NASHVILLE — An Ocoee, Tenn., congressional candidate, who has ignited a furor with a billboard that says "Make America White Again," says he hopes to awaken a white "sleeping giant" in the country.
Rick Tyler, a primary owner of the Whitewater Grill who is running as an independent in Tennessee's 3rd Congressional District, is drawing intense criticism over the sign, located near U.S. Highway 411. He says it was taken down early Wednesday without his authorization.facebook
He also has a second billboard on U.S. Highway 64 in Polk County. It features Martin Luther King's famous "I Have a Dream" quote.
It's backdrop is a rendering of the White House surrounded by Confederate flags.
Tyler in an interview described himself as "an insurgent candidate.
"I'm doing something that in modern political history no one has ever done. I'm laying out the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth," said Tyler who described himself as a good Christian. "There are certain issues that are verboten in modern politics, race obviously being one of them."
He said he believes a large majority of whites agree with him but are hesitant to come out and say so publicly.
Incumbent U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., denounced Tyler and the "Make America White Again" billboard in a statement, saying "I totally and unequivocally condemn the billboard and Mr. Tyler's message and will vigorously fight any form of racism in the 3rd district of Tennessee or anywhere else in the nation."
Also rebuking Tyler was Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Ryan Haynes.
"There's no room for this type of hateful display in our political discourse," Haynes said. "Racism should be rejected in all its heinous forms in the Third Congressional District and around the country."
Tyler is one of three independent candidates running against Fleischmann in the Nov. 8 general election.
The "Make American White Again" billboard — an apparent play on presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump's "Make America Great Again" slogan — spurred the Kiwanis Club of Ocoee to announce Wednesday on its Facebook page the group will no longer meet at the restaurant. The civic group's head called Tyler's statements "repugnant."
Tyler said earlier he is running "significantly to the right" of Fleischmann.
Asked whether he thinks Fleischmann is insufficiently conservative, Tyler said "the liberal-conservative paradigm, you know, is false duopoly in my mind."
The "Make America White Again" billboard on U.S. 411 in Polk County was removed about 4 a.m. Wednesday, Tyler said. He noted his understanding is the wife of the billboard sign's owner had the ad removed without his permission. He plans to consult his attorney.
Tyler rejects labels like "racist" and "white nationalist" - they're too vague, he said. But he noted he sees himself as "ethnocentric" in the same ways he contends that blacks and hispanics do through organizations ke La Raza.
The online version of Merriam-Webster defines ethnocentric as "having or based on the idea that your own group or culture is better or more important than others."
"My main impetus would be to stop the cessation of all non-white immigration into the U.S.," Tyler said, adding what is happening now is "extra-constitutional."
Tyler, who said he has nothing against "people of color," asked, "What's the big deal with make America white again?"
He said his view of the country hearkens back, in his opinion, to an "Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver time" in the 1960s when "we didn't have carjackings. We didn't have Muslim sleeper cells... We didn't have the clash of civilizations."
In a statement posted Tuesday night on its Facebook page, local Kiwanis President Chris Newton wrote that "due to recent statements and overtly racist billboards by the principal owner of the Whitewater Grill in Ocoee and himself a declared Independent candidate for Congress, the Kiwanis Club of Ocoee will never meet there again.
"We are a civic club of inclusion and not exclusion and find these statements repugnant," Newton added. "As a citizen of Polk County, I, Chris Newton, will never personally be back to this establishment. We will be locating a new meeting venue in the coming days."
Many people posting to the Kiwanis Facebook site supported Newton. But a woman identifying herself as Theresa Bivens, wrote "I'm just guessing but I am gonna say that most of y'all voted for Obama and a change. This man that owns this business here in Polk county is not the one that made America a racist country. I believe he is just saying that white people in general matter too in a country that is only supporting its African Americans and all the illegal immigrants.
"This does not mean that I am a racist person," she added, "it just means it's about time that the white Americans are recognized as being part of this country again."
Another woman posting with the name Brenda Maynard took issue, writing the "statement is as ignorant as that billboard. All people matter. !! And as a white person I'm nothing but embarrassed about this because I'm from Polk co."
Fleischmann is heavily favored in the Aug. 4 GOP primary where he faces Allan Levene - who is running for Congress not only in Tennessee but Georgia - and Geoffery Suhmer Smith.
Michael Friedman, George Ryan Love and Melody Shekari are competing for the Democratic nomination.
Tyler along with two other independent candidates, Topher Kersting and Cassandra Mitchell, don't have primaries and will be on the fall general election ballot.
The outspoken Tyler also said he is looking into selling his share in the restaurant because he doesn't believe it should be targeted by critics.
He wants similar signs all across the 10-county district which includes all or parts of Hamilton, Bradley, Polk, McMinn, Monroe, Anderson, Roane, Union and Campbell counties.
This story was updated June 22 at 2:55 p.m. to make minor edits and at 7:50 p.m. to add additional information.