GOP closes ranks against Young to save effort to woo Hispanics

Republican leaders on Friday closed ranks in denouncing fellow GOP lawmaker Don Young’s use of the term “wetbacks” to refer to Hispanic laborers.

The rapid fire GOP condemnation of the Alaska Republican’s slur showed the danger that the remark may have done to the party’s effort to woo Hispanic supporters.

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The top-two ranked House GOP lawmakers, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) were quick to demand an immediate apology from the 21-term House Republican.

Boehner issued a blunt statement: "Congressman Young’s remarks were 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."

Former 2008 Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) took to twitter to denounce Young – a longtime foe of the anti-earmark crusading GOP Senator.


“Don Young’s comments were offensive and have no place in our Party or in our nation’s discourse. He should apologize immediately,” the immigration reform negotiator tweeted.

Later Friday, following a long-day of similar demands for apologies by other GOP lawmakers, Young made a formal apology. On Thursday he stopped short of apologizing, saying, "I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California. I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect."


The 79-year old lawmaker apologized on Friday for the “insensitive term” that was reported on a local radio station in Alaska, noting that he meant “no malice .. or intent to offend.”

Young’s use of the derogatory term “wetbacks,” in reference to the Mexican laborers who used to work his father’s central California ranch, comes at a time when the GOP is attempting to demonstrate its inclusivity, following dismal election results among Hispanic voters.

Alaska’s sole House member concluded his mea culpa with a recognition that his remark “shifted” the “focus away from comprehensive immigration reform,” for which he apologized as well.

The remark, made during an interview on a Ketchikan radio station on Tuesday, was posted the following day on the station's website, buried deep in the story about the interview. By Thursday, blogs and local media were reporting the highly charged remark. KRDB-FM, was buried deep in the story posted on the station’s web story on Young’s overall comments at the event.

"My father had a ranch. We used to have 50 to 60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes," Young said in discussing the shortage of jobs for U.S. citizens. "It takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine."

Once it caught fire in the Twitterverse however, Republicans realized they needed to extinguish it immediately, according to Southern Methodist University (SMU) political science professor Cal Jillson.

Jillson notes that in the wake of Obama’s 71-29 percent win among Hispanics last November, the GOP said “we can’t let this stand, we’ve got to change some of our presentation and our policies in order to be more attractive to Hispanics,” adding that the party has rolled out “(GOP Florida Senator) Marco Rubio, and (has begun) to be more cooperative on trying to develop comprehensive immigration reform and in to the middle of that comes Don Young.”

This is not the first time that Young has garnered negative attention – he is known on Capitol Hill as one of the biggest earmark spending lawmakers, and has been reportedly under federal investigation for dealings related to his penchant for earmarking.  He is currently under probe by the House Ethics Committee on charges that he may have violated the chamber’s rules. Rep. Young was at the center of the “bridge to nowhere” fiasco that haunted Republicans going into the 2006 congressional elections.

In the past, Speaker Boehner has intimated that he had to call in Young to his office for a dressing down, when the Alaska lawmaker was the top Republican on the Transportation Committee and involved in a federal investigation into potential wrong-doing.

Though Young has long been known as a blunt-spoken, frontiersman, or “an old obstreperous guy,” as Jillson called him, his independent nature doesn’t exempt him from representing the Republican party, especially when he makes a comment that "clearly doesn't help" his party win over Hispanic support. 

His prickly personality has endeared him to some lawmakers and alienated others, according to sources familiar with the Alaskan’s 40-year history in the House.

So it wasn’t a tough decision to call out the fifth most senior House member for his derogatory remarks on Friday, especially when it referenced the very demographic that the GOP is courting. 

“Young is a long time insider, committee chair, power broker in the House but he has caused difficulty in the past, he’s been under investigation and he’s sort of a bull in a China shop so the party and it’s leadership is distancing from him rapidly because they’ve got this agenda – this must do agenda item of dealing with immigration in order to try to improve their standing with Hispanics,” Jillson explained.