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Thrasher: I was joking

The House speaker says his linking a basketball analogy with a black state senator was not intended to offend.

House Speaker John Thrasher says he was only joking.

A day after he used a basketball analogy to describe a black state senator's opposition to ending Florida's affirmative action policies, Thrasher said he never meant to offend anyone.

At a meeting this week of the Tallahassee Tiger Bay Club, a political group, Thrasher said: "I truly have believed that white men can't jump. I believed that until I started working around Kendrick Meek."

On Friday, Thrasher issued a statement blasting the St. Petersburg Times for "reporting the speech as if it was real news and it clearly was not. It was never my intention to offend anyone and I regret if any offense was taken."

During the speech, Thrasher also characterized the negative reaction to Gov. Jeb Bush's plan as the biggest "whine-fest" in recent history. On a separate issue, Thrasher cracked some jokes while assailing a string of recent lawsuits challenging laws passed by the Legislature.

Thrasher said jokes are required in speeches before the "notoriously irreverent" political club. Others also joshed in the speeches leading up to Thrasher's, and Senate President Toni Jennings intermingled a few jokes with a more serious preview of her goals for the upcoming legislative session.

"This is an event where the Senate President and the Speaker lampoon the process, themselves and others," Thrasher said in his statement Friday. "It is basically an hour of, arguably bad, stand-up comedy. My entire speech was meant to be humorous, as is required during that club's annual pre-session event."

Thrasher's jokes about Sen. Meek produced no audible laughter among the several hundred people who attended the event, and on Friday, Meek wasn't laughing either.

Meek, a Democrat, said he wasn't sure what the basketball remark meant and suggested that the Republican speaker "get better joke writers."

"All I can say is that I'm praying for Mr. Thrasher," Meek said at a news conference he called Friday. "But at the same time, these are the people that are saying, "Trust us.' "

In November, Bush signed an executive order ending racial and gender preferences in state hiring, contracting and university admissions. He and allies such as Thrasher say they hope to promote more diversity with Bush's "One Florida" plan.

But last month, Meek and another African-American lawmaker protested Bush's plan by refusing to leave Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan's office for 25 hours. The standoff ended when Bush agreed to hold three public meetings around the state. Thousands attended the meetings, mostly to protest the governor's policy. The final meeting was held Thursday.

Bush said Friday that he plans to push ahead with the plan to end state gender and racial preferences.

"I believe we should reject those. They are discriminatory," he said. "A great majority of Floridians are opposed to quotas and set-asides."

But the governor also said he listened to those who spoke and plans to incorporate some of their suggestions.

Meek said that what he finds offensive is not necessarily Thrasher's comments, but Bush's insistence on moving forward.

"Attitude is everything in this debate," Meek said. "The offensive part of this whole thing is the attitude from the top, and that's the governor. Not toward me, but toward women and minorities. And when you have that attitude from the top, what do you expect? The followers will follow suit."

But Leon Russell, former president of the Florida NAACP, said that Thrasher's joke was "totally out of line."

"I think it's an insult, period," Russell said. "I think he owes Kendrick an apology."

Steve MacNamara, Thrasher's chief of staff, said that Thrasher only meant that Meek "got us jumping, he got our attention." As for the speaker's comments about lawsuits challenging laws passed by the Legislature, MacNamara said, "I'm sure it bothers him.

"It's based in fact," MacNamara said, "but it's humorous nonetheless."

MacNamara pointed out that other news outlets attended the club meeting and did not report Thrasher's comments.

"Your colleagues are rolling their eyes that this ever got written in the first place," MacNamara said. "He was just down there trying to make them laugh."

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.