Rep. Rui Xu says he was offended by what appeared to be a racially motivated gesture from a top senator's aide Friday night on the House floor.
Ethan Patterson, the chief of staff for Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, denies making the gesture, and the moment in dispute wasn't captured by the official video broadcast of House action.
The alleged incident happened while Senate and House leadership were meeting in advance of a House vote on a budget proposal. Lawmakers are at an impasse in a dispute over the unwillingness of Senate leaders to put Medicaid expansion to a vote before finishing this year's session.
Xu, a Democrat from Westwood, and an assistant said they saw Patterson waiting in a doorway that leads to House leadership offices. They said Patterson looked directly at Xu, placed his hands together and leaned forward in a bow, which Xu interpreted as a gesture reminiscent of 1940s propaganda that reduced Asian-American people to caricatures.
After winning election in November, Xu became the first Asian-American lawmaker to serve in the Kansas House. Xu said he was concerned that someone would make a gesture based on what he looks like.
"Growing up, I never had anybody like me in a position of power, and I'm finally able to be a voice to amplify," Xu said. "It would be a dereliction of duty, actually, for me to just let this slide."
Patterson said he didn't make the gesture and couldn't recall seeing Xu.
"I don't remember doing anything fictitious or horrible toward anyone," Patterson said.
Patterson said he is sensitive about offensive behavior because his wife is from El Salvador.
Helena Buchmann, a Democratic volunteer who helped look after another representative's children for a while on Friday night, said she was talking to Xu when she noticed Patterson looking in their direction. Then, Buchmann said, Patterson smiled at them and made the offensive gesture.
"I was like, oh, OK — I see what's happening here," Buchman said. "It was just very bizarre and very off-putting. He was just staring and smiling, and then he did that. It was very weird."
Afterward, Buchmann said, Patterson kept smiling at them.
"The combination of the staring, the smiling and the gesture, where it was directed, seemed very deliberate to me," Buchmann said.
Xu said he wanted Patterson to apologize.
"I don't believe I would have anything to apologize about," Patterson said. "I didn't mean anything. If I offended anyone, I'm sorry. But there was nothing demeaning or purposeful or some kind of attack or rude thing."