WASHINGTON -- The national leaders of both major political parties condemned Alaska U.S. Rep. Don Young on Friday for calling California farm workers "wetbacks," a slur that comes at a time that the Republican Party is desperately courting Latino voters.
House Republican Speaker John Boehner of Ohio demanded that Young, a Republican, apologize immediately, saying there was no excuse for his remarks.
"Congressman Young's remarks were offensive and beneath the dignity of the office he holds," Boehner said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus expressed disgust at the comments by Young, the second longest-serving Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives. He said Young's words "emphatically" didn't represent the party's beliefs.
"Offensive language and ethnic slurs have no place in our public discourse," Priebus said.
Young made his comments Wednesday at a news conference in Ketchikan, and they were posted online the next day by radio station KRBD. After undergoing a day of blistering criticism Friday from around the nation, his office issued an apology.
"I apologize for the insensitive term I used during an interview in Ketchikan, Alaska," the statement said. "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."
Young, 79, has been Alaska's lone member of the House since 1973. He won re-election last year with 64 percent of the vote and already has announced plans to run for his 22nd term in the 2014 election.
His use of the slur comes at an especially sensitive time for Republicans. Party leaders acknowledged in the wake of the presidential election that they have a serious problem with a lack of support among Latino voters, the nation's fastest-growing voting bloc. Nearly three-quarters of Latinos backed President Barack Obama over Republican candidate Mitt Romney in the election.
Priebus this month called the election a wake-up call, and said the party had an urgent need to connect with Hispanics. Republican Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said the GOP must stop being the "stupid party" in which Republicans make offensive and bizarre comments.
In the Ketchikan news conference, Young talked about how technology has led to the loss of certain jobs.
"I used to own -- my father had a ranch," he said. "We used to hire 50 to 60 wetbacks to pick tomatoes. You know it takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It's all done by machine."
After his remarks appeared online, Young initially tried to explain them with a statement from his office Thursday night, saying he meant "no disrespect."
In his statement, Young said, "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."
But the Congressional Hispanic Caucus rejected Young's explanation and said his words were hateful and a racial slur.
"Rep. Young says that he was just using the language he was accustomed to as he grew up, but there is no excuse for ignorance," Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, the caucus chairman, said in a statement. "He has served alongside Hispanics in Congress since 1973, so he should know terms like 'wetback' have never been acceptable."
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who chairs the Democratic National Committee, tweeted Friday that it was disappointing to see a Republican member of Congress casually use a racial slur. She suggested that the Republican Party was going to have to work harder on its rebranding.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, joined those from both parties condemning Young.
"Migrant workers come to America looking for opportunity and a way to provide a better life for their families," he said in a statement. "They do not come to this country to hear ethnic slurs and derogatory language from elected officials. The comments used by Rep. Young do nothing to elevate our party, political discourse or the millions who come here looking for economic opportunity."
CRITICISM IN ALASKA
Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, in an update on Facebook Friday morning, said, "I want to tell Alaskans that I've heard the reports of Don Young's interview. Regardless of the time or the context, that term is inappropriate and offensive."
On Thursday , Lupe Marroquin, president of the Hispanic Affairs Council of Alaska, called Young's remarks "really bad form."
"It kind of opens your eyes to the way Don Young thinks," she said. "He didn't even pause. It's like that's just what he calls migrant farm workers."
A spokeswoman for Gov. Sean Parnell said, "The governor called the remark totally inappropriate. He appreciates Congressman Young's sincere apology."
Peter Goldberg, vice chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, acknowledged Young's remarks might make it thougher for the party's message to reach Hispanic voters in Alaska, at least in the short-term.
"I mean, if you are a member of that ethnic group, if you're Hispanic, you probably find it offensive. But then again, if you've been in Alaska quite a while, you've known Don Young for up to 40 years, because that's how long he's been a congressman, and I think you'd get past it," he said.
"He made a mistake. He recognizes it. He knows it probably better than anyone else in the nation that he blew it," Goldberg said.
At least one national Latino group is demanding that Young resign. The group, Presente.org., is circulating a petition online that calls Young unfit for office.
"Your use of the word 'wetback' was unacceptable in your father's time and it is unacceptable now," according to a statement from the group, which calls itself the nation's largest Latino online advocacy organization. "There is a long and harmful history behind that term and no member of Congress should be able to say it without consequence."
In a statement about Young, Janet Murguia, the president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, which says it's the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group, said it was "very sad and extremely disappointing" that the remark came so close to the birthday March 31 of the late United Farm Workers union leader, Cesar Chavez, "a man who spent his entire life exhorting his fellow Americans to treat migrant workers with dignity, respect and humanity....That word was inexcusable then, and it is inexcusable now."
The National Hispanic Media Coalition, a Los Angeles-based media advocacy and civil rights group, called Young's words a toxic slur against Hispanics.
Young's words have landed him in trouble before, including in 1995, when he apologized to Fairbanks high school students for using an obscenity to describe anal sex while denouncing federal funding for the arts.
Corruption investigations also have dogged Young for years. The House Ethics Committee is investigating him over allegations of wrongly taking gifts, using campaign funds for personal purposes and lying to federal officials. The FBI investigated Young for corruption for at least four years before deciding in 2010 that "there was not evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to ultimately convict" the congressman.
Daily News reporter Casey Grove contributed to this story.
By SEAN COCKERHAM
Anchroage Daily News