Chicago - After days of trying to distance himself from a growing hate speech controversy that threatens to envelop his presidential campaign, Senator Barack Obama issued a statement this morning condemning "in the strongest way I can" the controversial pronouncements of advisor and Los Angeles salvage yard owner Fred G. Sanford.
"The central message of my campaign is about unity and hope, and I will not let that message be diminished by these kinds of mean spirited and hateful remarks," said Obama. "I repudiate them and I apologize to anyone who was offended, including Senator Clinton, Lamont, Grady, Rollo, Julio, and particularly Aunt Esther."
Obama said that Sanford would no longer play an official role in his presidential campaign operation, but said he remained an admirer of the controversial figure.
"Mr. Sanford has long been a valued mentor to me, and I will alway cherish his friendship if not his counsel," said Obama."I'm saddened that his cherry picked, out-of-context words have overshadowed the many good things he has done for the community and the junk industry."
Sanford, a prominent knick knack reseller in South Central Los Angeles, is no stranger to controversy. Long famed for an abrasive nature and hair-trigger temper, some say he is cruelest to those closest around him.
"The constant verbal abuse he heaps onto his friends and family is almost shocking," says one person close to Sanford who spoke on condition on anonymity. "He calls his own son 'you big dummy,' and the outright brutal mental cruelty I saw him inflict on his own sister in-law almost made me call the LAPD."
Sanford's quick temper and flair for insults first came to national attention in 1997, amid simmering racial tension between Blacks and Latinos in Watts. A Univision news crew broadcast a hoarse-voiced Sanford yelling at a Hispanic neighbor, "hey Julio, why don't you get out of my house-o, and go back to Puerto Rico." The subsequent five day riot resulted in over 800 injuries and an estimated $8 billion in property damage.
Despite his track record of controversy, Obama appointed Sanford as a member of his Hope and Unity central advisory committee. He dismissed complaints about Sanford's earlier statements, calling them "isolated comments of an elderly man with a heart condition who likes to speak his mind."
Harder to dismiss were Sanford's increasingly controversial statements directed toward Hillary Clinton, Obama's rival for the Democratic nomination, which were caught on video and spread throughout the internet. In one speech, Sanford says "I'm gonna push her face in some dough and make some gorilla cookies," and later says "that woman look like a fish head sandwich." In another, Sanford holds up a clear sheet of plastic and taunts Mrs. Clinton to "wear it fo a Godzilla mask."
At first Mrs.Clinton laughed off Sanford's remarks, and even said she would "welcome Mr. Sanford's help after I am nominated." Mr. Sanford replied that "I'm a junkman, not a plastic surgeon." As the campaign wore on and her lead disappeared, she began responding testily, issuing statements that "God's gonna strike you down Fred Sanford," and "shut up foo."
Clinton's retorts only seemed to encourage the controversial salvage man, who seemed to relish Mrs. Clinton as a foil. His remarks began taking a violent turn. A tape released by the Clinton campaign show Sanford raising his clenched fist and repeatedly threatening Mrs. Clinton's face, vowing to "run over yo face with my truck," "bury your face at sea," "beat the ugly off yo face with my Louisville Slugger."
After the remarks became public, outraged feminists staged candlelight vigils across the country and demanded Mr. Sanford's removal. Mr. Obama was forced into a defensive posture, a rare wobble in what was up to now an almost flawless primary campaign. Whether or not today's announcement will put the campaign back on track remains to be seen.
For his part, Mr. Sanford declined comment on the controversy, citing health problems. He was admitted to Cedars Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles yesterday, complaining of heart palpitations.
"I'm comin' to see you, 'Lizabeth!" he was heard shouting from his gurney.