BILLINGS – A Billings candidate for state Legislature is being accused of racism by his former classmates at a conservative Christian university.
Republican Robert Saunders is being accused of telling a black college peer at Patrick Henry College that at an earlier point in America’s history, he would have owned her. Another peer said Saunders once said President Barack Obama and his family should be “sent back to the fields to pick cotton.”
The comments, including a video of Saunders's female accuser, were posted on the Democratic gossip blog Montana Cowgirl.
Through interviews and email inspections, the Billings Gazette confirmed Saunders's classmates were the source of the allegations.
Saunders said there was no truth to the allegations, calling his former classmates not credible.
“At the end of the day, I’m not a racist. I have never been a racist, I will never be a racist,” Saunders said. “My relationships with a number of people will demonstrate that I’m not a racist.”
Patrick Henry College is a Washington, D.C.-area school “founded in 2000 with a vision to restore America by educating the best and brightest Christian students to take their place as future leaders of the nation and its culture,” according to its website. Its alumni are encouraged to run for public office.
But when former classmates Stewart Lundy and Erin Eskew learned of Saunders's campaign to represent north central Billings in the Montana Legislature, they objected.
Lundy got word to Saunders's opponent, Democratic Rep. Jessica Karjala, that comments allegedly made by Saunders at Patrick Henry deserved looking into. Karjala turned the emails over to attorney Gene Jarussi, who contacted Lundy, who recalled Saunders's making the comments about President Obama.
This year’s HD 48 race has been a battle. Last month, Saunders's attorney wrote Karjala a warning letter accusing her of attempting to damage his reputation by suggesting he believes only rich people should vote. The allegation was based on an online survey response Saunders filled out.
Saunders earlier said that Karjala is misinterpreting what he wrote. Likewise, Karjala is accusing Saunders of misrepresenting her record by telling constituents she voted to give herself a pay raise, which she didn’t.
Speaking to Jarussi, Lundy, a Virginia farmer, also suggested the attorney contact Erin Eskew, one of only a couple of black students in Patrick Henry’s student body of 300 during Saunders time at the school.
Eskew recalled being in dining hall discussion with Saunders during their freshman year in college that ended with a racist remark toward her.
“I can remember being in the old dining hall during lunch and the particulars of the conversation surrounding, I don’t remember all that led up to the comment, but he made the statement that ‘about 100 years ago, I would have owned you,’” Eskew told Jarussi, who video recorded the conversation.
Jarussi, his wife, Karen, and Eskew met in San Antonio, where the Jarussis were visiting Karen’s brother at a managed care facility last month. They had been trying to contact Eskew via Facebook to verify what Lundy had told them.
When they reached Eskew and learned she had a Texas phone number, they called. Eskew’s husband is in the military. The couple recently relocated to Texas.
Eskew, like many of Patrick Henry’s Christian alumni, is Republican. She said the choice to come forward wasn’t easy, but she reasoned that this year’s presidential candidates would be different had the people who knew Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spoken up years earlier. She said she didn’t hate Saunders.
“I don’t personally hold any ongoing malice toward him because honestly I feel like racism stems from either a place of ignorance or malice, and that with either one of those things it’s a reflection that there’s something going on in his life or his heart that I don’t envy,” Eskew said.
Eskew said Saunders never apologized for the remark and that she avoided him for her next three years of school. With only 300 students, Patrick Henry attendees knew each other, knew each other’s majors. It was hard not to, Eskew said.
Saunders said he maybe spoke with Eskew once, during freshman orientation, but never again. The conversation Eskew references, never happened, he said.
“The fact is, I really don’t know either of these two people. I don’t know if I spoke to this Stewart Lundy guy. He was like three years ahead of me,” Saunders said. “I met Erin maybe once.
“I don’t remember saying that. That’s not something I would have said. One hundred years ago? That would have been 1910. So, I wouldn’t have said that. Maybe she misunderstood me. Maybe that’s why she happens to hate my guts now, but I wouldn’t have said that.”