U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth apologized Tuesday for statements last week about racial diversity, but she stood by her opposition to the U.S. Forest Service’s minority hiring program.
“She deeply regrets if her statements offended anyone,” Chenoweth spokeswoman Khris Bershers said. “That was certainly not her intent.”
The apology came as several groups held a Boise press conference to denounce the Idaho Republican’s comments, including her suggestion that blacks and Hispanics never have been attracted to North Idaho because of its climate. Chenoweth had said, “The warm-climate community just hasn’t found the colder climate that attractive.”
Chenoweth also had said she believes North Idaho has plenty of ethnic diversity: “We have Poles, people from Scandinavia, people from England, people from Italy.”
Jen Ray of the Idaho Women’s Network said Chenoweth’s statements “are right up there with Marge Schott and Fuzzy Zoeller.
“They send the message, ‘If you’re not white, stay out of Idaho,”’ Ray said.
Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds, gave up day-to-day control of the team in the wake of controversy over her racial and ethnic slurs. Zoeller, a professional golfer, apologized earlier this year after making racist remarks following a Masters championship win by Tiger Woods, an African American.
On Chenoweth’s comment about the climate, the Rev. Nancy Taylor, a Boise minister and co-chairman of Idaho Voices of Faith for Human Rights, said, “Chances are it is not the chilling temperatures, but rather the chilling attitudes of Idahoans.”
Lisa Sanchez, president of Mujeres Unidas de Idaho, a Hispanic women’s group, said, “I encourage Ms. Chenoweth to communicate directly with those communities, so that she can better understand … what it is that’s keeping us out of Northern Idaho.”
Several at the press conference held signs saying, “It’s not the weather, it’s Idaho’s racist image” and “Apologize.”
Chenoweth’s comments last week came in an interview with The Idaho Spokesman-Review in which she said she supported Kootenai County Commissioner Ron Rankin’s efforts to fight minority hiring programs at the Forest Service in North Idaho.
She also said North Idaho has never had many minority residents, and speculated about why. In addition to the climate, she suggested that Hispanics weren’t attracted to North Idaho because “we just don’t have that much agricultural crop harvesting up north.”
“She regrets if that speculation offended anybody,” Bershers said.
Chenoweth repeated Tuesday that she opposes “government … racial hiring quotas or social engineering, mostly because she believes that those sorts of programs run the risk of creating a backlash of even worse racial tension,” Bershers said.
State Republican Chairman Ron McMurray said Chenoweth’s comments didn’t cause him any concern. “It’s a person’s opinion,” he said. “In my position as chairman of the party, we don’t set policy.”
He added: “It’s what she believes. I don’t see any big problems. People haven’t been calling me, anyway.”
But leading Idaho Democrats were upset.
Larry LaRocco, who served two terms in Congress before Chenoweth defeated him in 1994, said the comments were circulating in Washington, D.C., this week and even made the Washington Post.
“I’m outraged about this. I think this is not borderline racist talk, this is over the line,” LaRocco said. “Idaho’s reputation has suffered enough without this type of stereotyping.”
Mary Lou Reed, the former long-time state senator from Coeur d’Alene, said, “She and Ron Rankin are doing some kind of political pandering of the worst kind. They want to somehow advertise Idaho as being a place that is only one color. And I just find it so offensive. I’m embarrassed.”
Gov. Phil Batt, who has made human rights a major focus of his administration, wouldn’t discuss Chenoweth’s statements.
Tony Paquin, the Coeur d’Alene businessman who is considering challenging Chenoweth in the Republican primary next year, said he wouldn’t criticize the 1st District representative because “I don’t think it’s good for me or the party to do so.”
But, he said, “I think North Idaho can always benefit from cultural diversity.”
Large, high-tech employers who might bring high-paying jobs to North Idaho are put off by the image of racial intolerance, Paquin said.
He added, “Obviously the status of our diversity has absolutely nothing to do with the weather.”