Republican champion of Arizona's "license to discriminate" bill caught making racist comments

Arizona state Rep. John Kavanagh made the remarks at a "roast" of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

By Katie McDonough

Published February 28, 2014 4:49PM (EST)

Arizona Rep. John Kavanagh
Arizona Rep. John Kavanagh

Arizona state Rep. John Kavanagh made a series of racist remarks at a conservative conference this weekend, and has dismissed criticism from civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers as "creating controversy where it doesn't exist."

The Southern Poverty Law Center recorded Kavanagh's comments during a "roast" of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

"I'm not the federal monitor. How many Hispanics did you pull over on the way over here, Arpaio?" Kavanagh asked the audience early on, a reference to Arizona's SB 1070 and the rampant racial profiling faced by immigrants and communities of color across the state. Arpaio's department is currently being monitored after a federal investigation concluded that his office relied on racial profiling and illegal detentions to target Latinos.

Kavanagh also commented on Arizona's "license to discriminate" bill, which he supported. "Now a lot of people claim that SB 1062 is gonna cause discrimination based upon religion in Arizona," he said. "And I scoffed at that until tonight. When a Muslim waiter serving up here walked up to Sheriff Joe, wouldn’t give him his dinner ’cause he said ‘I don’t serve swine.’"

In addition to being a vocal proponent of the state's most recent anti-LGBTQ measure, Kavanagh also tried to ban transgender people from using the bathroom after the city of Phoenix passed a comprehensive anti-discrimination measure ensuring LGBTQ people have equal access to employment, housing and public accommodations.

Later in the evening, Kavanagh turned a joke about Arpaio's age into a racist comment on the Asian community.

"Oh, Korea? See, all these years I figured he was rounding up Hispanics because he had a grudge from the Spanish-American War," he remarked. "So if you were in the Korean War, how come you’re not rounding up Asians?"

In response to criticism of his remarks, Kavanagh accused others of playing politics and claimed his comments were "satire."

"They are creating controversy where it doesn't exist, perhaps for their own political purposes," he said. "This was a roast. It was satire and it was at a private closed event, so I disagree with them.

"I was roasting Sheriff Arpaio," he continued. "That was parody on him. That should be quite obvious."

Now I am no comedy expert (I will leave that to Laura Ingraham), but I'd wager that people in Arizona don't think Kavanagh is all that funny because his comments are perfectly aligned with his voting record. You can't satirize a law enforcement official's racism when the laws you back enable that racism, you can't poke fun at the discrimination inherent in a measure like SB 1062 when you're working pretty darn hard to further enshrine that discrimination into Arizona law.

You can listen to Kavanagh's "jokes" (and the conservative audience's uproarious laughter) here:

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Arizona Homophobia John Kavanagh Racial Profiling Racism Sb 1062 Sb 1070 Transphobia Video