As the Republican presidential race heats up, and Republicans around the country struggle to decide who they want as their eventual nominee — race has found its way into the debate.
Gingrich, who is already under fire for labeling President Barack Obama “the food-stamp president,” touched off further controversy on Thursday for declaring he would visit the NAACP and explain to the organization why African Americans should “not be satisfied with” food stamps.
The former House speaker’s incendiary remarks came on the heels of Rick Santorum’s earlier comment in which he appeared to single out African Americans as recipients of federal aid — a statement that an NAACP official declared “inaccurate and outrageous.” Santorum has denied he was singling out Blacks.
“I didn’t say Black.” Santorum said to CNN and Fox News. He told John King Wednesday night, “I’ve looked at that quote, in fact I looked at the video. In fact, I’m pretty confident I didn’t say Black. I started to say a word, and then sort of changed and it sort of — blah — mumbled it and sort of changed my thought.”
And let’s not forget Ron Paul’s evolving story on his newsletters. Confronted about their racism when he campaigned to return to Congress in 1996, Paul first tried to defend the remarks. It wasn’t until 2001 that he floated the notion that someone else had written the newsletters, and it’s only recently that he completely deplored their racism and claimed he had absolutely no idea what was in them.
Santorum’s comments were criticized by National Urban League President Marc H. Morial as pandering to racist elements within the GOP. Morial also said that 70 percent of people on food stamps are white. The Agriculture Department does not break down food stamp participation rates by race.
NAACP President Ben Jealous also criticized Santorum’s remarks.
Food stamp participation and costs have risen under Obama, from 28.2 million participants at a cost of $37.6 billion in 2008, to 44.7 million participants at a cost of $75.3 billion last year, according to federal data of what is officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The increases followed the steep economic downturn that began in 2008.
Gingrich, in a variation of a line he has used in other recent speeches, said in New Hampshire, “I’m prepared, if the NAACP invites me, I’ll go to their convention and talk about why the African-American community should demand paychecks and not be satisfied with food stamps.”
“And I’ll go to them and explain a brand new Social Security opportunity for young people, which would be particularly good for African-American males because they are the group that gets the smallest return on Social Security because they have the shortest life span. And under Social Security today, you don’t build up an estate,” Gingrich said.
Jealous responded to Gingrich’s incendiary comments Friday with the following statement: “It is a shame that the former Speaker feels that these types of inaccurate, divisive statements are in any way helpful to our country,” said Jealous. “The majority of people using food stamps are not African-American, and most people using food stamps have a job.”
“We invited Speaker Gingrich to attend our annual convention several times when he was Speaker of the House, but he declined to join us,” Jealous continued. “If he is invited again, I hope that he would come with the intention to unite rather than divide. Gingrich’s statement is problematic on several fronts, most importantly because he gets his facts wrong.”
On the website YourBlackWorld.com, political analyst and commentator Dr. Boyce Watkins wrote: “I’m not sure where Gingrich is getting his perception of the Black experience in America. I’ve never asked for a welfare check in my life, and neither have most of my friends.”
The left-leaning Center for American Progress wrote on its ThinkProgress blog: “Not only is his perception of food-stamp beneficiaries prejudicial, it’s false.”
The center took the time to note that whites comprise the majority of people who are participants in the nation’s food-stamp program. In addition, most of the participants on food stamps are either children or senior citizens.
Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said Thursday in response to the criticism: “Newt believes that every American should have the opportunity to earn a paycheck, rather than be given a food stamp, and he is prepared to make that case in every neighborhood to all groups of all backgrounds in America. Furthermore, this theme of taking the conservative message to every American — including the NAACP — has been a constant refrain during Newt’s entire career.”
Gingrich has actually tried in his recent comments invoking the NAACP to demonstate his commitment to reaching beyond traditional GOP groups to Democratic constituencies.
On Wednesday he said, “My goal is to create a very big coalition. If the NAACP invites me, I will come and speak. If the various Latino groups invite me, I will come and speak. If the construction unions get fed up enough over the [Keystone] pipeline and invite me, I will come and speak.”
And last month in Columbia, S.C., he said, “Outreach is when five white guys hold a meeting and then call you. Inclusion is when you’re in the meeting. And I can assure you precisely because we want to decentralize back home, we want to have people back home with a bigger responsibility, that’s why I’m asking you to be with me. I want every community in America to have a better future.
“And I will tell you, unlike some candidates, if the NAACP invites me to come to their annual convention, I’m going to come there and I’m going to invite them to join us in getting America back on the right track so every American can work.”
Two Gingrich surrogates — former New Hampshire Sen. Bob Smith and former Ohio Rep. Bob McEwen — sought to make the case that their former House colleague would be a stronger candidate in a general election against Obama than Mitt Romney.
“You have to remember that in the Iowa caucus, 75 percent of the voters did not pick Romney,” Smith told reporters in a conference call.
McEwen was even more blunt, saying of Romney, “I don’t know how a party can nominate a guy like that and expect to win.”
In a subsequent interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity, Gingrich lumped himself in with Santorum and Texas Gov. Rick Perry in further distinguishing himself from Romney.
“Santorum and Perry and I — all three — represent an American conservatism that is dramatically different than a Massachusetts moderate,” he said. “We all naturally have a similar reaction to Romney’s policies ... We three would write a platform more conservative than the platform that Romney would want to write.”
As traditional news organizations like The Associated Press and CBSNews.com picked up Gingrich’s remark — he had said something similar the day before, including an offer to visit Latino groups — the Gingrich campaign recognized trouble.
R.C. Hammond, Mr. Gingrich’s spokesman, was overheard at an evening event in New Hampshire chewing out a reporter over the coverage while kicking a door.
He said Gingrich’s statement was not patronizing, but an act of outreach to an organization usually ignored by Republicans. In a 2007 book, Gingrich criticized President Bush for failing to address the NAACP. It was a sign “to the African American community,” he wrote, “that Republicans did not see them as worthy of engagement in dialogue.”
The National Journal and New York Times contributed to this report.
Zack Burgess is the enterprise writer for The Tribune. He is a freelance writer and editor who covers culture, politics and sports. He can be contacted at zackburgess.com.