Republican state Sen. Vicki Marble’s comments this week linking poor health within black and Latino communities to diets including barbecue chicken has led to Democrats declaring open season on Republicans.
For Democrats and critics of the Republican Party, her poorly chosen words offer the secret recipe for a “finger-lickin’” opportunity to pounce on a party that they have continually accused of being antiquated, disconnected and insensitive to minorities.
There is widespread agreement that Marble’s monologue during the interim Economic Opportunity Poverty Reduction Task Force meeting on Wednesday was at best “careless.”
The quasi committee is charged with a commitment to “an inclusive process of dialogue that embraces varied perspectives on the complex issues related to child and family poverty and the nexus between economic opportunity and poverty reduction.”
The task force at the time of Marble’s comments had been examining statistics on racial disparities in the poverty rate. That’s when the Fort Collins lawmaker went off on a bit of a tangent that had some on Twitter commenting, “Wow, Marbles really lost her marbles with that one.”
“When you look at life expectancy, there are problems in the black race. Sickle-cell anemia is something that comes up. Diabetes is something that’s prevalent in the genetic makeup, and you just can’t help it,” Marble remarked.
That’s when Marble’s comments took a bizarre and questionable turn: “Although I’ve got to say, I’ve never had better barbecue and better chicken and ate better in my life than when you go down South and you, I mean, I love it. Everybody loves it,” she continued.
Oblivious to the uncomfortable energy and gasps that had begun taking over the committee room inside the Capitol, Marble continued, bringing Latinos into the mix.
In a sweeping statement that many Mexican Americans have found to be both ignorant and misguided, Marble opined that Mexicans eat vegetables in Mexico, but stop eating healthy foods when they come to the United States.
Her comments come despite a report this year indicating that Mexico has become the most obese industrialized nation in the world, ahead of the United States.
“The Mexican diet, in Mexico, with all of the fresh vegetables, and you go down there and they’re much thinner than they are up here; they change their diet… They become Americanized,” she said.
Marble then went on to describe a former restaurant in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver, which is home to one of Denver’s largest black populations.
“Down the street near Five Points there used to be an old café there named Type 2 Chicken, and I wanted to eat there for years because I knew that it was just going to be the best ever. But these things just aren’t good for you,” she said.
Marble then connected poor dieting to addiction, likening it to drugs and even pornography, suggesting that burdensome government regulation has led to job loss, which has resulted in a surge in addictions.
“A lot of what I have seen throughout the decades have been a loss of self respect through a loss of these jobs because of government regulation,” she said.
Sen. John Kefalas, D-Fort Collins, who chairs the task force, interrupted Marble to ask, “Are you proposing a question?”
Moments later, Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, one of the two black lawmakers sitting on the task force, could not stop herself from responding.
“The title of this committee is Economic Opportunity and Poverty Reduction, and one of the things that I will not tolerate is racist and insensitive remarks about African Americans, the color of their skin,” Fields scolded Marble. Fields also serves as vice-chair of the task force.
“What you mentioned that we eat — I was highly offended by your remarks,” Fields added.
“I will not engage in a dialogue where I’m in the company where you are using the stereotype references about African Americans and chicken and food and all those kinds of things…” Fields continued. “I will not tolerate that. That is not what this committee is all about. So I will ask that you suspend your perceptions and your judgment about African Americans, about poverty — what we’re trying to do is come up with meaningful solutions, and it’s not about chicken.”
Noticing that tensions were running high, Kefalas attempted to cool things down by calling a five-minute recess to “take a deep breath.”
“I’m not trying to dismiss any of this discussion,” he said. “I would prefer that it happen offline.”
A flood of criticism overwhelmed the political world in the hours and days following Marble’s controversial remarks. The story quickly appeared in Fox News, USA Today, the Washington Post, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, MSNBC and blogs across the nation.
Marble has only offered this response, “My comments were not meant to be disparaging to any community. I am saddened they were taken in that regard. I take my responsibility seriously and I hope our work on this committee will offer real solutions to the health and financial challenges of our vulnerable populations.”
Criticism floods in
But that response did not fly with many who feel her statement is anything but an apology. The Colorado Statesman left a message with Marble for further comment, but she had not returned the request as of press time on Friday.
The Denver Post on Thursday issued an editorial calling Marble’s comment “finger-lickin’ stupid.”
“Possibly making things worse, Marble later issued a statement that, instead of saying she was sorry, proclaimed she was ‘saddened’ her words were taken as offensive,” opined The Post. “We are saddened a state lawmaker can be this ignorant in 2013.”
Democrats wasted no time jumping on the opportunity to attack Marble and her party. Democrats’ fundraising arm, the House Majority Project, quickly issued an email.
“The stakes are too high, and the GOP leadership is way too out of touch with the rest of mainstream Colorado,” explained Ian Silverii, executive director of the House Majority Project. “This patronizing and bigoted monologue wasn’t merely a gaffe; this is representative of the way the extremists in the Colorado GOP leadership actually think about how to address public policy problems in Colorado.”
The Black Democratic Legislative Caucus of Colorado and the Colorado Democratic Latin@ Legislative Caucus also jumped on the bandwagon, sharing “disbelief” and “disappointment.”
