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Radio Hosts' Racially Charged Remarks Against Asian-American Candidate Stir National Controversy

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NATESHINAGAWA
Nate Shinagawa is a candidate for New York's 23rd Congressional District. | Nate Shinagawa for Congress

A congressional race in upstate New York is drawing some national attention after conservative talk show hosts made racially tinged remarks about an Asian-American candidate.

House contenders Nate Shinagawa, a Democrat, and incumbent Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.) are steering clear of wading into the ballooning controversy, which was touched off last week by WYSL hosts Bill Nojay and Bob Savage and has sparked outrage far outside of New York's 23rd Congressional District.

On Friday's broadcast of "The Bill Nojay Show," Nojay told listeners that they should be "impressed" that he can pronounce Shinagawa's last name. Show guest and local GOP activist Paul Gullo then interrupted him, predicting Shinagawa will lose against Reed "just because of his name." Nojay batted down Gullo's quip as "not a nice thing to say."

"Xenophobic, xenophobic," Savage added in a mock foreign accent.

A minute later, "Sukiyaki," a popular Japanese song from the 1960s, played in the background while Nojay explained why he thought Shinagawa cannot defeat Reed.

"It's unfortunate that they are focused on Nate's name and how he looks while voters in this district want an honest discussion about how we can work together to build up the region's economy and get people back to work," Shinagawa spokeswoman Jenn Medeiros said in a statement on Tuesday. "Their comments don't merit any further response." 

On Monday, the Asian American Action Fund called for Reed to disavow what it deemed the "racially incendiary remarks." In a news release, the national group's executive director, Gautum Dutta, said it is "truly stunning" that Nojay and Savage do not understand why their comments were offensive.

In a statement to The Huffington Post, Reed did not directly address the radio hosts' comments but said there is "no room in our society or our campaign for any form of racism," adding that a candidate's ideas and beliefs should be the only topics of conversation.

Nojay attributed the overnight outcry to an "intimidation campaign against conservative talk show hosts" conducted by "far left-wing activists organizations" like Media Matters for America.

"I'm calling it the way I see it," Nojay said Monday on his show. "That's what we do here on the show."

Nojay also responded to listener complaints following his on-air statement on Friday that Shinagawa is from the "People's Republic," an apparent reference to China. Some locals use the term when talking about Shinagawa's hometown of Ithaca, N.Y., Nojay said.

Savage, who is also WYSL's president and CEO, was unapologetic in a statement posted Monday on the radio show's website. Savage's statement was accompanied by several recordings of angry messages that he said had been left on the station's voicemail system by Shinagawa supporters.

"WYSL categorically denies having broadcast anything racist, hateful or discriminatory regarding Mr. Shinagawa or his candidacy," Savage wrote. "It didn't happen. Period."

In a statement provided to The Huffington Post on Tuesday, Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), former chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, pointed to the back-and-forth as "another example of far right conservative race baiting."

"There's simply no place -- anytime, anywhere -- for this kind of ignorance in the ongoing public debate about how best to move each and every American community forward," the California Democrat said. "Candidates from all across the political spectrum should decry this kind of racism and I hope Tom Reed will take that opportunity."

The WYSL episode has resonated back home, too.

Hornell, N.Y., Mayor Shawn Hogan, a Democrat, told the Canisteo Valley News that Nojay's and Savage's remarks were a "definite slap at Nate Shinagawa's Asian heritage."

One of the show's affiliates, WLEA, cut the contentious segment from its Friday broadcast. WLEA producer Brian O'Neil said in an email that he regularly edits Nojay's show for two reasons: It often runs longer than the hour allotted for it by his station and Nojay is known to light up the switchboard -- and not in a good way.

"In this particular case, it was obvious that there was going to be serious repercussions if we had allowed the Sukyaki song to air, as well as the Japanese dialect in saying 'Xenophobe,' so we edited that portion of the show," O'Neil said. "As soon as Nojay mentioned Shinagawa, we went to a commercial break."

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that Mike Honda was the current chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus. He is actually the former chair of the group but still sits on the caucus. Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.) is the current chair.

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