BILLINGS — The chairwoman of the Yellowstone County Republicans is under fire after several blogs reported a racist photo posted to her Facebook page.
Jennifer Olsen has told her Yellowstone County Central Committee that she did not post on her Facebook page an image of a box trap baited with a watermelon to capture President Barack Obama.
A screen-captured image from the Facebook page was posted to a local right-leaning blog Feb. 15 and quickly went viral. It has been re-posted on the Daily Kos, a liberal website with 2.5 million unique monthly visitors. Commentors on several blogs are calling Olsen racist for the post.
Olsen did not respond to email and phone calls placed by The Billings Gazette. Central committee members, in a statement released Friday, said Olsen has received death threats. The committee is looking into whether Olsen made the post, after which it will decide whether or not to ask Olsen to resign.
“In no way, shape, or form do the Yellowstone County Republicans condone nor accept the use of stereotypes by members in either their personal or political lives,” reads a statement from John Quandt, Yellowstone County Republican Central Committee vice chairman. “The committee investigates any allegation made against a member and due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, we are approaching the situation methodically.”
The statement goes on to point out that of the 1,000 or so people, or “friends,” who follow Olsen on Facebook, none have corroborated the post.
Blogger Nicole French was first to report the post on her political website, Montanafesto. The Feb. 15 post begins by portraying Olsen as a petroleum engineer who failed for years to find employment even as the oil-and-gas industry flourished.
Olsen and her father, Eric Olsen, launched the Montana Shrugged Tea Party group credited with bringing enthusiasm back to local Republican politics after the 2008 election. The Tea Party opened the door for Jennifer Olsen’s selection as local Republican Party chairwoman. She was recently featured in The Billings Gazette’s 40 under 40 publication of emerging community and business leaders.
“My disdain for the Olsen family is obvious,” French wrote on her blog. Posts "like the one captured in the following screenshot from Jennifer Olsen’s Facebook page” are why.
The posted image shows a cardboard box propped up on one end with a stick. Beneath the box is a watermelon. Above the image, a caption reads “Breaking: The secret service just uncovered a plot to kidnap the president. More details as we get them….”
The image has circulated on the Internet at least since the 2008 presidential election and is disseminated by sites like funnyandjokes.com and teaparty.ning.org.
Olsen’s Facebook page is locked, but the screenshot posted by French indicates the image was shared from the Facebook account of Rich Diamond. French said Friday she is not one of Olsen’s Facebook friends, but received the image from someone who is. French said it wasn’t her intention to do Olsen harm.
“I don’t want to ruin her life with this,” said French, a Montana Cannabis Industry Association board member. “I think if she had just immediately said ‘I’m sorry, this is obscene, or off color, there’s no excuse for my post,’ it would have been done for me.”
The Montana Republican Party is watching from the sideline. Bowen Greenwood, the state party's executive director said officials will not interfere with what should be a county committee issue.
“The position of the Montana GOP is that racially insensitive conversation is offensive no matter who says it, whether they’re Republican or not,” Greenwood said.
On more than one occasion since 2008, Montana Republicans have been called out for racist remarks since President Obama first won election. In a well-publicized case last year, U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull forwarded a racist email to colleagues from his work computer. Cebull is scheduled to take senior status next month, meaning he will hear cases, but most likely have a reduced workload.
Cebull, who will be 69 in 2013, is being investigated by a special committee of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the email about Obama that he admitted to sending from his work computer to friends in February.
Cebull publicly apologized and asked the appellate court for a review of his actions.