HARRISBURG - A brief exchange of comments videotaped during an effort to reach out to Latino leaders last week in Philadelphia has created a new wave of controversy for Gov. Corbett.
In an hour-long interview Friday during a roundtable sponsored by Al Día News Media, a moderator asked Corbett whether he had any Latinos on his staff.
Corbett said he did not, adding quickly, "If you can find us one, please let me know."
He went on to ask, with a smile, whether anyone in the audience wanted to come to Harrisburg. That prompted laughter. "See?" he said to the moderator.
The Republican governor's words drew criticism from some prominent Latinos - "It shows a lack of respect for the Latino community," said former Judge Nelson A. Diaz, a Democrat - as well as from one of the Democrats seeking Corbett's job next year. The criticism, in turn, prompted a stinging rebuke from Corbett's office.
Spokesman Kevin Harley issued a news release late Wednesday saying critics took the governor's comments out of context, and blaming a left-leaning group that sent out copies of the Al Día video.
"This is just another attempt by an extreme left-wing blog to malign Gov. Tom Corbett," Harley said.
Harley said Corbett's answer to the "staff" question referred only to his immediate staff, which consists of a handful of people. The spokesman noted that Corbett has named several Latinos to state posts.
Corbett's remarks came two weeks after he drew some heat for suggesting on a radio program that the state's sluggish unemployment rate was in part the result of job candidates being unable to pass drug tests. Corbett said he was referring only to jobs and training programs in the Marcellus Shale area.
The question-and-answer session taped Friday at the Union League of Philadelphia, and posted in segments on YouTube by Al Día, covered a wide range of topics, including Corbett's recent trade mission to Latin America, before an invitation-only audience.
The question about staffing came on the heels of a longer answer. Asked whether "the emergence of the Latino vote" had affected his policy positions, Corbett said he aimed to grow jobs for all Pennsylvanians regardless of ethnicity. "I've been elected . . . to make Pennsylvania better than when I found it, and whoever comes in behind me should do the same thing," he said.
He also said of his governorship: "The first two years have been a great learning experience. I think we're in the process now of getting much more connected with everybody that we did not have that relationship before."
Diaz, a lawyer and former Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge, said Corbett's "find us one" remark reminded him of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's "binders full of women" comment while debating President Obama last fall.
Hispanics accounted for just under 6 percent of Pennsylvania's population, or about 751,000 people, in the 2010 census.
"The state would have lost an Electoral College seat without the growth," Diaz said. "Doesn't he realize this?"
State Rep. Angel Cruz (D., Phila.) called the remark insulting. "Latinos are right under your nose if you care to recognize them," Cruz said of the governor. "Some of them even voted for you."
U.S. Rep. Allyson Y. Schwartz of Montgomery County, who is among the Democrats seeking to unseat Corbett in 2014, issued a statement saying his comments reflected a failure to recognize the diversity of the state. "Making excuses isn't leadership," the statement said.
Sabrina Vourvoulias, who moderated Friday's event and is managing editor of Al Día, a Spanish-language weekly in Philadelphia, said she poses the staffing question to every featured roundtable guest and has received similar answers.
"I am not going to categorize any politician as offensive or inoffensive, because we have heard from a wide range of them," she said.
Vourvoulias said she found it disrespectful that Think Progress, the Democratic website that circulated Corbett's remarks, had failed to give Al Día credit.
As Corbett spokesman Harley's release pointed out, the governor named a Latino to his cabinet. Physician Eli N. Avile was secretary of health until he stepped down last fall.
The release also noted that Corbett had named Kenneth Trujillo, a law professor and former Philadelphia city solicitor, to the Liquor Control Board but that state Senate Democrats had blocked the nomination.
Maria Montero is executive director of the Governor's Advisory Commission on Latino Affairs, one of the few paid positions of its kind in the country.
She said in an interview that while her job was apolitical, she advocates for all minorities and briefs Corbett weekly on those who show exemplary leadership skills.
Harrisburg-based GOP strategist Charlie Gerow, a Brazilian native, said he wouldn't call Corbett's comments "gaffes."
"They may not be the most articulate or the most artful, but in this 24-hour news cycle, words are played with and manipulated," Gerow said. "Anything someone says is subject to interpretation and misinterpretation."
A partial transcript of Friday's question-and-answer session between Corbett and Al Día managing editor Sabrina Vourvoulias. She said the first question was submitted by an audience member.
Question: How does the emergence of the Latino vote impact your political and economic positions?
Gov. Corbett: The emergence of the Latino vote is one that people have looked at from a political perspective many times. ... I've been elected by the people of Pennsylvania to make Pennsylvania better than when I found it, and whoever comes in behind me should do the same thing. and that should be their goal. ... And, you know, trying to grow jobs in Pennsylvania, I think, is in the best interest of whatever nationality that we are talking about.
When it comes to the economy, trying to grow jobs is in the best interest of every nationality in Pennsylvania. I think that we need to be able to develop a stronger relationship with all communities. And as I said, the first two years have been a great learning experience. I think we're in the process now of getting much more connected, uh, with everybody that we did not have that relationship before. . . . So we're going to fix that.
Q: Do you have staff members that are Latino?
Corbett: No, we do not have any staff members. [inaudible] If you can find us one, please let me know.
Q: I'm sure that there are Latinos -
Corbett: [Smiling] Anybody here want to come to Harrisburg? See?
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