Politics & Government

Pittenger knows he sounded racist – but says he’s not

He says what’s in his heart didn’t come out of his mouth.

But some believe U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, a Charlotte Republican, poured salt on an open wound – clearly visible in the city’s streets this week – when he made controversial racial remarks in a TV interview, aired internationally on Thursday.

“I shouldn’t have said it. ... I (came) across as very arrogant and racist. And, my heart is to help people,” Pittenger told the Observer on Friday afternoon.

Less than 24 hours earlier, Pittenger gave several media interviews as journalist calls swamped his Washington, D.C. office. One televised interview, specifically, prompted demands for his resignation and drew condemnation from his political opponents and some in the public.

Asked in that BBC News interview to explain what motivates protesters taking to the streets in Charlotte this week, Pittenger responded: “The grievance in their minds – the animus, the anger – they hate white people because white people are successful and they’re not.”

Later in the interview, the two-term representative from North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District followed up the “they hate white people” comment with an explanation that he’d heard that sentiment on TV from people protesting and he was simply repeating it. But, that explanation came only after Pittenger continued on a train of thought he’d started the interview off with: that the root of ongoing racial discord in the United States, and in Charlotte, ultimately stems from bad government policies.

“We have spent trillions of dollars on welfare,” he said. “But we have put people in bondage – so that they can’t be all they can be.”

On Friday, he stuck by his view that economic disparity is the underlying problem.

The Observer asked Pittenger to square his position with the feelings of those taking part in multiday demonstrations in his hometown – all focused on police shootings. Civil unrest began Tuesday after a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott, a 43-year-old black man, on Tuesday as he waited for his son to get off the school bus. The officer was also black.

“I don’t blame them for feeling that way (about police shootings). But, the concerns are broader,” Pittenger said, mentioning unemployment rates, poverty, and access to education. “We have to do better ...

“What I see is beyond the anger. I see people with no hope. You look at their face and there’s no hope.”

Pittenger says he wants to use his position in Congress to promote economic growth so that all people, including African-Americans, can find jobs and prosper.

Some were also angered Thursday by Pittenger saying that more than 70 percent of African-American children are born outside of wedlock. He told the Observer Friday he felt that is pertinent because he believes a father and mother at home provide a child the best chance of success.

One Charlotte pastor who came to Pittenger’s defense Friday disagrees with him on that issue and other political matters but says he knows the 68-year-old lawmaker and former developer to be a good person.

“I’ve never seen any kind of malice from him whatsoever,” said Pastor Charles Mack, an African-American community leader in Charlotte, and head of Progressive Baptist Church.

One of nine kids, raised by his mother, Mack told the Observer he wants to see Christians band together to help heal a hurting city. It seems Pittenger tripped over his words in the TV interview and made a mistake, Mack said.

“He’s a great friend of mine,” Mack said of Pittenger, adding that the congressman has helped his ministry and supported his work helping children from impoverished backgrounds.

Others are outraged, even though Pittenger issued an apology in a statement and on CNN shortly after the BBC interview surfaced.

“You just know that that’s what he says in private and that’s how he feels,” says Brad Woodhouse, a Democratic strategist currently running a pro-Hillary Clinton national political action committee, who has worked with North Carolina politicians. “A comment like that is a window into a person’s soul.”

Woodhouse says Pittenger should resign and not seek reelection.

The Charlotte area’s other member of Congress, U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, a Democrat, says she’s accepted Pittenger’s personal apology – extended to her and fellow North Carolina congressman G.K. Butterfield, D-Wilson, on the floor of the U.S. House Thursday. Butterfield is leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, of which Adams is a member. They’ve called for a federal investigation into the death of Keith Lamont Scott.

“I thought (Pittenger’s) comments were inappropriate, hurtful and offensive and I suggested that he find a way to address them with the local community,” Adams said in a statement to the Observer.

Pittenger is on a weekend break from Congress. Asked if he’ll attend community events or demonstrations in Charlotte soon, he said he’s started conversations with at least three African-American leaders but did not name any specific upcoming appearances.

Anna Douglas: 202-383-6012, @ADouglasNews

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