LANSING, Mich. -- Criticism of a Senate campaign ad featuring a young Asian woman talking in broken English about China taking away American jobs grew Monday as some warned it could revive discrimination against Asian-Americans.
Michigan has seen its share of Asia bashing, especially in the 1980s, when images of sledgehammers smashing imported cars were common. Chinese-American Vincent Chin died after being beaten to death in 1982 by two unemployed autoworkers angry about competition from Japan.
Republican Senate hopeful Pete Hoekstra began taking heat after his ad targeting Democratic incumbent Debbie Stabenow ran statewide Sunday before the Super Bowl.
"Mr. Hoekstra may believe that his ad is just a way to express his political goals. But it does so in a manner that points the finger at Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders for our nation's problems," said Thomas Costello, president and CEO of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion, a 70-year-old civil rights organization in Detroit. "All of us need to be vigilant in the words we use and images we portray to avoid giving tacit permission for racist behavior."
The ad was created by media strategist Fred Davis of California-based Strategic Perception Inc., known for both Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder's successful "one tough nerd" ads and for the 2010 "demon sheep" web ad attacking Tom Campbell in California's Republican Senate primary.
Hoekstra told reporters Monday that his ad's "insensitive" only to the spending philosophy of Stabenow and Democratic President Barack Obama.
"We knew we were taking an aggressive approach on this. But this is a time where the people in Michigan and across the country are fed up with the spending, and we wanted to capture that frustration that they had with Washington, D.C.," he said. "This ad ... hits Debbie smack dab between the eyes on the issue where she is vulnerable with the voters of Michigan, and that is spending."
Glenn Clark, the former Republican chairman in Michigan's 9th District and a Hoekstra supporter, called it a "great ad." But most comments weren't so positive.
National GOP consultant Mike Murphy tweeted that it was "really, really dumb," and Foreign Policy magazine managing editor Blake Hounshell called it "despicable."
Stabenow criticized the ad's "divisiveness" and said Hoekstra should be "embarrassed."
Two of Hoekstra's rivals in the Republican primary, Clark Durant and Gary Glenn, issued statements questioning whether the current front-runner is the candidate their party should support.
California Sen. Leland Yee, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Asian Pacific Islander Affairs, said Hoekstra should apologize.
"I would hope that in this day in age, especially from a California company, we were beyond the use of caricatures in political advertisements," Yee said in a statement. "Regardless of the role of China in our economic situation, making fun of one's language and culture is completely baseless and unnecessary."
Several Detroit pastors called for Hoekstra to pull the ad, as did the Michigan Roundtable and the Michigan Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission.
"The Asian woman speaking in this video would be no different than him having a black person speaking in slave dialect," said the Rev. Charles Williams II of Detroit's King Solomon Baptist Church, where civil rights leader Malcolm X spoke in the 1960s. He added that Hoekstra's "using the whole politics of fear, and the whole politics of division, and he knows it."
The 30-second ad opens with the sound of a gong and shows the Asian woman riding a bike on a narrow path lined by rice paddies.
Stopping her bike, the woman smiles into the camera and says, "Thank you, Michigan Senator Debbie Spenditnow. Debbie spends so much American money. You borrow more and more from us. Your economy get very weak. Ours get very good. We take your jobs. Thank you, Debbie Spenditnow."
The scene shifts to Hoekstra, who says, "I think this race is between Debbie Spenditnow and Pete Spenditnot."
Hoekstra told reporters in a conference call that the ad has "jumpstarted the debate" over deficit spending in Washington and a federal debt of more than $1 trillion. Asked about the woman in the ad, Hoekstra said that "her parents are 100 percent Chinese."
His campaign plans to continue running the ad statewide for the next two weeks on cable shows aimed at Republican voters.
Stabenow raised her own concerns about China on Monday with a conference call that included the general manager of R&B Electronics in Sault Ste. Marie. Wayne Olsen told reporters Chinese distributors had repeatedly tried to get him to hand over sensitive information about how products at his and other U.S. aeronautical companies were made. Stabenow said too many U.S. companies are being told they must turn over intellectual property and give away their technology if they want to do business in China.
"We can't continue to sit back and let China's policies cost us jobs," she said.