St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson is seen on the county-recorded videotape, stating that he would be willing to vote for slavery if his constituents wanted it.
But Nelson said Thursday, after the video was posted on the Web site YouTube, that the statement is being taken out of context.
His slavery comment was made at a Feb. 27 meeting during a heated debate over the proposed countywide smoking ban, in response to a question from board chairman Bill Kron.
"It was a terse response to a smart-ass remark," Nelson said. "My job is to represent my constituents because that's what I was elected to do. But if it came down to morals, I could not represent people who believe in slavery. There's no way I could represent people in the United States who supported slavery."
At the meeting, Nelson, a nonsmoker, said the constituents he has talked to don't want smoking banned in bars and therefore he would support their wishes. Kron then asked Nelson if he would support slavery if his constituents wanted it.
On the tape, Nelson responds:
"Commissioner Kron, if the people in my district had voted for slavery and the vast majority had, and I was representing them, then the answer is yes, I would have voted for it, because that's my job. My job is to represent the people in my district. It is not to impose upon them my will. That is called a totalitarian state. Last time I saw, we still live in a democracy."
A video clip of Nelson's comments was posted Thursday on www.youtube.com, a Web site notorious for posting candid videos. The clip did not include Kron's question.
Nelson said Thursday that Kron's question was unfair.
"The fact of the matter is that I had made a statement that this is a representative democracy," he said. "I am not a smoker and if I was going to vote on what I feel, there would be a total smoking ban. But my job is to represent the people of my district."
Kron said Thursday he wasn't trying to set Nelson up with the slavery question. Kron says he has no ill feeling toward Nelson.
"I certainly don't believe that he supports slavery in any way, shape or form," Kron said. "I respect Commissioner Nelson's opinions and I think he has the best interest of his constituents in mind."
Kron said he asked Nelson the slavery question to make a point.
"I was trying to make the point that there are principles where you don't always go by the majority," said Kron, who has supported a countywide smoking ban.
Garrick Percival, a University of Minnesota Duluth assistant political science professor, says it's difficult for politicians, at times, to determine whether to support the majority opinion of their constituents or act independently.
"He [Nelson] thinks he has a strong signal from his constituents and he is going to do what they want," Percival said. "But for every policy issue, there isn't going to be a clear signal from the constituents. My guess is that most politicians, if they're getting a lot of strong signals, will go along with their constituents. But on other issues where the public isn't as involved, they will make their own decisions."
Nelson says some county employees intentionally brought the exchange to light only days before public meetings are to begin on the smoking ban to make him look as if he is against it.
"They're trying to paint me as someone who is unreasonable, specifically on the smoking ordinance," Nelson said. "What they're trying to do is pigeonhole me on the smoking issue."
Pat McKone of the American Lung Association, a smoking ban activist, called a reporter Thursday to suggest that he look up the Keith Nelson video on YouTube.
Kron says he continues to have high regard for Nelson and other commissioners.
"I value all my colleagues and I want to work positively with them," Kron said. "I consider Keith a friend."