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Calif. education secretary urged to resign over joke

LOS ANGELES -- The head of the California NAACP is demanding that state Education Secretary Richard Riordan resign for jokingly telling a preschooler that her name, Isis, meant "stupid dirty girl."

Riordan, the wealthy former Los Angeles mayor known for his support of public schools, startled even friends last week with the comments at a Santa Barbara library.

Alice Huffman, president of the California chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said Riordan "is not suitable to lead education in our state" and should be removed.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, his longtime friend, called Riordan's statement to the girl "unacceptable in any context" but gave no hint that his job was in danger.

But the issue has persisted. In an editorial yesterday, The Sacramento Bee said California "shouldn't have an education secretary who makes offensive, damaging remarks to young children for no apparent reason."

The conversation, videotaped by KEYT-TV, took place yesterday at a promotional event for summer reading at Santa Barbara's central library. The unidentified girl, who is white with blond hair and appeared to be a preschooler, asked Riordan if he knew that her name meant "Egyptian goddess."

Riordan replied, "It means stupid dirty girl."

After nervous laughter in the room, the girl again told Riordan the meaning of her name.

"Hey, that's nifty," he said.

A day later, Riordan issued a statement that said he "teased" the girl.

"I immediately apologized to her, and I want to do so again for the misunderstanding," Riordan said.

Riordan, a venture capitalist who started a foundation supporting literacy, has a reputation for awkward -- some might say insensitive -- remarks and behavior.

As mayor, he once greeted hunger strikers outside his office eating a hamburger.

"There wasn't an uproar, but some people felt the comment was inappropriate," said Joseph Jones, assistant executive director of the Association of California School Administrators.

State Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg, a Democrat who served on the Los Angeles City Council when Riordan was mayor, called the remarks to the girl "completely reprehensible" but said they were uncharacteristic for a man with a soft touch for children.

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