Clyburn Slams GOP Candidate Who Said Civil Rights Issues Should Be Left To Local Governments

House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) had sharp words today for Ohio GOP congressional candidate Jim Renacci, who recently said the federal government should get "out of the way" on civil rights issues, saying that such a position suggests he may be unfit to hold public office

On Sept. 7, Renacci, the GOP nominee in Ohio's 16th congressional district, held a public town hall event in Canton, at which an attendee noted the lack of diversity on his campaign and asked where he stands on civil rights issues. In an exchange captured by the site ThinkProgress, Renacci said the solution was "to get our federal government out of the way" and hand more control over to the local government.

"A lot of the problems you're talking about are local issues," Renacci replied. "And I'm also a firm believer that the federal government and our Constitution was based on freedom, and was based on the freedoms that our number one goal of our military is freedom. We need to get our federal government out of the way and we need to allow our local governments to become more involved in many of the issues you're talking about. I don't believe these are federal issues to come down."

When the attendee pointed out the importance of the federal government in civil rights issues throughout history and asked whether Renacci wanted to go back to a time when local governments were allowed to discriminate, Renacci replied, "What you're doing is talking about is the past, and I agree with you. I'm talking about today." The questioner then challenged him on whether, in 2010, we're beyond discrimination, and Renacci said, "In 2010, we have issues that we need to bring back to the local -- whether it's schools -- we need to bring back to the local."


One person at that event was Rep. John Boccieri (D-Ohio), who unexpectedly decided to attend his challenger's meeting. The two men ended up sparring for more than an hour in an unofficial first debate.

Renacci's comments happened to come just a couple of days before a community rally in the district commemorating the 45th anniversary of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. Boccieri will be at today's event, along with Clyburn and several local political and community figures. The Huffington Post confirmed that this event was planned before Renacci's recent remarks.

In an interview with the Huffington Post today, Clyburn sharply condemned Renacci's belief that the federal government doesn't have a role in civil rights issues, saying it raises questions about his fitness for federal public office:

One would have to be really out of touch with reality on all fronts not to understand that that is almost the exclusive prerogative of the federal government. The 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments are in the United States Constitution, and it would seem to me that anyone running for public office that requires an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and not know what's in the Constitution of the United States is unfit to hold federal office. It's just that simple.

I was absolutely amazed to see and hear that response. But I suspect that these things are to be expected. What we have seen today is more and more people not just running, but winning nominations for office who are totally ill-prepared and inept, and that's what happens when you tend to base your candidacy and your platform on soundbites and talking points. It doesn't take much thought to repeat a soundbite or to regurgitate talking points. And that's what we've got here.

Clyburn added that while "the cry of states' rights" has been around for a long time, this type of rhetoric is becoming more commonplace with the rise of the Tea Parties. He pointed out, however, that anyone who has run a business knows that "you cannot have 50 different sets of rights." "We tried that in the Civil War, and all of us know that that did not work," he said. "The only way to maintain unity in this great nation of ours is to have a unified voice and unified laws when it comes to determining citizenship and what kind of rights people have. He added that while more and more candidates are expressing these beliefs, "we'll have to wait to see the results of these elections to determine whether or not they're becoming more acceptable. I certainly hope they're not becoming more acceptable because I think that, if there's anything we as a country need to be vigilant about, and that is how we hold ourselves out to the rest of the world."

Campaign spokesman James Slepian told the Huffington Post that Renacci's views have been misconstrued. "Jim's view is that he 100 percent believes in the role the federal government has played and must continue to play in civil rights issues in this country," he said. "But for the work that was done in the past, particularly with a piece of legislation like the 1964 Civil Rights Act, this country would still be in the Stone Ages on race relations. A lot has been accomplished. There is a lot of work yet to do. That said, there are also issues that this question has brought up and should be addressed by state and local governments as well. To point to one civil rights issue that can be taken up and should be taken up at the local level is education issues. Whether or not we're going to allow students in a particular city or a particular school district to have a choice on where they're going to go... Those are the types of issues Jim believes can and should be addressed at the local level."