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Lawmaker disavows anti-Jewish comment

by Melanie Eversley Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2003 at 10:08 AM
meversley@ajc.com

Rep. Max Burns (BA-R) tries to mend fences after failing to condemn supporter's "jew boy" remark about a political rival.

Lawmaker disavows anti-Jewish comment

Melanie Eversley, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, October 14, 2003

WASHINGTON -- Republican Rep. Max Burns tried Monday to make up with his Jewish constituents after criticism that he stood by while a campaign supporter made an anti-Semitic remark at a fund-raising event.

Burns, of Sylvania, telephoned the Savannah Jewish Federation after the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee criticized him for failing to speak up when Savannah businessman Jackie Sommers, during a Burns fund-raiser about three weeks ago, spoke of "that Jew boy down in Savannah" -- an apparent reference to one of Burns' re-election opponents.

Burns, contacted later Monday, said that after the event, he and his wife, Lora, went to Sommers' home and admonished him.

"Mr. Sommers does not speak for me, nor do I condone his comments," said Burns, adding that he had not known Sommers was going to attend the event and that Sommers made the comment as the fund-raiser was ending.

"Unfortunately, I can't control what he says," Burns said.

He added that his relationship with the Savannah Jewish community has been good, and he noted that he recently visited Israel on a congressional trip.

Sommers was vacationing in Rome and could not be reached for comment Monday. His brother Richard, who was at the fund-raiser, did not respond to a phone message.

The Democratic candidate to whom Sommers apparently referred, Savannah lawyer Tony Center, also could not be reached.

But the Savannah Morning News, in an article Saturday, quoted Center as saying, "It's sad that something like that is being said in this day and age. I'm sure it put Max in an embarrassing situation."

The head of the Savannah Jewish Federation, an umbrella organization for local Jewish advocacy groups, said her organization was dismayed to hear of the incident, but pleased that Burns called.

"He regretted not having said anything and wanted to know what he could do," federation director Sharon Paz said. "I said, 'You just can't stand by when people make these kinds of comments.' "

According to Paz, there are about 3,500 Jews in the Savannah-Statesboro area.

The incident comes at a time when Burns is beginning what could be a difficult campaign for re-election next year. The freshman congressman comes from a district where Democrats have a majority, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has made a victory there one of its top priorities, Greg Speed, organization spokesman, said Monday.

Word of the incident spread quickly through the Georgia Jewish advocacy community. On Monday, Deborah Lauter, the Atlanta-based Southeast regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, sent a letter to Burns saying the "clearly inappropriate" remark "deserved either an immediate rebuke by you when you got up to the podium or a public statement condemning the remark soon thereafter."

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