Gay swipe ignites local fury

WALLA WALLA — A Huffington Post item reporting a statement about gays reportedly made by a staff member for Republican state Sen. Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla has drawn national ire from bloggers and concern from locals about the city’s reputation.

The comment was related to a bill introduced Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, and co-sponsored by Hewitt, to allow businesses to deny services to individuals based on religious or philosophical beliefs.

The bill, amending the state’s freedom from discrimination code, was created as a response to an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit filed against Richland florist Barronelle Stutzman, owner of Arlene’s Flowers, who refused to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding.

Current Washington law makes it unlawful to discriminate against customers on the basis of sexual orientation. Stutzman said her action was based on her religious objections to gay marriage.

The Huffington Post reported Seattle resident Jay Castro called Hewitt’s office to question his support of the bill, asking a staff person “ ‘What are rural gays supposed to do if the only gas station or grocery store for miles won’t sell them gas and food?’ ”

The staffer, who refused to identify himself, reportedly told Castro that if such a scenario were to unfold, “gay people can just grow their own food,” the article stated.

Marketing professionals in Walla Walla expressed concern the comment could hurt the town’s reputation.

In a letter to Hewitt also sent to the Union-Bulletin, Michael Mettler, creative director of Achieva Marketing, called Hewitt’s co-sponsorship of SB 5927 and “the public relations disaster spewing out of your office” an “embarrassment for all of us who live in Walla Walla.”

“… (Y)our support of the bill is short sighted in that the implications effect not only your close-minded sphere of cohorts, but also the tourism industry in Walla Walla upon which people like me (and thousands of your constituents in the Walla Walla Valley) reply upon to make a living,” Mettler wrote.

Calls, texts and emails sent to Hewitt this morning by the Union-Bulletin were not returned.

Mettler, in an telephone interview this morning, said there were organizations “all over the place” calling for a boycott of Walla Walla wines and cancellation of visits to Walla Walla.

“Who knows if there will be any real impact at the end of the day, but Walla Walla will be framed in a negative fashion, Mettler said. “I think it shows a disconnect to who (Hewitt’s) constituents really are.”

And many visitors to Walla Walla “probably don’t share the Senator’s view,” he added.

Mettler makes part of his living through clients who make a large portion of their income off tourism, he noted in his email to Hewitt.

“I work in the PR world and this is certainly the loudest story online and in print this week about Walla Walla, and perfectly timed for Spring Release and the Balloon Stampede!” Mettler wrote.

Michelle Liberty, whose years of public relations background includes a stint as executive director of Tourism Walla Walla, said in a phone interview this morning that if the current furor blows over it will be because the bill itself is “such a failure as a proposal.”

“Sen. Hewitt is from Walla Walla which has a significant gay and lesbian population, so he’s not representing us properly,” she said. “Anytime a community is being exclusive, that’s not a good thing.”

The local lesbian and gay community is probably the least surprised of all by the attitude coming from the Republican senator’s office, she said. “The surprise is knowing he comes from Walla Walla and who we are here.”

Ironically, another Walla Walla Republican state legislator, Rep. Maureen Walsh, mother of a lesbian daughter, gained international acclaim from gay-rights organizations last year when she made an impassioned speech in the Legislature in support of the bill, now law, permitting gay marriage.

Brown and Hewitt’s bill was read for the first time Friday, two days before this year’s regular session of the Legislature ended. Lawmakers are to reconvene May 13 in a special session.