“Sen. Marble’s comments about the African American and Hispanic communities display ignorance, insensitivity and perpetuate harmful stereotypes,” read a joint statement from Rep. Angela Williams, D-Denver, chairwoman of the Black Democratic Caucus and Rep. Joe Salazar, D-Thornton, chairman of the Democratic Latin@ Caucus.
“At a time when the General Assembly enjoys the highest number of African Americans and Latina/o members serving in the legislature, we are greatly disturbed and saddened to find these remarks come from a colleague in the Senate in this day and time,” continued the statement. “As the elected voices of the state Assembly from our communities, we stand for ending prejudicial views that disrupt the progress towards equality, and simply ask for respect from the members with whom we serve alongside.”
The Colorado Progressive Coalition called Marble’s comments “hurtful, misguided and stereotypical.”
The Mountain States Region of the Anti-Defamation League also expressed “deep concern.”
“Sen. Marble’s comments play on and perpetuate stereotypes that should have no place in our public discourse,” read a statement from Scott L. Levin, regional director of the ADL. “That they were delivered during a state government hearing is especially troubling. Her statements are an affront not only to the communities she identified, but to all of us who strive towards an inclusive, respectful society.”
The ADL also expressed disappointment that Marble did not actually apologize for her remarks.
Reaction from GOP
The Republican Party distanced itself from Marble in the wake of the gaffe. State Chairman Ryan Call called her remark “careless” and said it does not “reflect the views of Republicans.”
Even the state’s leading conservative blog, Colorado Peak Politics, labeled the controversy “idiocracy.” They wrote that Marble has joined the “legislative moron caucus.”
“While what she said wasn’t meant to be malicious, it did expose a stunning ignorance and small mindedness,” the blog wrote.
“What we think this underscores is how low the intelligence quotient has become at the State Capitol,” Peak Politics continues. “The phrase ‘room temperature IQ’ comes to mind. Surely we can do better than the current crop of cretins representing our great state under the Gold Dome.”
But conservative talk show personality Rush Limbaugh came to Marble’s aid, suggesting that Marble was trying to be complimentary.
“She realized in the middle of it that she probably stepped in it because she can’t even talk that way,” Limbaugh said on his show.
“It is not allowed to acknowledge certain things like sickle cell anemia being more predominant in blacks than others, or diabetes, even though both of those things are true,” he continued. “So the knee-jerk reaction that we have to do is stand up, express outrage, call her a racist, tell her she’s insensitive, and bring the proceedings to a screeching halt because we’re simply not gonna tolerate that kind of discrimination.
“I think this Vicki Marble — and I can be all wrong. I’m just guessing. I think she was actually trying to be nice or accommodating, and not offend anybody. It just doesn’t work, though,” Limbaugh concluded.
Republicans point out that Democrats can also be careless. Democrats were attacked this legislative session for eyebrow-raising comments during the gun control debate.
Rep. Salazar found himself in the hot seat after commenting that women might feel like they’re going to be raped when they’re not in any danger, which could result in accidental shootings.
Sen. Evie Hudak, D-Westminster, suggested that statistics do not indicate that carrying a firearm adequately protects a woman against rape. Her comment came after testimony from a Nevada rape victim who was prohibited from carrying a gun on her college campus, despite having a concealed-carry permit.
GOP Chairman Call believes that the racist angle is being played up. He’s not sure that the conversation would have even turned to race had Fields not raised the issue.
“They’re always looking for whatever excuse they can to jump on any perceived offense or slight,” Call said of Fields and the Democratic Party.
“Careless is not racist. So, for Rhonda Fields and Democrats to be so critical and to respond in such an over-the-top way is actually, I think, in many ways worse because by taking something that is inartful comments and allege racism as a result in an attempt to score some cheap political points doesn’t do anything to further the dialogue,” added Call.
Fields, however, told The Statesman that it was clear to her that there was a racial undertone to Marble’s comments.
“It sounds like they would prefer that I say nothing and just kind of let comments like that slide,” Fields responded. “It’s not about me trying to create a scandal, or me trying to grasp at something. It’s just that I was in the company of someone that was using some inappropriate stereotypes and comments to describe African Americans… and I was offended by those comments. I’m not going to let those kinds of comments slide.”
Bob Loevy, a renowned local political scientist who has been registered with the Republican Party in Colorado for 45 years, said his party had better change its messaging quickly, or face continued losses.
“It does damage the Republican Party, and it does seem as though we still have Republicans who have not really accepted the political correctness — that other races, religions and ethnic groups are to be treated with respect and not be disparaged verbally,” opined Loevy.
He said it is smart for Republicans to downplay the racist angle, but said he doubts that strategy will gain traction with voters.
“People simply are very sensitive these days to any kind of racial, ethnic or religious insult,” he said. “This is something that an opposition party can blow up, and that’s one of the new rules of American politics — you say something that’s politically incorrect and the other party is going to exploit it.”
In Loevy’s 45 years as a Republican in Colorado, he has watched the party evolve. But he says one area in which the party continues to struggle is with social conservatism. He said that might have worked in the South, where there were large numbers of socially conservative Democrats and independent voters willing to convert, but that it doesn’t work in Colorado.
“Her saying things that are racial… is just further driving young, upscale, well-educated persons who under other conditions might be Republican, that’s driving them out of the party,” concluded Loevy.