Virginia State Senator Frank M. Ruff’s (R) ardent opposition to the Medicaid expansion offered to the states under the Affordable Care Act took a new turn on Tuesday. Ruff confirmed to ThinkProgress that he “compared reliance on promised funds to provide health insurance for thousands of low-income Virginians to a ‘tar baby,'” a statement that was first reported in the Virginian-Pilot.
Ruff told attendees at the Danville Pittsylvania County Chamber of Commerce’s legislative breakfast that Virginia would be stuck if Medicaid expansion became financially disadvantageous in the future, like a “tar baby.” The Virginian-Pilot noted that the term “comes from the Uncle Remus collection of African American folklore tales published in the post-Reconstruction South and written in the eye dialect of rural blacks of that era,” and is “perceived as a racial slur against African Americans in some circles.”
John Gilstrap, a member of the Danville City Council, denounced the comment as “not a correct statement to make” and “offensive to a couple African Americans in the audience.” Gilstrap told the Pilot that Danville Mayor Sherman Saunders had walked out of the meeting after Ruff’s comparison.
In an email, Ruff told ThinkProgress, “Speaking with no prepared remarks I used the term ‘tar baby’ referring to a sticky situation one time. Never have I ever heard this as a racial term. I called the Mayor yesterday afternoon to clarify that. I consider Sherman a friend and do not expect this to change our working together in the future for all of the people of the region.”
Ruff was one of 17 Senate Republicans to vote against accepting billions of dollars in federal funding to expand Medicaid eligibility to roughly 400,000 Virginians. Ruff and other legislative Republicans say they are worried that the promised federal funding will not come through, and thus have voted to effectively let $5 million each day of Virginians’ tax dollars subsidize other states that have opted into the expansion. Though the expansion passed the Democratic Party-controlled Senate (with three Republicans joining all 20 Democrats) and enjoys the strong support of Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), the Republican-controlled House of Delegates has, thus far, refused to accept it.
A standoff over this issue prevented agreement on a state budget and a special session has been called for next week. At the breakfast, Ruff expressed hope that Democrats would accept a “clean budget” without the expansion, effectively surrendering their leverage.