California County Hires Hate Group Founder to do PR for Supervisor

The founder of a nativist hate group who allowed neo-Nazis to join his anti-illegal immigration rallies has a new job doing public relations work for a government official in Southern California.

Joe Turner was hired Tuesday by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors to serve as a special projects coordinator. Turner’s responsibilities will include writing press releases and newspaper opinion pieces reflecting the views of Supervisor Neil Derry, county spokesman David Wert told Hatewatch. His salary will be $54,995.

Turner’s appointment has provoked an outcry from some community members, who point to his controversial statements and acceptance of open white supremacists at anti-illegal immigration rallies. “I guess David Duke wasn’t available,” quipped Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.

Turner founded and led Save Our State, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a hate group since it first appeared in late 2004. On Turner’s watch, Save Our State regularly failed to turn away neo-Nazis and racist skinheads, some uniformed and carrying white power-themed flags, who joined its rallies on the streets of Southern California. Later, he led efforts to get the city of San Bernardino to pass an ordinance aimed at penalizing undocumented immigrants. That led to his being hired by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which is also listed as a hate group by SPLC, in late 2006. He left FAIR under unclear circumstances in December 2007.

Save Our State’s online forum also included blatantly racist posts that Turner failed to delete. Turner himself contributed controversial comments to the forum, including one that amounted to a defense of white separatism. “I can make the argument that just because one believes in white separatism, that does not make them a racist,” he wrote in 2005. “I can make the argument that someone who proclaims to be a white nationalist isn’t necessarily a white supremacist. I don’t think that standing up for your ‘kind’ or ‘your race’ makes you a bad person.”

But Turner’s unsavory history didn’t seem to dissuade the San Bernardino supervisors, who voted 4-0 to approve his employment contract. Although neither Derry nor Turner returned calls from Hatewatch, county spokesman Wert defended Turner’s selection. The former Save Our State leader has done nothing to indicate he has neo-Nazi leanings, Wert said, though he was advised to tone down his rhetoric on illegal immigration. “He’s become kind of a lightning rod for those who are supportive of illegal immigration, and we understand that. But Mr. Derry feels he will do a very good job with the duties he’s been assigned to in this position.”

Levin, the California State professor, says the debate surrounding Turner isn’t about immigration. “There are people of goodwill who hold conservative views on immigration. This is someone who has used egregious race-baiting, and that should disqualify him from any position of trust in government, especially in a county that has such a high proportion of Latinos.”

It’s not Turner’s first job with the county. He currently works as an analyst for the San Bernardino County Department of Public Health, which “place[s] a high value on strong working alliances with local community groups representing the diverse populations who live in all areas of our large county,” according to its website.

It’s also not the first time Turner has been the focus of controversy. In 2006, a San Bernardino Unified School District union retracted its endorsement of Turner’s school board candidacy after members raised concerns about racism.

Nonetheless, Turner can feel confident he has the support of Save Our State activists, who yesterday wrote laudatory messages on the organization’s web forum. “Congrats Joe,” said one post. “It’s a new day, and your voice is being heard.”