legislature since 1974, except for a four-year stint as a Yakima County commissioner in 1988. He's generally well-liked by other legislators.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Finkbeiner, R-Kirkland, and Senate Minority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, issued a joint statement saying that the Senate will "absolutely not tolerate the use of racial epithets in any forum, public or private."

"Legislators must attempt to model the very behavior to which they aspire for their citizenry," the statement said. "Further, to be respected, our state laws must not be tainted with even the perception of prejudice."

They did not formally rebuke or discipline Deccio.

Sen. Rosa Franklin, D-Tacoma, who is black, said she accepts Deccio's apology. She said she doesn't think Deccio should resign from the Senate or from his position as chairman of the health care committee.

"He is not a racist," Franklin said. "It was a heated moment in time, a word locked away in his psyche. Sen. Deccio is a good man."

Franklin said she hoped the incident would lead to more open discussion of race and the need for diversity.

King County Executive Ron Sims, who is black and who has worked with Deccio over the years, also said the senator should not resign.

"I'm deeply disappointed in his remarks and hurt by them, but we have to have the capacity to accept his sincere apology and move on," Sims said Friday night. "I know racists, and Sen. Deccio is not a racist."

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