By Ryan Nobles and Devan Cole, CNN
Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island defended his family’s ties to an exclusive beach club in the state on Wednesday but apologized for “failing to address” what he called the “lack of diversity” at a sailing club to which he belongs.
The comments from Whitehouse come as he faces criticism for his family’s connection to Bailey’s Beach Club in Newport, after a local news outlet alleged the club has only White members — a charge Whitehouse has denied. While the senator recently told GoLocalProv, a Rhode Island-based news site, that the club’s leaders “are still working on (issues of diversity) and I’m sorry it hasn’t happened yet,” he said on Wednesday that it is his wife, not he, who holds a membership with the club.
“A representative of a local website recently caught me off guard by asking me about diversity at a beach club to which family members of mine belong. I was attending an unrelated event and wasn’t prepared for the question. At the time, I made the mistake of accepting her premise,” he said. “I then checked the assertion and was assured that, first, the assertion was wrong, there is diversity in the membership and there are non-white club members; and second, that improving diversity remains a priority and an active task for the club’s new board.”
Whitehouse continued: “There have been calls for me to resign from the club, which I understand. However, I have no membership to resign, nor will I ask my wife or any other family members to do so. First, they are on the right side of pushing for improvements. Second, and more importantly, my relationship with my family is not one in which I tell them what to do.”
The senator also referenced a statement issued by the club on Wednesday to WPRI 12 in which the club said it has had racial, religious and ethnic diversity over the years and called recent allegations about its demographics “inaccurate and false.”
“Our membership comes from all over the globe to our small club and we welcome the diversity of view and background they bring to our community,” the club said, according to the news outlet.
A call to Bailey’s Beach Club from CNN was not immediately returned on Wednesday.
Separately, Whitehouse acknowledged in his statement that his sailing club “lacks diversity.” He promised to work toward helping create a more diverse culture at the club.
“The recent attention to this issue has prompted me to assess all my affiliations and to consider whether any involve inequitable or exclusionary policies. While I am not a member of the beach club, I do own a boat and belong to a sailing club in Newport,” he said. “While this club does not have exclusionary rules for membership, it does lack diversity.”
“Failing to address the sailing club’s lack of diversity is squarely on me, and something for which I am sorry.”
Whitehouse, a progressive Democrat, has a history of supporting legislation aimed at fighting racial inequality. He was among 60 senators to co-sponsor the bill to make Juneteenth a federal holiday, which passed the Senate last week.
“As a US Senator, I have worked relentlessly toward bringing greater equality of opportunity and outcome to all Americans,” he said in his statement Wednesday. “I pledge to continue doing all I can as Senator to overcome that history and work toward greater diversity and justice in all areas of society.”
CNN’s Sunlen Serfaty and Chandler Schlegel contributed to this report.