WASHINGTON -- A town hall in southeast Wisconsin turned testy for Republican Rep. Paul Ryan on Wednesday when constituents confronted the House Budget Committee chairman over his recent comments on inner-city poverty, as well as his opposition to Obamacare.
The more heated exchange occurred when Alfonso Gardner, a black man from Mount Pleasant, read aloud remarks Ryan made last week on the "culture problem" among inner-city men.
"We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work," Ryan said in an interview with conservative radio host Bill Bennett. "There is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with."
The statements were immediately interpreted as racist by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), prompting Ryan to agree to a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus. He also clarified that he had been "inarticulate" and was not implicating any particular race but the cycle of poverty as a whole. Gardner told Ryan he didn't buy his explanation, according to a video posted Thursday by NBC News.
"The next day you said that statement was inarticulate. Well, I don’t believe that. You said what you meant," Gardner told Ryan. "Bottom line is this: This statement was not true, that’s a code word for black."
"There are people in the inner-city who are white, Hispanic, who are Armenians, Danish -- all types," he continued. "And everybody works. You got here in a car or a truck or something. Somebody from the inner city helped make that."
Ryan nodded his head in agreement as Gardner spoke, at one point noting, "That's right."
"This is not a race thing. It's just a poor thing. Poverty knows no racial boundaries," Ryan responded. "That’s the issue I’m trying to get at, which is we have to rethink our war on poverty and our programs so that it always pays to work. Because we have these incentives to people not to work."
The audience applauded Ryan's response, after which the Wisconsin congressman told Gardner: "I get it. You don’t know me, so you don’t know who I really am. Race has nothing to do with this."
Gardner continued to disagree. "Now you're trying to go back and say you didn't mean this," he said. "Congressman Ryan, if you didn't mean this you wouldn't have said it. People don't say stuff that they don't mean."
Watch the full exchange above.
A less confrontational moment came from a man who argued that the subsidies under the Affordable Care Act were helping people get access to health care.
Michael Martincic, a 64-year-old resident of Oak Creek, criticized Republicans for repeatedly trying to repeal the law, according to ThinkProgress. Members of the audience seemed to concur and applauded his comments.
"What Obama did was get this law passed. Whether it’s good, bad, or not, it got passed," Martincic told Ryan. "It’s actually helping some people grow, helped this other guy [with] medication ... I could actually … get some kind of subsidy, which would help me."
Ryan disputed the claim that Republicans voted 51 times to repeal the law in its entirety and said the party had gone after certain parts of it that even Democrats found problematic.
"I really do believe there’s a better way to do it than with this health care law," Ryan said. "My argument is that I think there are better ways at dealing with these extremely important and legitimate problems."
He noted he was a fan of creating risk pools for individuals with pre-existing conditions, but did not elaborate on other proposals to replace the existing health care law. Instead, Ryan said Obamacare would hurt hospitals, Medicare and "make people buy things they don’t want to buy."
While Martincic is just one constituent who extolled the benefits of Obamacare at the town hall, his comments are representative of growing problems with the GOP's strictly anti-Obamacare platform. Despite the law's rocky implementation, the more individuals gain access to coverage through its health care exchanges, the harder it becomes for Republicans to insist that Obamacare should be fully repealed.
Watch the exchange here.