Legislative leaders chide legislator for comments on House floor

OKLAHOMA CITY — Senate Bill 550 cleared the Oklahoma House of Representatives this week, and seems headed to Gov. Mary Fallin’s desk for her signature and likely enactment into law.
The bill reacts to what critics say deem predatory pricing tactics by so-called “Big Box Stores” such as Wal-Mart. 
For now, at least, the measure may be most remembered not for its substantive provisions, but for comments made by state Rep. Dennis Johnson, R-Duncan, in the course of debate on the House floor. 
Rep. Johnson said the bill is not really about a fight between large retailers and small businesses. A small business owner himself, Johnson said, “I get a lot of repeat business from ‘big box’ stores … they don’t drive everybody of business, I’ll tell you — They drive the bad actors out of business.”
He continued, “If Wal-Mart is trying to drive small business out of business, they have failed. … I don’t need an advantage like this bill is talking about. … Small retailers, folks.
“They know how to take care of their customers. Big box stores, cheaper price, bad customer service. … Have I said anything that’s not true, so far, folks? … There’s such a thing called niche marketing. You find out what you do better than anybody else, then that’s what you do.” 
At around the 2:22 mark of House video of floor proceedings on Legislative Day 43, Rep. Johnson referred to customers who come into his place of business, saying, “They might try to jew me down on a price, and that’s fine. You know what? That’s fine. That’s all right, that’s the free market, as well.”
Within a minute after that comment, a colleague near him on the floor apparently raised the word usage with Rep. Johnson. He looked toward the colleague and continued, “Did I? I apologize to the Jews. They’re good small businessmen, as well.” 
The comment quickly drew critical scrutiny in news reports. On Thursday morning, April 18, some characterized Johnson’s comments as invidious stereotyping and anti-Semitic word usage.  
During a review of the legislative week on April 18 (Thursday), House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, said, “Rep. Johnson came in to see me after the comments on the floor. He was most regretful and deeply sorrowful.”
Responding to a question from CapitolBeatOK, Shannon continued, “It helps if you know people’s heart, and I know his heart. He is a genuine caring guy who said something he shouldn’t have said.”
A few minutes later, in his regular discussion with Capitol reporters, Senate President Pro Temp Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, responded to CapitolBeatOK’s question on the matter with these words:
“These comments were very unfortunate. I was personally offended. We all have to be careful about what we say, especially in the Legislature. An apology was made. It’s just unfortunate that it happened.”
S.B. 550, sponsored by state Rep. Tom Newell, R-Seminole, cleared the House on a vote of 63-29, with nine members not voting.
You may contact Patrick B. McGuigan at Patrick@capitolbeatok.com and follow us on Twitter: @capitolbeatok.