State Sen. Phil Jensen of Rapid City has put himself in the national spotlight — and not in a good way — for a remark made last week that businesses should have the right to deny service to people based on race or religion.
In the three days since his statements appeared in the Rapid City Journal, Jensen's comments have gone viral online where they are widely decried as racist or misguided.
A search on "Phil Jensen" brings up numerous headlines about his comments; articles have appeared on Huffingtonpost.com, the MSNBC website, Talking Points Memo and other online outlets. An article about Jensen on ThinkProgress, a liberal political blog, was shared more than 16,000 times on Facebook by Wednesday afternoon.
Now he's taking a hit in his own backyard — and from his own political party.
Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard on Wednesday distanced himself from Jensen in a statement released to the media.
“I found his comments to be completely out of line with South Dakota values," he said. "I don’t agree with him and I haven’t talked to anyone who does.”
The governor's comments followed the story in Sunday's Journal in which Jensen, 61, who runs a cookware sales business, explained why he supported the bill that would have allowed businesses to deny service to customers based on sexual orientation and not fear a lawsuit.
While the bill was killed, Jensen defended it to the Journal as legislation that would ensure businesses have the freedom to choose their clientele. He also said that businesses should also have the right to choose based on race and religion – whether that's right or wrong, he said, can be fairly addressed by the free market, not the government.
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"If someone was a member of the Ku Klux Klan and they were running a little bakery for instance, the majority of us would find it detestable that they refuse to serve blacks and guess what? In a matter of weeks or so that business would shut down because no one is going to patronize them," he said in remarks published Sunday.
On Wednesday, Jensen didn't respond to an email, a text message and repeated calls for comment.
Jensen's comments have also served as a lightening rod for South Dakota's Democrats.
In a press release Wednesday, Zach Crago, executive director of the state Democratic Party, called upon Daugaard to condemn Jensen's remarks.
“State Senator Phil Jensen's remarks are not only a disgusting affront to South Dakota's diverse residents but also a slap in the face for anyone who values diversity here in South Dakota and beyond," he wrote. "The South Dakota Republican Party should be ashamed."
Some conservative commentators have also criticized Jensen's comments. South Dakota War College, a political blog, questioned whether Jensen should resign.
Daugaard's spokesman, Tony Venhuizen, said voters can decide if Jensen should leave office.
"This is an election year and the voters will have an opportunity to weigh in before the Legislature reconvenes next year," he said.