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GOP makes issue out of 1994 racial slur

Thursday, April 06, 2000

By Jeffrey Bair, The Associated Press

Just hours after state Rep. Terry Van Horne won the Democratic nomination for a congressional seat, Republicans began circulating news stories alleging he used a racial slur about a black lawmaker six years ago.

Van Horne won Tuesday's Democratic primary for the 4th District seat, in southwestern Pennsylvania, and will face Republican state Sen. Melissa Hart, who was unopposed.

Soon after the results were announced, the Republican National Congressional Committee sent reporters copies of 1994 news stories that said Van Horne, who is white, used a racial slur when he referred to a black lawmaker from Philadelphia.

"The Democrats woke up this morning with an unelectable candidate with a frightening past," said Tom Davis, the chairman of the GOP committee.

Van Horne's remark, made in a state Capitol hallway, was reported at the time in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The newspaper said Van Horne was faulting the black lawmaker, state Rep. Dwight Evans, for opposing welfare cutbacks.

Van Horne said he was repeating what he had heard others say about Evans when he was overheard by Post-Gazette reporter Tim Reeves.

Van Horne said he was telling Tony Barbush, an aide to the lieutenant governor, about the heated nature of a private Democratic caucus meeting on the budget. Van Horne said he did not know which lawmakers used the slur because they were "speaking in the background" among about 100 people.

"I told Tony, 'I can't believe people are saying that,' " Van Horne said. "The only thing I am guilty of is gossip."

Barbush, now a Harrisburg lobbyist, said Reeves was in fact part of the conversation, which also included the state of the baseball Phillies and Pirates. He said he did not remember what was said about Evans.

Reeves, now chief spokesman for Gov. Ridge, a Republican, said he stands by his stories. "Those were serious stories that were taken very seriously at the time," he said.

Van Horne quickly apologized to Evans on the floor in 1994 for what he called a "stupid" remark.

Evans said he had not thought about the remark for years before he was asked about it yesterday. He said Van Horne remains his friend.

"I find it interesting that the Republicans are so concerned about Dwight Evans' welfare," Evans said.

Mike O'Connell, a spokesman for GOP nominee Hart, said her campaign had nothing to do with the news release.

The working-class district loops north of Pittsburgh. Its biggest county, Beaver, has a black population of 5.6 percent.

Van Horne and Hart are running for the seat being vacated by four-term Rep. Ron Klink, a Democrat who is running for the Senate. Klink, a former TV news reporter, beat state Sen. Allyson Schwartz 41 percent to 26 percent and will face incumbent GOP Sen. Rick Santorum this fall.

In another race for an open congressional seat, state Rep. Todd Platts won the GOP nomination and will face Democratic college professor Jeff Sanders in the 19th district in central Pennsylvania. Republican Rep. William Goodling, who has held the seat since 1975, is retiring.

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