So maybe this is what GOP National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus meant when he said Republicans aren’t connecting with Hispanics: Veteran Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska told a local radio station this week that his father “used to have 50 to 60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes” on their family ranch.
“Wetbacks” ranks right ups there with other odious racial and ethnic slurs used over the years to describe blacks, Jews, Muslims and the Irish, as Young certainly must have known. But instead of immediately apologizing for his indiscretion once he was called out on it, Young blithely explained in a statement, “I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in central California. I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect.”
The slur reinforced the perception of a GOP that’s out of step with much of America. What Republicans have to keep struggling with in their quest for both reinvention and electoral victories are these types of constant unforced errors.
Young, 79, who has been Alaska’s congressman-at-large since 1973 and is now the second most senior Republican in the House, by no means speaks for his Republican colleagues. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and other senior GOP leaders came down on Young after reports of his comments on KRBD-FM radio began to circulate nationally.
“Congressman Young’s remarks were offensive and beneath the dignity of the office he holds,” Boehner said in a statement Friday. “I don’t care why he said it — there’s no excuse and it warrants an immediate apology.”
Young finaly apologized Friday afternoon, under pressure from leaders of his party. “I apologize for the insensitive term I used during an interview in Ketchikan, Alaska,” Young said in a statement. “There was no malice in my heart or intent to offend; it was a poor choice of words. That word, and the negative attitudes that come with it, should be left in the 20th century, and I’m sorry that this has shifted our focus away from comprehensive immigration reform.”
Damage has been done, however. It wouldn’t be surprising to hear a refrain of Young’s “wetbacks” comment in Democratic commercials when the 2014 congressional election campaign rolls around. The term “wetback” is a slur often used to refer to illegal Mexican immigrants.
Young is hardly the poster child for the GOP. He has championed Alaska’s energy and economic interests for decades on the Natural Resources and Energy and Mineral Resources committees and scored an overwhelming reelection victory last November over Democratic challenger Sharon Cissna of Anchorage. But he has struggled in previous primary and general election campaigns and has repeatedly been dogged by ethics allegations.
Young has faced years of allegations of wrongdoing, but the Ethics Committee deferred a formal investigation while the Justice Department conducted a wide-ranging probe of corruption allegations tied to Alaska-based energy executives who pleaded guilty to bribing a collection of state officials, including the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), according to The Washington Post. In a statement last week, the ethics panel said the Justice Dept. had referred several documents from its probe to the committee for further review.
In recent years, Republicans have displayed a knack for self-inflicted political wounds that are naturally a turnoff to voters. Absurd and offensive statements in the Indiana and Missouri Senate races last year squandered a built-in GOP advantage.
Rep. Todd Akin, the GOP Senate nominee in Missouri, said in an interview that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy, a remark that was then echoed by Indiana GOP Senate nominee Richard Mourdock. He said during a debate that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.” Both nominees lost in the general election, helping to dash the hopes of their party to take back control of the Senate from the Democrats. And in 2010, Tea Party darling Sharron Angle also misspoke during a failed attempt to unseat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.
The GOP is trying to reposition itself with Hispanic voters following a presidential election in which President Obama won more than 70 percent of Hispanic votes. Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, took a strong anti-immigration reform stand throughout the campaign and suggested that illegal immigrants consider “self-deporting” back to Mexico.
A little more than a week about Priebus issued a blistering assessment of the GOP’s problems and called on the party to reinvent itself and officially endorse more liberal immigration reforms, the party chief declared that Young’s comments did not represent the party.
“The words used by Rep. Young emphatically do not represent the beliefs of the Republican Party,” he said in a statement. “Everyone in this country deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. Our party represents freedom and opportunity for every American and a beacon of hope to those seeking liberty throughout the world. Offensive language and ethnic slurs have no place in our public discourse.”
The racial epithet has drawn strong condemnation from both sides of the aisle, according to The Hill. Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chairman Rubén Hinojosa (D-Texas) criticized Young in a statement on Friday. “Shame on Rep. Don Young,” Hinojosa said. “It is deeply disheartening that in 2013 we are forced to have a discussion about a member of Congress using such hateful words and racial slurs."
Clearly, this will not be the Democrats’ last word on the subject.