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Turning the alleged Fouts tape into a teachable moment

Dec 20, 2016

There is a leaked audio tape that has caused a sensation in political circles in the Detroit area. The language is raw, shocking and horribly vile, and, for once is not about sex.

A voice that sounds very much like that of Warren Mayor Jim Fouts complains that quote, “while on Fridays in the past I would be going to meet some women, tonight I am meeting with a group of retards. Tonight is retard night.” 

The voice goes on to say that they had to keep them in diapers, that they are not even really human beings, and indicates he is sickened when he sees an elderly person “pushing their retarded daughter around,” in a wheelchair.

“For what reason? Why would anyone want to have that as part of their (life)” he asks, and goes on to mutter, “I’m in favor of Dr. Kevorkian.”

Well, it’s important to note two things. First, whatever you think of the doctor who made physician-assisted suicide famous, Kevorkian was not in favor of mass extermination of the mentally challenged. That was what the Nazis did.

Second, and more importantly, Mayor Fouts is vigorously denying on Facebook that he feels this way. “The contents of the tape do not reflect my attitude towards the mentally challenged,” he posted. “This recording is not me!” he claims, “I question the validity of this AWFUL tape, the context of the tape, who was also speaking and where the speech was recorded.”

Fouts accused Macomb County Executive Mark Hackel of having someone “electronically engineer the tape,” to smear him because of a political disagreement over an unrelated issue. Well, I don’t propose to dive further into the murky waters of Macomb County politics here, and I don’t have the expertise to say whether the tape is authentic.

I can tell you that an AM radio station where Fouts has had a Saturday morning show is sufficiently convinced it was him to have fired him yesterday.

If it was Mayor Fouts, it is hard to see how he could keep his job. The 74-year-old mayor has stirred controversy in the past with his playboy image, and the tape in fact begins with him appearing to complain that somebody failed to procure him some women.

This scandal will presumably play itself out over the next few days. But what may be even more important is that we use this as a “teachable moment.” That’s how Tom Watkins put it. Watkins is the president and CEO of the Detroit-Wayne Mental Health Authority. He asked me over the weekend to weigh in on this.

“Help make this language unacceptable,” he said, noting that legislation has been passed at the state and federal level ending the use of the word “retard,” to refer to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Watkins suggested that if the mayor doesn’t resign, he ought to produce, at his own expense, a public service announcement decrying discrimination.

That makes sense to me; in fairness, Mayor Fouts did post on Facebook that he was going to donate $500 dollars to the autism awareness program championed by Lt. Gov. Brian Calley.

If there’s one encouraging thing about all this, it is the universal recognition that such language is unacceptable. Changing attitudes may take a little longer.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.