WASHINGTON - He corrected himself almost as soon as the words left his mouth, but a flip comment from Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., during yesterday's campaign-finance hearings has Asian-American groups crying racism.
Brownback was questioning a former Democratic Party finance chief about controversial fund-raiser John Huang's interest in collecting a bonus for raising millions of dollars during last year's campaign.
In attempting to summarize Huang's attitude, Brownback, apparently mimicking a broken-English speech pattern, said: "No raise money, no get bonus."
After hearing the reply to his comment, Brownback immediately said: "I meant no slight by my statement previously."
Brownback, through a spokesman, later apologized, saying he meant no offense. But it was too late.
The Democratic National Committee's chief spokesman swiftly labeled Brownback's remarks as "completely racist."
And Asian-American groups said Brownback's comment confirmed what they called their greatest fears from hearings in which most of the central figures are Asian.
"This is the kind of racism that is so ingrained in some people's languages that they don't even realize when they are making a statement that clearly offends Asian Americans," said Bonnie Tang, a staff attorney with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. "It's imperative that people in leadership positions recognize that comments like this go a long way in perpetuating certain stereotypes and harming the Asian-American community."
Many prominent Asian Americans were so concerned about the hearings that they had asked the panel's chairman, Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., whether a panel could testify before the committee to warn against stereotyping and blurring the distinction between law-abiding Asian-Americans and foreign nationals who may have broken U.S. campaign laws.
"The senator's comments are not unexpected and it's exactly what we were concerned about," said Charles Woo, a Los Angeles business executive and chairman of Chinese Americans United for Self Empowerment. "It shows a lack of sensitivity, and it's something we just don't need as we go into the 21st century."
When the hearings opened Tuesday, Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, a committee member whose great-grandfather emigrated from China, urged those following the hearings to avoid harmful stereotyping.
"I strongly condemn illegal fund-raising activities, but I do not hold all Asian Pacific Americans responsible for the alleged actions of a few," Akaka said. "Asian Pacific Americans should not be held to a higher standard than other citizens."
After yesterday's hearing, Akaka issued a terse statement about Brownback's remarks: "It was an unfortunate choice of words," he said.