Some political observers allege a Republican Kenner mayoral hopeful was being racially insensitive when he publicly told a joke this week that mentioned fried chicken, left wings and Democrats. But the candidate and some others who heard the joke deny it was racist, saying the barb was simply a play on words attacking a rival political ideology.

At the center of the controversy is Kenner City Councilman Keith Reynaud, who participated Tuesday night in a cook-off hosted by the River Region Republican Women's organization to raise funds for a nonprofit that donates dictionaries to young students.

While introducing the fried pork loin dish he had prepared, Reynaud -- who is running for mayor in the Nov. 8 primary -- joked with the event's attendees that he would have made fried chicken and served only the left wings if they were all at a Democratic event, according to accounts from the councilman and others who were there.

In the crowd was Jefferson Parish Councilman Mark Spears, a black Democrat who represents a portion of Kenner and who had been invited to the event by council colleague Ben Zahn, another Republican candidate for mayor of Kenner.

Spears went on Facebook early Wednesday and referred to Reynaud's remarks in a post first picked up by the political blog Slabbed.org, touching off a discussion about whether the joke was appropriate.

Spears and some others who heard the joke said it invoked two stereotypes about black Americans: that they vote for Democrats and enjoy fried chicken.

"I was personally offended that your attack on the Democratic Party was specifically disparaging to my race," Spears said in a letter sent to Reynaud on Wednesday afternoon, demanding an apology. "In the future, please think before you speak."

Reynaud insisted Wednesday that he was merely using food-related imagery to make light of the fact there are liberals and conservatives in politics.

He said "there was nothing racist about (the) comment all" and said the remark was being blown out of proportion by Spears -- who has endorsed Zahn for mayor -- as well as others who simply oppose his mayoral campaign.

"The remark was strictly, 'We have left-wing people and right-wing people' ... and if anybody took it any other way aside from a political joke, well, I am very, very sorry," Reynaud said. "We were at a Republican event, and I made what I thought was a Democratic joke."

Spears and Reynaud each found backers for their viewpoints.

Louis Congemi, a former Kenner mayor and ex-Parish Council member who supports Zahn, said, "I felt what I think a lot of people felt -- that it was a downer and shocking. It was inappropriate and in poor taste."

Similarly, attorney Arita Bohannan -- a former Kenner City Council candidate -- said, "The comment was unfortunate considering the state of racial relations in our country."

She added, "I find comfort in the fact that when it was made, a hush fell over the room, making it clear these comments are not shared by our party. The Republican Party is growing and changing, and my hope is that Mr. Reynaud's comments do not overshadow the huge success of the fundraiser."

Landon Allen, a black Republican and retired Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War, said he did not hear Reynaud's joke because he was outside the room retrieving fliers from his car at the time. Nonetheless, he said he was "definitely disappointed" to learn of the joke second-hand, adding that he couldn't imagine what its goal was.

"When you're with a mixed group of people, you have to be very careful, because anything you say can be misconstrued," Allen said. "If I want you to be my mayor or my president, I want you to be careful with what you say."

However, two other high-profile cook-off attendees sided with Reynaud: state GOP Chairman Roger Villere and Jefferson Parish School Board member Sandy Denapolis-Bosarge.

"I took it as a joke about left-wing ideology," Villere said. "It was a jovial atmosphere. If people took it wrong, they were just being ultra-sensitive."

Denapolis-Bosarge said, "You could see it wasn't anything racial or derogatory. ... It was done in jest, and if it was aimed at any group, it was aimed at the Democrats ... because this was a Republican function."

Rounding out the field of candidates for mayor in the primary are Republican City Councilwoman Maria DeFrancesch, Democratic City Councilman Gregory Carroll and unaffiliated civic activist Al Morella.

A runoff, if necessary, is set for Dec. 10.

Follow Ramon Antonio Vargas on Twitter, @RVargasAdvocate.

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