Walt Baker, the prominent CEO of the powerful Tennessee Hospitality Association who was a key figure in gaining approval of the controversial $585 million convention center, sent the kind of "joke" email last night -- comparing First Lady Michelle Obama to Tarzan's Cheeta -- that might stop even Michael Richards in his tracks. (The entire email on the jump.)
Baker forwarded the racist missive -- introduced with this: "Quoting Larry the Cable Guy ... I don't care who you are, this is funny" -- to 12 prominent Nashvillians, including mayoral legislative aide Toby Compton, NashvilleScene editor and publisher, respectively, Bruce Dobie and Albie Del Favero, and Nashville Post reporter Ken Whitehouse.
Whitehouse calls the email "disgusting."
Del Favero was on the way to his office when we reached him and says he hadn't yet opened the email. "It's probably in my inbox waiting on me. But I've never known Walt to send anything that is politically incorrect."
"Who all got it?" Del Favero asks. When told, he responds, "Oh, how stupid!"
UPDATE: Baker says he meant no offense and sent it to what he considered to be "a select group of friends." "If anybody wants to make a political agenda out of it, they're wasting they're time," he tells Pith.
"It's not a political statement," Baker continues. "It was done in the spirit of having some fun with some close friends. It was something that was forwarded to me, and I forwarded it to a couple of people that, quite honestly, I thought might find some humor in it like I did."
Apparently, they didn't.
"I've gotten some emails back from folks," he says, "and that's fine too."
UPDATE II: The CVB's Spyridon calls the email "unacceptable and not representative of our organization and what we stand for." He says he telephoned Baker and "chewed him out."
UPDATE, 3/6: Baker sent a one-word follow-up email to the original recipients Friday afternoon. It read only, "Sorry." And today, the publicly funded CVB announced it's canceling its $50,000 marketing contract with Baker's company. Here's the statement today from CVB president Butch Spyridon:
"On behalf of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau, I apologize for the offensive email sent yesterday by Tennessee Hospitality Association CEO Walt Baker. As a recipient of the email, I am embarrassed for my organization and myself. The content is deeply hurtful to all Nashvillians and beyond. The attitudes expressed in the email are both appalling and unacceptable, and are not shared or condoned in anyway by the NCVB or by me personally.
Nashville's hospitality industry has worked tirelessly to create a welcoming environment for our visitors and this behavior discredits the work done by so many. After serious consideration, the NCVB has terminated its contract with Mr. Baker's marketing agency, Mercatus Communications. I have communicated this action and my deep regrets about the email to the Mayor's Office and other hospitality industry leaders."
See too Baker's apology, also in the comments below and in an email to the Metro Council.
"Thursday night I spontaneously forwarded -- to a small group of people -- an email that had been sent to me as political humor. As I forwarded it, I did not think or consider its implications, other than that it was political humor. I am saddened that anyone misinterpreted the sentiments behind the email. I deeply apologize to anyone who is offended by this action. I hope that those who know me realize that the message was not intended to be malicious or hurtful in any way and can find it in their hearts to forgive me."
LATEST UPDATE, 3/8: Walt Baker was terminated today from his post as CEO of the Tennessee Hospitality Association. "Walt's email reflects a deep misunderstanding of the nature of hospitality and our role as an association," said THA board president Bill Mish. "His email was sent in his personal capacity and not in his connection with the hospitality associations."
From: Walt Baker
To: Albie DelFavero, Bruce Dobie, Butch Spyridon, Joe Hall, Peter Heidenreich, Terry Clements, Toby Compton, Chuck Creasy, Rob Moorefield, Ken Whitehouse, Paul Brown, Bob Davis
Date: March 4, 2010 9:18:29 PM CST
Quoting Larry the Cable Guy...I don't care who you are, this is funny...
I was at the store yesterday, and I ran into Tarzan! I asked him how it was going and if he was into anymore movies.
He told me that he could no longer make any more movies as he had severe arthritis in both shoulders and could no longer swing from vine to tree.
I asked how Jane was doing, he told me she was in bad shape, in a nursing home, has Alzheimer's and no longer recognizes anyone, how sad. I asked about Boy, and he told me that Boy had gone to the big city, got hooked up with bad women, drugs, alcohol, and the only time he heard from him was if he was in trouble or needed something.
I asked about Cheeta, he beamed and said she was doing good, had married a Lawyer and now lived in the White House!!!