On the eve of a testy runoff vote, Georgia political leaders and candidates united Monday to condemn a Republican state lawmaker who exposed himself and yelled racial slurs during an episode of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Showtime series.
House Speaker David Ralston urged the legislator, state Rep. Jason Spencer, to resign shortly after the episode of "Who is America?" aired Sunday night, and he was soon echoed by leaders and rank-and-file members from both sides of the aisle.
And the episode, which featured Spencer scampering around a gym with his pants pulled down, was quickly injected into Tuesday’s GOP race for governor. Secretary of State Brian Kemp removed Spencer’s name from his list of supporters, earning a dig from Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.
“I’m just glad he didn’t endorse my campaign,” Cagle said as he prepared to embark on a nine-city fly-around tour.
Spencer on Monday apologized for the “ridiculously ugly episode,” but he refused to step down. Although he lost the GOP primary in May, he remains in public office through the November general election.
“Sacha Baron Cohen and his associates took advantage of my paralyzing fear that my family would be attacked,” said Spencer, who added that he was told the techniques would deter “what I believed was an inevitable attack.”
He may still face official repercussions: Georgia Republican leaders are researching ways to reprimand him, short of calling a special session to oust him from office.
And Ralston's office said bipartisan legislative leaders – House Majority Leader Jon Burns and Minority Leader Bob Trammell – are discussing filing a joint ethics complaint targeting Spencer's behavior.
The episode shows Cohen, who portrayed himself as an Israeli military expert, at a gym persuading Spencer to take part in what he was told was a counterterrorism video.
Cohen gets Spencer to yell racial epithets, make offensive remarks about Chinese tourists and pull down his pants and shimmy his naked buttocks toward purported attackers while yelling “USA” and “America.” He was told these tactics ward off homophobic militants.
(Watch Spencer's unedited appearance on the show, which contains profanity and nudity)
In another clip after the show’s credits, Spencer returns to the camera with a “message to the terrorists.” He then repeats a racial slur and stabs a knife into the groin area of a dummy clad in a black burqa before shoving another item into the dummy’s mouth.
At the end of the segment, Spencer reminds the audience he’s an elected official serving in the Georgia Legislature. It ends with the Georgia peach logo flashing on screen.
It was the most humiliating yet to air on Cohen's new show, which last week featured several Republican lawmakers and gun rights supporters backing a fictitious program to teach kindergartners to use firearms.
Spencer told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that he was considering legal action against the show's producers, and he claimed they "took advantage of my fears that I would be attacked by someone" to persuade him to appear.
“They exploited my state of mind for profit and notoriety,” said Spencer, who said he was denied the chance to have final approval over what will air. “This media company’s deceptive and fraudulent behavior is exactly why President Donald Trump was elected.”
Spencer has declined to comment further. Showtime has denied that Cohen or the show's producers acted improperly.
Spencer was defeated by Republican challenger Steven Sainz after four terms representing a conservative southeast Georgia district, where he grabbed headlines that enraged lawmakers from both parties.
He faced calls for resignation late last year after he warned a black former state legislator that she won't be "met with torches but something a lot more definitive" if she continued to advocate for the removal of Confederate statues in South Georgia.
And Republican leaders roundly criticized his legislative proposal that would bar women from wearing burqas on public property, forcing him to withdraw the legislation.
This year, he shifted his focus toward a bill that would have allowed adult survivors of child sexual abuse more time to file lawsuits. The bill didn't pass amid powerful opposition from the Boy Scouts and some other nonprofit organizations.
As word about the footage spread early Monday, a long list of prominent politicians and civil rights organizations called for Spencer’s resignation and condemned his action. Gov. Nathan Deal called his language “appalling and offensive.”
“There is no excuse for this type of behavior, ever,” Deal said, “and I am saddened and disgusted by it.”
He was echoed by a frequent critic, Democratic Party of Georgia Chairman DuBose Porter, who offered equally scathing words.
“Spencer has put a blemish on our state that even Ajax cannot remove,” Porter said.
Here’s Spencer’s full statement:
“In 2017 I received countless death threats in connection with my introduction of legislation involving the wearing of masks. The threats escalated to the point that my wife received threatening phone calls concerning her and my children. I was very afraid for my safety and the safety of my entire family.
“Then, on June 14th, a gunman opened fire at members of Congress on a baseball field. I knew people on that field. Now, the fears I already had became more intensified as the reality of my family being targeted by a similar, deranged, would-be assassin became even more possible. I was in such a poor state of mind that my wife and I also undertook marriage counseling with a licensed therapist during this time.
“Sacha Baron Cohen and his associates took advantage of my paralyzing fear that my family would be attacked. In posing as an Israeli Agent, he pretended to offer self-defense exercises. As uncomfortable as I was to participate, I agreed to, understanding that these ‘techniques’ were meant to help me and others fend off what I believed was an inevitable attack.
“My fears were so heightened at that time, I was not thinking clearly nor could I appreciate what I was agreeing to when I participated in his “class”. I was told I would be filmed as a “demonstration video” to teach others the same skills in Israel. Sacha and his crew further lied to me, stating that I would be able to review and have final approval over any footage used.
“I deeply regret the language I used at his request as well as my participation in the “class’ in general. If I had not been so distracted by my fears, I never would have agreed to participate in the first place.
“I apologize to my family, friends, and the people of my district for this ridiculously ugly episode. Finally, there are calls for me to resign. I recently lost my primary election, so I will not eligible to hold office next term. Therefore, I will finish the remaining five months at my post and vacate my seat.”