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GOP congressman apologizes to Democratic rep for ‘Go back to Puerto Rico’ outburst

Rep. Jason Smith said he was referring to trip House and Senate Democrats took to Puerto Rico during shutdown

Missouri Republican Rep. Jason Smith said he was referring to a trip that House and Senate Democrats took when he shouted “Go back to Puerto Rico” on the House floor on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Missouri Republican Rep. Jason Smith said he was referring to a trip that House and Senate Democrats took when he shouted “Go back to Puerto Rico” on the House floor on Thursday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Republican Rep. Jason Smith called Democratic Rep. Tony Cárdenas and apologized Thursday for blurting out “Go back to Puerto Rico” while Cárdenas was waiting to speak on the House floor.

Cárdenas, a descendant of Mexican immigrants, accepted the Missouri Republican’s apology, said in a statement to Roll Call.

“I told him I look forward to having a nice and respectful conversation when we return to D.C. on Tuesday. He agreed that we should get to know each other better,” the California Democrat said. “I appreciate his call and our future relationship.”


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Smith’s remark was not racially motivated, a spokesman told Roll Call.

“Congressman Smith’s comment was directed at all the Democrats who were vacationing down in Puerto Rico last weekend during the government shutdown, not towards any individual member,” Smith’s communications director, Joey Brown, said in an email.

Dozens of House and Senate Democrats were in Puerto Rico last weekend for a trip organized by Bold PAC, the political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that is led by Cárdenas, some of whom stayed for a separate Latino Victory Fund political summit.

Democrats in the chamber at first could not identify who had shouted the remark that rang out from where roughly 50 Republicans had gathered on their side of the House chamber. The GOP lawmakers had stayed after the final vote series on Thursday to challenge the fairness of a voice vote Democrats had taken just minutes before on a continuing resolution to fund the government through Feb. 28.

Democrats eventually agreed to invalidate the voice vote and hold a roll call vote on the measure next Tuesday.

When Smith shouted his remark, Texas Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee and the roughly 20 other Democrats remaining in the chamber shot out of their seats, demanding to know who said it.

Cárdenas walked over to the Republican side of the aisle to confront the minority-party lawmakers, but none stepped forward to admit responsibility.

“It came from the other side of the chamber. … We don’t know who it is,” Jackson Lee said at the time, declining to speculate on the offender.

“I would hope maybe privately the individual would go to Mr. Cárdenas and appropriately apologize,” Jackson Lee said.

The C-SPAN cameras were still rolling when the commotion over the Puerto Rico remark broke out. But it would be nearly impossible to definitively identify from the footage who shouted the remark because multiple Republican members were murmuring or shouting at the time and the comment came from someone who was not at a microphone or the podium.

In a short speech before the vote to wrap up legislative business for the week, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer asked that members avoid making comments with “undertones of prejudice or racism or any kind of ‘ism’ that would diminish the character … of any of our fellow members.”

Cárdenas said he was “shocked” at first because he often heard such comments when he was a kid growing up in the Pacoima neighborhood of Los Angeles.

The call with Smith seemed to smooth things over for now.

“There is a saying that I was taught by my parents,” Cárdenas said. “‘De todo lo malo, siempre sale algo bueno,’ which in English means, ‘From everything bad, something good will come of it.’”

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.

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