A Republican gubernatorial candidate’s visit to the fundraiser of an allegedly racist group, and his subsequent defense of the appearance, has Democrats mocking White House efforts to woo Jewish voters.
Haley Barbour, a Washington lobbyist and former chairman of the Republican National Committee who is running for governor of Mississippi, politicked at a July 19 barbecue sponsored in part by a local chapter of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a neo-Confederate group accused of promoting racist and antisemitic views. A photograph of Barbour at the event is featured on the council’s Web site amid links to a tract titled “In Defense of Racism,” an “Action Alert” urging supporters “to stand up for law and order and white America” and a site defending Canadian Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel.
Barbour, who is refusing to ask the group to remove the photo, defended his appearance at the event, noting that it had been attended by dozens of candidates, Democratic and Republican, black and white, and, in years past, by Barbour’s opponent, Governor Ronnie Musgrove. Barbour told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger that he did not know anything about the council, a move that brought derision from political commentators, who said the group is well known.
“If this is the Republican idea of Jewish outreach, then I’d hate to see what antagonism looks like,” Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said in a statement issued last week. Forman subsequently told the Forward: “If Haley Barbour were my candidate, I’d publicly be saying, ‘Take your name off of this; it’s indefensible.”
Forman said that his group would have objected had it known Musgrove attended such an event. “We’d have condemned it,” he explained.
Barbour’s appearance also drew criticism from the press secretary of the Democratic National Committee, Tony Welch. “Barbour is just another in the long line of Republican Party compassionate conservatives who talk compassion but [are] more than willing to cozy up to one of the most bigoted groups in our country,” Welch said. “The more we look, the more this looks like the same old divisive Republican Party.”
At least one civil-rights group said Barbour’s conduct looked bad.
Mark Potok, a spokesman for the Southern Poverty Law Center, a Ku Klux Klan watchdog group, called the Council of Conservative Citizens “a baldly white-supremacist and antisemitic group” that is a “direct descendent of the White Citizens Councils of the 1950s” and questioned why Barbour would not protest the use of his photo.
“This is akin to leaving your photo up on a Klan site as you stand beside Klansmen,” he said. “I find it remarkable that Barbour says he is looking for black votes in Mississippi. I don’t know what his motivation was. It is difficult not to suspect that he is appealing to a certain constituency.”
But the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, told the Forward he has known Barbour for years and could vouch for his decency. Foxman, whose new book on antisemitism contains 10 pages on the council, said he was not troubled by the photo as such, but was trading calls with Barbour to ascertain how he would conduct himself in the future. “He now knows,” Foxman said. “Now that you know, would you have gone? He needs to articulate who they are and to disassociate himself [from them]. I am going to ask him the question, ‘Today, if you got an invitation, would you go?’”
The executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, Matt Brooks, defended Barbour’s actions and said Democrats were playing politics by denouncing him. The Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, Jim Roberts, attended the event, Brooks said. Barbour “stood up to David Duke” when that former Klan wizard ran as a Republican in Louisiana, Brooks said. “There is not one iota of tolerance for racism, bigotry or antisemitism in his bones.”
Barbour’s spokesman, Quinton Dickerson, told the Forward that the candidate declined to ask the council to remove his photo from the site because “this is a picture someone took and put on the site” and “I don’t know how we can control that.”
“I think he’s made it plain, that if those are the views they hold, then they are indefensible,” Dickerson said, adding that Barbour’s speaking at an event “is not a statement of support or opposition.”
In a further controversy, Barbour has been using the Mississippi state flag in his campaign materials, even though many blacks find it offensive because it contains the confederate battle emblem. A referendum to change the flag that was supported by Musgrove was defeated a couple of years ago at the ballot box.
“I don’t think it’s uncommon for a candidate for governor to have the flag of the state or of the United States [in his materials],” Dickerson said.
Musgrove was careful not to attack Barbour on the council issue, telling the Associated Press, “I believe our strength as a state is our diversity, and to me as a governor, you’ve got to be governor for everybody.” Musgrove’s campaign did not return a call seeking comment.
The two Jewish Republican senators, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Norm Coleman of Minnesota, would not comment on the controversy surrounding Barbour’s appearance at the council’s barbecue.
The deputy press secretary of the Republican National Committee, Pamela Mantis, expressed dismay at the council’s Web site when she was directed there by a reporter and promised to call back with comment. Subsequently she did not return several days’ worth of messages.
Republican activist Clifford May, who served as spokesman for the RNC from 1997 to 2000, told the Forward that “I would hope [Barbour] would not have anything to do with them.”
The Missouri-based CEO of the Coucil of Conservative Citizens, Gordon Baum, told the Forward that his group is “mainstream” and said that “most issues we’re involved in, the NAACP is involved in.”
“It’s a unique thing in the deep South,” he said of the barbecue Barbour attended, which raised money for buses for “private academies” — a euphemism for segregated private schools. “This is how candidates meet people. It’s not promoting an organization or group. It’s the way it’s historically done.”