TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - A Florida state senator apologized Wednesday for using a racial slur and vulgar insults during a private, after-hours conversation with two African-American colleagues, but black lawmakers say that wasn't enough and called for his removal.
Republican Sen. Frank Artiles gave the three-minute apology on the Senate floor as the chamber began its business for the day.
"I extend a heartfelt apology to my colleagues and to all of those I have offended," said Artiles, a Cuban-American from the Miami area. "My harsh words have adversely reflected more on me than they could ever have on anyone else."
Less than three hours later, the 28-member Florida Legislative Black Caucus voted unanimously to file a complaint against Artiles seeking his removal from the Senate.
"Are words of contrition sufficient to erase the damage that Senator Artiles has caused, or do we finally insist that he bear the consequences?" said Democratic Sen. Perry Thurston, who was part of the conversation Monday night that led to Artiles' apology. "This incident is not the first, nor do we believe it will be the last from a man who has not yet learned the value of respect and dignity owed to members with whom he serves."
Several others at the club, including lobbyists, witnessed the exchange and Thurston said they could be called as witnesses.
Republican leaders took immediate steps to act on the complaint. The Rules Committee chairwoman agreed it's likely Artiles violated chamber rules and Senate President Joe Negron assigned a lawyer to the case and asked for a recommendation by Tuesday. If it's determined there was a rules violation, the Senate can discipline Artiles, which could include expulsion.
Artiles called Sen. Audrey Gibson obscenities, including one particularly offensive to women, during a conversation at the members-only Governors Club a short walk from the Capitol. After Thurston intervened, Artiles continued on and blamed "six n------" for letting Negron rise to power. He also referred to Negron using a vulgar term.
Artiles said afterward the word he used was "niggas," as if the slang version was less offensive. In his apology, he said it is a term used in Hialeah, the city outside of Miami where he grew up.
"I grew up in a diverse community. We share each other's customs, cultures and vernacular," he said. "I realize that my position does not allow me for the looseness of words or slang, regardless of how benign my intentions were."
Sen. Oscar Braynon, an African-American who serves as the Senate Democratic leader, said Artiles shouldn't have used any variation of the word.
"To say that the ending of the word changes the connotation of it, I think the word may be asinine," he said. "Whether it's -er, -a, -z, whatever it is, it's offensive. It's not something that anyone should be saying. No one should be called that word."
Just before the apology, Negron replaced Artiles as chairman of the Communications, Energy and Public Utilities Committee.
Artiles said on the Senate floor that he was particularly sorry for the words he hurled at Gibson, of Jacksonville, because they were personal.
"I am so sorry for the words and tone I used with you," Artiles said. "There is no excuse, nor will I offer one. My comments to you are the most regretful of all because they injured you personally."
Gibson, who sits two rows in front of Artiles, didn't turn to look at him.
"There should be no grudges and reason to talk terribly to or about anyone," Gibson said earlier in the morning. "I'm ready to move past it so we can do the work."
She didn't join members of the Black Caucus at a press conference discussing the complaint against Artiles.
Artiles seemed less contrite speaking to reporters after his apology.
"I did not insult anybody directly. What I had was a heated debate with a colleague and I basically apologized for that," Artiles said. "Arguments happen."
He added that other senators have had "heated debates" and "yet nobody's asking for their resignation." Artiles said he not only won't step down, but he's planning to run for re-election next year and suggested that Democrats are making an issue of his remarks because they're targeting his seat.
Braynon said that's not the case.
"That's absolutely hilarious - that we made this happen to him, that we did this to him. If we actually think about it politically, we want him to stay till 2018 and hang this around his neck," Braynon said. "This is not politically motivated. This is about human beings. This is about respect for this body. This is about respect as a Legislature."
AP writers Gary Fineout and Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.