Richard Lessner, the Arizona Republic editorial writer who inflamed Hurricane Andrew survivors in Florida when his victim-bashing column was reprinted there, has resigned under fire.
Lessner walked out on Tuesday rather than accept a demotion to religion writer, a position he held when he joined the Republic in 1981, Lessner tells New Times.
Lessner says he was given three reasons for his demotion: "The publisher [Louis "Chip" Weil] has no confidence in me, he doesn't like some of the editorials I've written, and the Benson cartoon issue."
Steve Benson's November 12 editorial cartoon, which decried gays in the military, was approved by Lessner in the absence of his boss, editorial page editor William Cheshire. Weil was reportedly enraged by the cartoon, depicting a Navy battleship in "combat readiness." As a cartoon voice cries out, "All hands on deck! All hands on deck!", another voice adds, "For you gay guys, all hands to yourselves."
"I think Chip has become sensitized to gay-bashing in the Republic recently," one source inside the Republic and Gazette says. "This incident put him over the top with Richard."
Lessner counters, "I think the real reason [for the demotion] is he just didn't like me."
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Lessner adds that he "personally disagreed with the cartoon; I think gays in the military can be reasonably managed. But the point was it was Benson's opinion and it was within the bounds of propriety."
Benson says, "I'm not in a position to talk about it."
Lessner says Cheshire told him Tuesday morning that he retained his "full faith and trust."
Lessner has retained an attorney, sources say.
Hundreds of Floridians wrote or telephoned the Republic after the Miami Herald reprinted Lessner's screed, in which he described hurricane victims as "crybabies" and "suckers" ("Hurricane Lessner," October 14). The Republic declined to run any of the letters, or even acknowledge the acrimony created by Lessner's column. For its part, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Herald dubbed Lessner an "Arizona jackass."
Neither Cheshire nor Weil returned phone calls from New Times.