Maricopa County attorney candidate apologizes for using racial slur

Corrections & Clarifications: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported information about Robert McWhirter’s campaign finances. His campaign spent funds to advertise with the Arizona Black Bar. The Arizona Black Bar does not donate to campaigns or endorse candidates.

A Democratic candidate running for Maricopa County attorney apologized during a recent forum for using a racial slur while teaching a legal class in 2018.

Several advocacy groups, including Black Lives Matter Metro Phoenix, Mass Liberation AZ, LUCHA, Trans Queer Pueblo and Poder in Action, hosted thevirtual forum on Zoom. Viewers were invited to ask questions and post comments.

After an attorney brought up the incident in the Zoom comments, Robert McWhirter, a defense attorney, was asked to address what happened.

McWhirter is running against Julie Gunnigle and Will Knight in the Democratic primary in August. The winner will run against current County Attorney Allister Adel in November.

A Black Lives Matter Metro Phoenix spokesperson, Maricopa County public defender Jamaar Williams, is a campaign organizer for Knight’s campaign. The campaign told The Arizona Republic that Williams had no involvement with the forum and no other staff member has a leadership position with the organizations.

Mass Liberation Project Arizona moderated the event. The organization did not respond to The Republic’s multiple requests for an interview.

What did McWhirter say?

In March 2018, McWhirter taught a continuing legal education class for the State Bar of Arizona’s Council on Minorities and Women in the Law.

His class addressed the history of the U.S. Constitution and slavery’s role in creating the document. McWhirter talked about the country’s racist history and the use of the N-word against Black people. However, when discussing the racial slur, McWhirter said the actual word multiple times.

Chris Love, an attorney and chairwoman of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona, made multiple references about the class in the Zoom forum’s comments and then asked McWhirter why he thought it was appropriate to use the racial slur.

She said she’d heard about his comments from two friends who attended the class.

“I don’t really care what the context of the word is,” Love told The Republic. “It is not a word that should be uttered by people who are not Black and it certainly shouldn’t be uttered at an event that people are actually paying money to the Bar.”

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona has endorsed Knight. However, it told The Republic that Love’s comments during the forum were her own and not a reflection of the endorsement process.

Candidate apologizes

Many of McWhirter’s supporters, such as former county attorney candidate Tamika Wooten, also asked for him to address the incident.

McWhirter apologized for using the racial slur.

“I was wrong to do so. I’ve learned a lot from it. I’ve changed the nature of that talk and I don’t do that again,” he told The Republic. “And I apologize for having used that in the context, and it was inappropriate of me to do so.”

McWhirter has received support from many Black lawyers, including Wooten and Kenneth Countryman. The two are helping him with his campaign.

Countryman told The Republic that McWhirter has spent 35 years defending minorities and people who are not able to afford an attorney.

RACISM: County attorney candidates discuss racism and criminal justice

McWhirter is a former Maricopa County public defender and federal public defender. He sits on the advisory board of the Arizona Justice Project, which works to help inmates overturn wrongful convictions.

McWhirter was an attorney for Nathaniel Thomas, the only teenager charged as an adult after law enforcement investigated hazing and sexual assault allegations among the Hamilton High School football team.

The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office chose not to pursue charges against the head coach and school administrators even though police said there was evidence of them failing to report abuse.

“It would have been better not to use the full word, but he didn’t intend anything by the use of it,” Countryman said. “His record defending Black people speaks for itself.”

Love told The Republic that some of the candidates have already shown they are willing to listen to and help the Black community.

“I think what will set each of the candidates apart is their ability to really reach broadly into the Black community,” she said.

Have thoughts about the candidates or Arizona’s legal system? Reach criminal justice reporter Lauren Castle at Follow her on Twitter @Lauren_Castle.

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Creosote Partners is an Arizona firm focused on legislative advocacy, coalition building, and strategic communications.

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Creosote Partners

Creosote Partners is an Arizona firm focused on legislative advocacy, coalition building, and strategic communications.