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Top Republican's comments about Detroit causing stir

5:54 PM, Dec 16, 2012   |    comments
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 (Paul Egan/Detroit Free Press Lansing Bureau) -- The finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, who also was Michigan's former GOP chairman, was captured on video telling a tea party meeting that voters in Detroit get picked up at pool halls and barbershops and bused "from precinct to precinct where they vote multiple times."

Ron Weiser also said at the Aug. 9 meeting in Milford that someone not from Detroit would not want to go to the polls there at 6:30 a.m. "without a side arm."

The video of Weiser's comments, recorded by a Democratic operative shadowing GOP congressional candidate Kerry Bentivolio to a meeting where Weiser also spoke, was given to the Free Press and posted on YouTube by the Michigan Democratic Party. Weiser emphatically said Friday that he meant no offense to Detroit and was speaking about past, not current, campaigns. But his comments immediately drew sharp criticism from a civil rights activist and a Detroit lawmaker.

The controversy drew comparisons to a surreptitiously recorded video of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney telling people at a Florida campaign fund-raiser last May that he couldn't rely on the support of 47% of the country because they rely on government handouts and likely would support President Barack Obama.

Romney was accused of racism and classism. Now, Weiser is drawing similar objections from critics who say he disrespected and stereotyped Detroit because of its large African-American and low-income population.

In a phone interview Friday evening with the Free Press, Weiser, an Ann Arbor businessman who was running for a seat on the University of Michigan Board of Regents when he appeared at the tea party gathering, initially said he didn't recall making the comments and didn't think he would have used that kind of language. He later acknowledged making the remarks.

But Weiser said there were African Americans present at the meeting and the comments "were never intended to be racist comments." He apologized if he offended anyone.

The Rev. David Bullock, Michigan chairman of the Rainbow Push Coalition, said Weiser's comments are racist, classist and disheartening.

"Detroit is much more than pool halls and barbershops," Bullock said. "There are churches, there are parks, there are universities.

"It's disheartening that the political culture in Michigan and much of the country is so subversively and racially charged."

Weiser, who was Michigan Republican Party chairman in 2009-10, is a major Republican fund-raiser who was appointed ambassador to the Slovak Republic by President George W. Bush in 2001. He served there until 2004. Weiser also is a philanthropist who has supported numerous Michigan institutions, including ones in the city of Detroit.

He made the comments in the video while explaining why he thought the GOP had a strong chance of winning Michigan in the Nov. 6 presidential election.

First, Detroit's population, which heavily votes Democratic, has shrunk, Weiser said in the video.

"Secondly, no Coleman Young machine. No Kwame Kilpatrick machine. There is no Dave Bing machine. There's no machine to go to the pool halls and the barbershops and put those people on buses, and then bus them from precinct to precinct where they vote multiple times.

"And there's no machine to get 'em to stop playing pool and drinking beer in the pool hall. And it does make a difference."

Weiser noted Friday that he also talked about political machines in Wayne County, which is predominantly white, outside of Detroit.

"Now let's go out-county," Weiser said in the video. "No McNamara machine. If there's a Ficano machine, it hasn't got a nickel. Or it's under indictment -- one or the other."

Weiser was referring to the late Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara and current Executive Robert Ficano, whose administration is under FBI investigation.

As a result of the changes in Detroit and Wayne County, Republicans would have tens of thousands of fewer Democratic Wayne County votes to make up, he went on to explain.

"Obama has hired a lot of people to go help him get that vote out," Weiser said in the video. "But if you're not from Detroit, the places where those pool halls and barbershops are, you're not going to be going at 6:30 in November. Not without a side arm."

Weiser told the Free Press on Friday that he believes there has been voter fraud in Detroit in the past, possibly under the late Mayor Coleman Young and former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. The current mayor, Bing, has never had a political machine, he said.

"There are places that are commonly known as gathering places in Detroit for people," Weiser said. "Pool halls and barbershops.

"I don't think there's anything negative about pool halls and barbershops. There are many other places I could have talked about that would have had negative connotations."

He added: "Since when is it is a stereotype to talk about the fact people drink beer in pool halls? What do you think they drink? Soda pop?" As for the side arm remark, Weiser said: "I challenge you to find anyone who says you can walk around the neighborhoods of Detroit at 6:30 in the morning and not find it dangerous."

