JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — All the people outraged about the Mississippi bill to rename the Gulf of Mexico as the "Gulf of America" have missed its satirical intent, the sponsor said Thursday.
State Rep. Steve Holland, a populist Democrat known for over-the-top gestures, said he was tickled that his provocation had rocketed across the Internet.
Holland says the measure is meant to mock other bills that would crack down on illegal immigration. At least six such bills have already been assigned for committee consideration in the state's current legislative session, and more could be on the way.
"It seems the people of Mississippi have elected a majority group to govern that wants to slam all minorities and especially Hispanic," Holland said, adding that he thought such legislation is un-Christian.
Newly elected Gov. Phil Bryant, a Republican, is a longtime supporter of tougher restrictions on illegal immigration. Such bills had died in a Democratic-controlled Mississippi House in previous years, but Republicans won control of the chamber last November.
Holland's current House Bill 150 manages to avoid even saying the word Mexico. It refers to "the body of water located directly south of Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties," saying it will be renamed as the Gulf of America for "official purposes within the state of Mississippi."
The longtime legislator is known for his sense of humor. Holland is a funeral director, and his funeral home gives out insulated beverage sleeves that say "We'll be the last to let you down."
News of the bill spread across the Internet Wednesday after it was noticed by the website of the alternative weekly newspaper in New Orleans called the Gambit. Many websites and commenters took the bill at face value, slamming Holland as a stereotypical Mississippi bigot.
Holland, from the north Mississippi town of Plantersville, said he was getting lots of calls from national news outlets about the proposal, but was limiting interviews to Mississippi reporters.
Café Con Leche Republicans, a Minnesota-based group that promotes a pro-immigrant and pro-Hispanic stance within the Republican Party called on Holland to withdraw the bill. The group suggests renaming the Mississippi River as the Lincoln River so it wouldn't share a name "with a state that wants to rewrite maps out of disdain for Mexicans."
"Apparently you don't take your responsibilities seriously," wrote Bob Quasius, president of the GOP group. "Surely the State of Mississippi has more pressing matters to attend to than this. Did you stop to think of the expense of rewriting textbooks or changing maps?"
When reached by The Associated Press, Quasius said that even if the bill was meant as a joke, Holland should still withdraw it and apologize, saying Holland was wasting taxpayers' money. "It's in rather poor taste and we don't pay legislators to make jokes."
Quasius said race, immigration and ethnicity were issues too sensitive for satire.
"It's not the time and place for satire," Quasius said. "A leader should be sensitive and in tune with how a proposal they make will be taken."
Comedian and satirist Stephen Colbert joked on his show in 2010, during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, that the body of water should be renamed as the Gulf of America.
"I don't think we can call it the Gulf of Mexico anymore," Colbert said in announcing a charitable fund to help people affected by the spill. "We broke it, we bought it."
A spokeswoman for Colbert said he was unavailable for comment Thursday.