Comments Haunt Another Senator

By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 23, 2006

In a moment of unusual candor for a veteran senator fighting for his political life, Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) offered this blunt self-assessment a few months ago: "I can self-destruct in one sentence," he told supporters. "Sometimes in one word."

It seems Burns has spent a good part of the summer testing his theory.

A new video released this week by his Democratic challenger, Jon Tester, shows Burns, 71, joking to a crowd in June about how a "nice little Guatemalan man" fixing up his house might be an illegal immigrant. "Could I see your green card?" Burns tells the crowd he asked the man. "And Hugo, says, 'No.' I said, 'Oh, gosh.' "

A Burns spokesman said the senator never really doubted the legal status of the handyman, Hugo Reyes. But it wasn't the only time Burns -- a critic of illegal immigration -- has poked fun at the immigrants doing work around his house.

One week after the green-card crack, Burns recounted in a debate how after watching an interview on television of an illegal immigrant headed to Virginia for work, "I told my roofer, you better go out and get your help, or you won't get my house roofed."

The Tester campaign compiled the Burns statements and sent them to reporters this week. "Burns embarrassing Montanans is nothing new, and this is no exception," said Matt McKenna, Tester's spokesman.

Jason Klindt, a spokesman for Burns, said he did not want to respond to the immigrant remarks, other than to say they were accurate and not mean-spirited.

This is not the first time Burns's sharp and unguarded tongue has stirred trouble in Big Sky country. In July, Burns told a group of firefighters they had done a "piss-poor job" fighting a wildfire east of Billings. Burns later told a public information officer that the firefighters, the Augusta Hot Shots, "didn't do a goddamned thing" to stop the fires, comments that grabbed headlines throughout the state. Shortly after, Burns apologized.

Seven years earlier, Burns apologized for calling Arabs "ragheads" in a speech about high oil prices. He won reelection a year later.

It is also not the first time Burns has been stung by this year's campaign version of "caught on tape." The Web site YouTube, the same one that showed tens of thousands of viewers Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) making his "macaca" remark, is showing a clip of Burns dozing off at a field hearing on the farm bill.

Some of Burns's jokes about illegal immigrants were videotaped by a Tester campaign aide -- just as Allen's "macaca" comments were recorded by a volunteer for Democratic challenger James Webb in Virginia. The Tester campaign provided the tapes to the media.

"It is all on tape," said Klindt, when asked if the material circulated by the Tester campaign was accurate.

Also on tape are comments by Wisconsin GOP House candidate Paul R. Nelson, which critics have said are similarly racially insensitive. Nelson, who is running against Rep. Ron Kind (D), has called for racial profiling as a way to tighten airport security. When asked by a radio interviewer how to identify a Muslim male, Nelson said: "Well, you know, if he comes in wearing a turban and his name is Muhammad, that's a good start."

Burns, who was first elected in 1988, is one of the most endangered Republican senators in the country. Even before his controversial comments about firefighters and immigrants, Burns was under fire for his relationship to convicted GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff, whose clients provided more than $130,000 in campaign contributions to the Montana senator. Both parties expect the race to be decided by a few percentage points, so every misstep is potentially significant.

Klindt said he did not want to comment on whether Burns's comments are hurting his reelection chances.

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