Bullock said he feels "very comfortable walking in my neighborhood."

State Rep. Harvey Santana, D-Detroit, said Weiser's comments involve "a direct message of race, and Detroiters are sensitive to that."

Weiser's analysis also is flawed because it does not consider that the population leaving Detroit is moving to other parts of Wayne County, as well as Oakland County, Santana said.

"What he needs to be concerned about is shifting his message to be more inclusive because his party is falling apart," he said.

RNC Chairman Reince Priebus named Weiser the RNC national finance chairman in April 2011. Telephone and e-mail messages left at the RNC press office Saturday were not immediately returned.

Matt Frendewey, a spokesman for the Michigan Republican Party, said that accusing Weiser of racism is offensive and "doesn't speak to who he is" and the work he has done for the country, the state of Michigan and the city of Detroit.

He said critics are taking Weiser's remarks out of context. "He was talking about politics," and release of the video "is simply a political attack," likely related to the right-to-work issue, Frendewey said.

Michigan Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer said Weiser's remarks reflect "the worst possible stereotypes about African-American voters that you can imagine."

"We have a major Republican figure in Michigan and nationally who is making racist stereotype remarks about voters in Detroit."

Brewer said Weiser owes the voters of Detroit an apology, and the fact a top Republican would make such comments illustrates why the party has trouble attracting black voters.

More Details: Weiser responds to his critics
Ronald Weiser, finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, released this statement to the Free Press on Saturday about his comments to a tea party meeting in August:

Explaining his comments:

"I was asked to address whether the GOP candidate could win in Michigan. My 'political machine' comments referred to past Democrat Party political machines that, among other things, helped get as many votes out as possible in prior elections."

Responding to criticism from Michigan Democratic Chairman Mark Brewer:

"This is another vicious political attack by Mark Brewer. Mr. Brewer has become an embarrassing caricature of intolerance, intimidation and hate in Michigan. My record of inclusion, service and positive engagement for nonprofit institutions and for meaningful issues stands for itself.

"I apologize to anyone who may have been offended by my remarks. There certainly was no intent to do so."

Best Regards,

Ambassador Ronald Weiser (ret.)

Transcript: What Weiser said to tea party forum
"If Obama loses Michigan, his paths to the White House reduce substantially. It's very hard to see a path for him to the White House again. If we lose Virginia or Ohio, it saves us the election, and we will still win. That's how important Michigan is.

Now I'm going to tell you my own theories in Michigan because it's one of the reasons the RNC is sending as much money as they are here and why you will see some of our friends spending money here. Because I talk to them all the time. They call me because I was the chair here. I understand what's going on.

I think there's two things that make a huge difference. No.?1 is a very fundamental thing?...?Are there any Democrats in this room? (laughter) It's a very fundamental thing. We have always had to overcome to win the governorship or the presidency a margin that used to be bigger, but in recent years has been about 350,000 votes out of Wayne County. And then if we could keep it even in Oakland County or win by a little bit, we'd have to overcome them in the rest of the state.

Well, let's look at Wayne County. Two big groups. The first one's Detroit. Population's now shrunk under 700,000. Last presidential election it was probably about 800-850 (thousand). Less voters.

Secondly, no Coleman Young machine. No Kwame Kilpatrick machine. There is no Dave Bing machine. There's no machine to go to the pool halls and the barbershops and put those people on buses and then bus them from precinct to precinct where they vote multiple times. And there's no machine to get 'em to stop playing pool and drinking beer in the pool hall. And it does make a difference.

Now let's go out-county. No McNamara machine. If there's a Ficano machine, it hasn't got a nickel. Or it's under indictment - one or the other. (laughter) So I believe, and I've told these people this, that I don't know how many votes less they'll have, is it 60,000, 50,000, 80,000, there's gonna be less of a margin to have to beat out of Wayne County then we've ever had before. That's one?... (applause)

Obama has hired a lot of people to go help him get that vote out. But if you're not from Detroit, the places where those pool halls and barbershops are, you're not going to be going at 6:30 in November. Not without a side arm."
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