Jenkins denies speaking in racial terms when making ‘great white hope’ comment

U.S. Rep. Lynn Jenkins on Thursday in Lawrence denied that she was speaking in racial terms when she invoked the term “great white hope” at a recent town hall forum.

Jenkins, a 46-year-old Topeka Republican serving her first term in the House, told a recent gathering in northeast Kansas that the Republican Party is looking for a “great white hope.”

“I was discussing the future of the Republican Party in response to a question about is there any hope for Republicans,” she said while touring Kansas University. “I was explaining that there are some bright lights in the House, and I was unaware of any negative connotation. If I offended somebody, obviously I apologize.”

Videotape shows Jenkins, a Republican, making the comment at an Aug. 19 forum. She was discussing the GOP’s future. Democrats took control of the House and Senate in 2006, and in November, voters elected Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president. Jenkins is white.

During her Thursday morning interview, Jenkins, whose district includes western Lawrence, said she was speaking about “a bright light.”

“Republicans have been suffering in recent years, and we need a bright light,” she said.

The term “great white hope” stems from the early 1900s when there was a campaign to find a white boxer who could defeat heavyweight boxing champion Jack Johnson, who was black.

White House spokesman Bill Burton said he saw the comments and that a Jenkins spokeswoman backpedalled and called it “a poor choice of words.”

“We obviously give congresswoman Jenkins the benefit of the doubt,” Burton said at a briefing on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, where Obama is on vacation.

Tyler Longpine, a Kansas Democratic Party spokesman, also called the comment “a poor choice of words” but said he didn’t think it was anything more. He said a Democratic Party supporter shot the video earlier this month at a forum in Hiawatha and shared it with the state party.

Longpine also said if Jenkins hadn’t spoken in such partisan terms, “she could have kept her foot out of her mouth.”

In one note of irony, Jess Willard, a white man who knocked out Johnson in 1915 for the heavyweight championship, was born northwest of Topeka in St. Clere, about 30 miles from Holton, where Jenkins grew up.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.