During the event, an African-American constituent named Robert Thompson asked Renacci what he would do on the issue of civil rights. Renacci’s response: local control. He called civil rights “local issues” and said the solution is “to get our federal government out of the way” because “it’s not the federal government’s job”:
ROBERT THOMPSON: What is your position in regards to addressing those concerns. And again, I’m concerned about the civil rights and the diversity of your campaign in terms of why anybody of color should be in support of you as a congressman.
RENACCI: […] A lot of the problems you’re talking about are local issues. And I’m also a firm believer that the federal government and our Constitution was based on freedom, and was based on the freedoms that our number one goal of our military is freedom. We need to get our federal government out of the way and we need to allow our local governments to become more involved in many of the issues you’re talking about. I don’t believe these are federal issues to come down. I believe the federal government’s number one goal is to protect our freedoms. So the answer to your question is I believe a lot of things need to come back to the local level, and I believe things like you’re talking about do need to go back to the local level. And they need to be looked at in the cities. I was a mayor of my community. I think those are important ways of looking at all that. It’s not the federal government’s job.
Thompson astutely responded by pointing out that, “but for the federal government, we wouldn’t have had civil rights. … It took the federal government to come in and say ‘you can’t discriminate for housing, you can’t discriminate for jobs, you can’t discriminate for education.'” Local governments, Thompson concluded, “are the ones that were holding us back.”
Indeed, while “local control” may be appropriate for some matters, Renacci’s response indicates a dangerous ignorance of both past and present civil rights issues. One need look no further than the passing of Jefferson Thomas this week. Thomas was a member of the Little Rock Nine who, under the protection of the U.S. Army, endured the taunts and violence of racist mobs in order to integrate Arkansas’s Central High School following the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision. Federal intervention was absolutely necessary as Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus had “ordered the state’s National Guard to keep black students out” of the school.
Moreover, Renacci has a strange notion of the word “freedom.” When President Lyndon Johnson called upon Congress to protect the voting rights of all Americans, he promised the new law would “vindicate the freedom of all Americans.” But in Renacci’s world, “freedom” apparently means the right to be free from such measures.
ThinkProgress caught up with Thompson after the town hall to get his thoughts about Renacci’s answer:
Last week, Colorado GOP Senate nominee Ken Buck condemned the federal government’s role in schools since the 1950s — a period when many shamefully and violently resisted integration. Buck’s comments followed those from Rand Paul, the Kentucky GOP Senate nominee, who was critical of parts of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Though their comments were roundly criticized, Buck and Paul now have a new partner eager to denigrate the federal government’s role in protecting civil rights.