A Minnesota congressman locked in a tight reelection battle is finding it difficult to escape his past remarks as a conservative talk-radio host, but he won tentative support this week from House Speaker Paul D. Ryan as Democrats attack him for those utterances.
CNN, delving into a trove of old recordings, has surfaced numerous controversial statements from Rep. Jason Lewis (R), who is in his first term representing a suburban district south of Minneapolis and St. Paul. In the latest revelations, CNN reported Friday that in the thick of the 2012 presidential campaign, Lewis repeatedly belittled those receiving government assistance, calling them “parasites” and “scoundrels.”
Seeking to explain why President Barack Obama was leading Republican nominee Mitt Romney at the time, Lewis said, “The parasites outnumber the producers, and when the parasites outnumber the producers, the party of parasites will give the majority of votes.”
Asked about other revelations Thursday, Ryan (R-Wis.) told reporters that he separated Lewis’s past career with his present service as a lawmaker.
“He was a shock jock; that was his job at the time,” he said. “I’ve seen some of these comments. And I obviously don’t support those comments. But the Jason Lewis I know here, who is a congressman, is an extremely conscientious man, a very hard-working, a very effective member of Congress who has been nothing but an exemplary congressman who represents his constituents well.”
CNN previously reported that Lewis, amid the uproar over law student Sandra Fluke’s advocacy for mandatory insurance coverage for birth control in 2012, lamented that it was no longer acceptable to refer to sexually active women as “sluts.” Also in 2012, the network reported, Lewis made broad and demeaning statements about African Americans, saying they had an “entitlement mentality” and are “addicted” to government subsidies.
Ryan, in an address to congressional interns Wednesday, decried coarse political rhetoric and urged the youngsters to remember Americans’ “common humanity” when engaging in debate. “Just think about what you’re doing to kind of poison the well of society, think about what you’re doing to try and just degrade the tone of our debate,” he said.
Asked whether Lewis should apologize, Ryan said, “I’ll leave it to him.”
Lewis has not apologized for his comments and has defended them as the provocative musings of a professional political commentator.
Becky Alery, a spokeswoman for Lewis’s campaign, has previously defended Lewis’s remarks as having been “litigated before.”
She said Friday that attention was better paid to Lewis’s record as a lawmaker: “CNN is free to focus on past rhetoric instead of Congressman Lewis’ record in Congress, and they will no doubt continue to ignore the substance of the arguments, but it does little to add to the debate.”
But with reporters poring anew through Lewis’s past remarks, they threaten to upend what was already one of the nation’s most competitive House contests.
Lewis’s Democratic opponent, Angie Craig, said in a statement Friday that she was “disappointed” by the latest remarks reported by CNN and said they “do not represent Minnesota values.” Rachel Irwin, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, called Lewis’s beliefs “disturbing” and said they should disqualify him for public office.
“The failure of Jason Lewis and members of his Party to denounce these remarks is proof they stand by them,” she said in a statement. “And any claims from Lewis that this audio has been litigated is flat-out false.”
Craig lost to Lewis in 2016 by two percentage points in a district President Trump won by a single point. Major congressional forecasters have all rated the seat a toss-up for November.