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Republican lawmakers under fire for racially insensitive comments after Charlotte unrest

September 24, 2016 at 8:00 AM

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After a narrow primary win in June, Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-N.C.) is under fire for remarks he made about the protests in Charlotte Sept. 22. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Republican lawmakers are under increasing fire for racially insensitive comments after the fatal police shootings of black men sparked unrest in two states.

Remarks by Reps. Robert Pittenger (N.C.), Tim Huelskamp (Kan.), Steve King (Iowa) and ex-Rep. Mike Pence (Ind.), the GOP’s vice-presidential nominee, underscored to some observers Republicans’ tone-deafness on issues of race in a year of unprecedented attention to police bias against African-Americans.

With the November elections barely six weeks away, the responses also seemed a sign of Republicans deepening alienation from black voters, who polls show are already repelled by the views and rhetoric of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (he garnered 3 percent of the black vote in a new McClatchy-Marist poll). The GOP rhetoric could help mobilize African Americans to oppose  Republicans in a year when Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is relying on heavy black turnout to win the White House.

Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the CBC PAC, said remarks like Pittenger’s and those by King — who called the CBC  the “self-segregating caucus” in a Thursday radio interview — should motivate all voters to oppose Trump in the election.

“His base is basically those individuals who stereotype African-Americans as not smart, not educated, don’t have jobs. He is reaching out to those individuals and now they feel free to say what they think,” Meeks said in an interview.

Doug Heye, a former spokesman for the Republican National Committee and top aide to ex-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.), said that the GOP comments amount to a pattern with long-term consequences for the Republican Party.

“What outrages me is to see these stupid and callous remarks made time after time after time,” Heye said.

“It’s not about a bad comment here or there. This has been going on throughout Obama’s presidency, and it accumulates. Eventually it will form an indelible stain on the GOP’s soul. Voters who are coming of age, this is what they’re going to remember about the Republican Party. That is our problem. That doesn’t go away in ten years.”

The deaths of Terence Crutcher in Oklahoma and Keith Lamont Scott in North Carolina were the latest in a series of police killings that have sparked Black Lives Matter protests around the country.

In Charlotte, N.C., several nights of sometimes violent protests this week caused Gov. Pat McCrory (R) to declare a state of emergency and deploy the National Guard to the city.

Pittenger caused a media frenzy Thursday when he told the BBC the Charlotte protesters “hate white people, because white people are successful and they’re not.” Though Pittenger later apologized — including to black colleagues on the House floor — his comments were taken as an accidental revelation of real views within the GOP.

“Those comments were absolutely disgusting,” Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) Chairman G. K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) told CNN Friday.

“I told Congressman Pittenger that to his face last night on the House floor … He apologized profusely for saying those words, but the words still stand. I believe he spoke from his heart. It is representative of what so many other people think and the anger they have for African Americans.”

House Republican leaders was privately dismayed by Pittenger’s comments, even as they welcomed his apology.

Officially, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) hopes the matter is put to rest. “The speaker was glad to see Mr. Pittenger swiftly apologize. That was the appropriate thing to do,” AshLee Strong, Ryan’s spokeswoman, said in a statement Friday.

But behind the scenes, those close to Ryan described him as “very unhappy” when he heard the two-term congressman’s remarks.

The controversy took place against the backdrop of another racially charged week in Trump’s campaign.

In addition to repeating his refrains that black communities have never had it worse and should vote for him because they have nothing to lose, Trump declared his support for stop-and-frisk policies (at least in Chicago) and stoked more confusion over his position on President Obama’s birthplace.

Last week, the GOP nominee said he believed Obama was a natural-born citizen, a reversal of his prior stance. Then, he seemed to go back on that, saying he had denied being a “birther” because he “just wanted to get on with the campaign.

“We’ve had too many people in the party making stupid comments about the president’s race, about his religion, about his citizenship,” said Heye, who published a piece for the Wall Street Journal Friday on the GOP’s response to unrest in Charlotte.

“If you’re a minority voter, you’ve seen eight years of this coming from the Republican Party, and now you see the presidential nominee doing it. So now the entire party gets portrayed this way.”

In contrast with Trump, Pence has said he believes Obama was born in the United States. But the Indiana governor claimed controversially this week that it is offensive to police to talk about “institutional racism and institutional bias” after fatal shootings.

“Donald Trump and I believe there’s been far too much of this talk,” Pence said while campaigning in Colorado.

Trump’s campaign has become increasingly identified with racially divisive comments.

Earlier in the week, a Ohio county-level Trump campaign chair resigned after she said there was no racism against blacks before Obama was elected. The woman, Kathy Miller, also called the Black Lives Matter movement a “stupid waste of time.”

Rep. King, a Trump supporter, lashed out at the CBC after some members called Trump racist. “Now, why are they the authority on that?” King (Iowa) said on KVFD AM 1400 in an interview first reported by BuzzFeed. “I call them the self-segregating caucus. They long ago moved away from the integration that we really need in this country.”

Huelskamp was another congressman who faced blowback this week when he called the Charlotte protesters “criminals” and “hoodlums” on Twitter. Huelskamp also criticized Obama for making a joke about actor Morgan Freeman playing a black president, calling it an inappropriate while Charlotte “burns.”

Pittenger’s apology was swift Thursday night. The congressman, who narrowly won his primary this year and whose former real-estate company remains under federal investigation, said he meant to talk about “failed policies” that have caused the “lack of economic mobility for African-Americans.”

“What is taking place in my hometown right now breaks my heart,” Pittenger said in a statement. “My anguish led me to respond to a reporter’s question in a way that I regret.  The answer doesn’t reflect who I am.”

Meeks said the controversy could serve to sway Republicans uncertain of who to vote for in November.

“I hope this will wake up every American citizen of good will about what’s at stake … This should motivate millennials, this should motivate seniors — even Republicans,” he said.

A previous version incorrectly stated that Rep. Tim Huelskamp (R-Kan.) does not support Donald Trump for president. Paul Kane contributed to this report.


Elise Viebeck is a political enterprise and investigations reporter. She joined The Washington Post in 2015.

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