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Slurs against Latinos, gays complicate GOP’s mission to broaden its tent

For a Republican Party embarked on a mission of modernization, an ethnic slur uttered by a senior House Republican this week offered an unwelcome reminder of the past.

Rep. Don Young (Alaska) used a derogatory term for Latinos in a radio interview Thursday, less than two weeks after the Republican National Committee issued a post-election report that called for broadening the party’s tent.

The comment, coupled with an anti-gay remark that an RNC official posted on his Facebook page this week, highlighted the challenge Republicans face in their nascent effort to woo a more diverse cross section of America as they grapple with issues including immigration reform and same-sex marriage.

Young, 79, set off a fresh round of recriminations and hand-wringing among Republican leaders while talking about the people his father employed on his California ranch years ago.

“We used to hire 50 or 60 wetbacks and — to pick tomatoes,” Young said in the interview with KRBD. “You know, it takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”

Even as several top Republicans decried the remarks and called for a more thorough apology, some GOP advisers said the incident would reinforce how voters view their party.

Republican consultant John Weaver said the comment “hurts us,” describing Young as “a dinosaur on the bridge of political insanity and irrelevance.”

“Republicans like him will soon be extinct, and that’s a good thing for the GOP,” Weaver said. “But in the meantime, when they make these remarks, it makes it harder for those of us who are trying to grow the base of our party.”

In a statement posted to his Web site on Friday, Young said: “I apologize for the insensitive term I used during an interview in Ketchikan, Alaska. 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.”

Earlier in the week, an RNC official from Michigan argued that being gay is an unhealthy lifestyle — posting an article to his Facebook page that labeled homosexuality as “filthy.” The RNC committeeman, Dave Agema, declined to take down the post.

GOP leaders were quick to denounce both Agema and Young, a 21-term House member who has long had rocky relations with the Republican establishment.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus, who last week launched a GOP effort to reach out to minority communities, issued a statement Friday saying, “The words used by Representative Young emphatically do not represent the beliefs of the Republican Party.”

On Thursday, Priebus also criticized Agema, saying that “all human beings deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement Friday that Young’s remarks “are offensive and beneath the dignity of the office he holds. I don’t care why he said it. There’s no excuse and it warrants an immediate apology.”

Some Republicans argue there is a double standard, in which the news media focus on outlandish things that Republicans say and ignore similar gaffes by Democrats.

“There is always a market in the media for the craziest thing a Republican said today,” said GOP consultant Ed Rogers. “. . . That is why Republicans have to be extra careful.”

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.

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