MADISON, Wis. – Republican Sen. Ron Johnson is suggesting that poor single moms take jobs in the day care centers watching their children, a practice Wisconsin restricted seven years ago after massive fraud involving government subsidies.
Johnson's solution for addressing poverty is the latest awkward comment from the freshman senator who compared voting in November to the decision by doomed 9/11 passengers on Flight 93 to storm the cockpit, criticized "The Lego Movie" as anti-business propaganda and appeared to suggest that a documentary could replace classroom teachers.
Johnson made the remarks on day care centers in a Wisconsin radio interview on Monday. He didn't clarify his comments, putting his handlers in the position of scrambling to understand, and then explain, what their boss meant.
Elected in the tea party wave of 2010, Johnson is one of the most endangered Senate Republican incumbents this year in a rematch with the man he beat, former Democratic Sen. Russ Feingold. Johnson's campaign has tried to turn an off-the-cuff style into an advantage, contrasting it with Feingold's more polished approach from 18 years in the Senate before his ouster by Johnson in 2010.
Johnson spent his career running a plastics manufacturing company before leaping into politics.
"Sen. Ron Johnson's biggest impediment to re-election may be Ron Johnson himself with statements ranging from bizarre to insulting to simply ignorant," said Scot Ross with the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now.
But Johnson backer Nancy Milholland of Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, said she finds him to be refreshing.
"Ron, to me, comes across as down to earth and genuine," Milholland said. "I think he just tells the truth. That's just how I see him."
Johnson's been repeatedly asked to clarify what he means by saying he supports, but does not endorse, Donald Trump as the Republican nominee. And last year he had to back away from an off-handed comment, again made in a radio interview, when he referred to "idiot inner-city kids" while criticizing liberals on school choice.
Just two weeks ago Johnson questioned the need for having "thousands of history teachers" and suggested that one way to improve education could be to teach the Civil War by showing students the PBS documentary by Ken Burns.
After being ridiculed for the remark, Johnson denied that he was calling for teachers to be replaced with DVDs. But that's not how Burns saw it. He reacted on Twitter, posting: "I'm here to support teachers, not replace them."
When Johnson first began his re-election campaign in earnest earlier this year he liked to compare the November election with the vote taken by passengers aboard hijacked United Flight 93 on 9/11.
"Now, it may not be life and death, like the vote passengers on United Flight 93 took, but boy is it consequential," he said of the November election.
When Democrats accused him of comparing his campaign with the heroics of passengers on the doomed flight, Johnson said they were "political hacks" making a "ridiculous charge." But he's stopped using the passage on the campaign trail.
After the "idiot inner-city kids" comment a spokeswoman argued that he was being sarcastic and the senator backed equal opportunity in education.
The need for clarity arose again after Johnson gave a radio interview Monday to WIZM in La Crosse, Wisconsin. He was asked how to combat inner city poverty, particularly among those who can't leave the home to work, like single moms.
"Let single moms actually work in day care to support each other," Johnson said. "We have prohibitions against that, providing day care for a facility that has your own children in it. I think we need to review some of these policies."
Johnson spokesman Patrick McIlheran said the senator was "simply saying we need to think outside the box, while being careful to prevent the sort of misuse Wisconsin saw."
Day care centers that accept state subsidies face different state rules than those that do not. The law for those accepting state payments was tightened in 2009 after an investigation by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed that some day care providers were collecting subsidies while watching each other's kids.
Wisconsin law now prohibits subsidy payments to a certified child care provider where an employee's child is getting services. Caregivers watching up to three children in their own home are not regulated.
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