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John James, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, made a remark about breastfeeding that has drawn criticism. The Detroit News

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A remark by Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James at a VFW rally last week in which he referred to "grabbing boobs" as an infant has drawn fire for being insensitive to women and sexual assault survivors.

Others say it was clearly a joke and critics are overreacting.

In an Oct. 2 video recorded at an appearance in St. Clair Shores, James, 37, is seen addressing a crowd of mostly veterans, referring to the #MeToo movement and the controversy surrounding then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

"I don't want to go to Washington. Who would right now?" James said to laughter. "You kidding me? You see what I was doing 36 years ago. Well, I was one so ... I was breastfeeding, but other than that ... so I guess I was grabbing boobs back then."

James, a former Army Apache helicopter pilot from Farmington Hills who has been endorsed by President Trump, faces Democrat U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Lansing in his first bid for public office. The two have scheduled debates Sunday in Grand Rapids and Monday in Detroit.

The video was posted on Twitter on Thursday by American Bridge, a left-leaning opposition group specializing in "holding Republicans accountable." James' campaign posted the video live on Facebook during the event. American Bridge is the same group that put Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Schuette on the hot seat with a video of an exchange with a woman interviewing him in 1989. Schuette expressed regret at a poor attempt at humor.

Tori Sachs, campaign manager for James, said her candidate would not be commenting but that the posting of the video is a clear attempt to stop James' momentum in the race.

"As the mother of three toddlers, I think we need more leaders like John James who draw attention to important issues like breastfeeding. I think John James and Michelle Obama both agree that this is an important issue," Sachs said.

Miranda Margowsky, a spokeswoman for Stabenow, said the senator had no comment.

Don Tanner, a partner in the Tanner Friedman public relations firm, said a "successful politician really needs to know his base" and how to appeal to it. Sometimes the result is a comment that's "off-color" or inappropriate, he said.

"When it comes right down to it, James' base is really the same as Donald Trump's base," Tanner said. "As you saw in the video, he got laughs for some off-color remarks just like Trump gets at his rallies."

Tanner said he believes James "got a little bit caught up in the moment": "I'm not saying what he did was right or wrong. I personally don't agree with what he said. But Donald Trump has shown that that can work very, very well."

Jen Eyer, a senior vice president of Vanguard Public Affairs and a former communications director for Democrat Gretchen Whitmer's gubernatorial campaign, said she was disappointed by the remark and said it shows how he feels about women.

"I think that a candidate's remarks are always a window into their thoughts. ... He clearly has thoughts about women that are indicative of a lack of respect," she said.

"You have him making a joke that really conflates what is a very pure and natural moment between a mother and a baby with something sexual. That, to me, is revolting."

Ashley Asztalos, 30, who owns a salon in Livonia, said she was not offended by the James' comments and "I laughed pretty heavily."

"I don't look at things from a victim mentality point of view, so I guess I just don't really relate to people who have to take every single thing that somebody says as like sexual assault," she said.

lfleming@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2620

Twitter:@leonardnfleming

 

 

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