PHOENIX — Two Democratic lawmakers walked out of a Senate hearing Thursday to protest a presentation by the leader of a civilian border surveillance group who a watchdog organization describes as a “vitriolic Mexican-basher.”
Glenn Spencer was invited to speak to the same Senate committee on border security last year, but the request was later rescinded after several media outlets reported allegations of racism against him.
Republican Sen. Sylvia Allen, who invited Spencer, said he’s a victim of character assassination by critics who should instead be “debating the issues.”
She said Spencer appeared before the committee she chairs to demonstrate technology his company is developing to detect border crossings.
Spencer said the allegations against him are baseless and he invites anyone to look into his background.
Allen said she “felt very bad” about canceling last year’s appearance after looking into the claims and speaking to him.
“I wasn’t having him come to the committee to debate illegal immigration,” she told The Associated Press on Thursday. “I had him come to the committee to share some very important technology that they have developed that’s important to look at.”
Allen said she has discussed charges of racism and anti-Semitism with Spencer.
“He said to me ‘I am not racist.’ He said ‘I get excited and say we’ve got to secure our border and stop people from coming.’”
Allen added: “I don’t know totally Mr. Spencer’s heart ... but I know my dealings with him. He has never talked ever in any way that alarmed me. It’s just about this technology.”
The technology is a sensor system that uses a buried cable and solar-powered sonic device to detect border crossings by vehicle, airplane tunnel or on foot.
Allen called the technology “fascinating,” and Spencer said the lawmakers who remained in the hearing were very supportive of it.
The two Democratic lawmakers who walked out later issued a statement about their protest.
“It’s truly disgusting that Senate Tea Party leaders have such disrespect for Hispanics, Jews, and other Americans,” Sen. Steve Gallardo of Phoenix said in the statement.
Sen. Robert Meza of Phoenix, who also walked out, said: “It’s inappropriate behavior on the part of Senator Allen and we, the diverse people of Arizona, should not enable hate-mongers to be the voice of our state.”
Allen said that Meza left politely and quietly after voicing his objection but that Gallardo was “stomping and shouting and waving his arms and disparaging me. He was acting out like a bully and stomped out. I think that’s very inappropriate for a state senator to do that.”
Allen said the protest and allegations against Spencer are a symptom of “open border people,” attacking “anybody that is trying to find solutions.”
“I am tired of these battles being fought by character assassination instead of debating the issues,” she said.
Spencer has focused on border issues since he retired from the oil industry in 1992. He moved from California to southern Arizona and formed the American Border Patrol, a group described on its website as a nonprofit that acts as a government watchdog and regularly monitors the border, mostly by air.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate groups, has an online profile of Spencer, which states that he “may have done more than anyone to spread the myth of a secret Mexican conspiracy to reconquer the Southwest.” The center has listed Spencer’s organization as a hate group since 2001.
Spencer, who was reached on his cellphone after the committee hearing, denied the allegations against him and called them “insane” and “fabricated.” He also noted Hispanic, Jewish and Native American people he said he’s known and worked with for years.
He said his critics “use these phony accusations to silence me.”
Spencer said he’s willing to sit down with anyone and defend his character.
“If anybody wants to investigate my background and do a decent job, they’ll find out these accusations are baseless,” he said.