Rep. Pete Stark (D-Oakland) Thursday said that Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan approaches being "a disgrace to his profession and his race," prompting a furious Sullivan to retort: "I don't live on Pete Stark's plantation."
The California congressman, chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on health, said that the Bush Administration's only black Cabinet member has "turned his back on the poor, most of whom are minorities," so that he can keep his job.
"I wish he had the guts to say that to my face," responded Sullivan as he issued a statement in which he demanded an apology. "It's too bad ultra-liberals like Pete Stark haven't progressed to the point that they can accept the independent thinking of a black man that does not conform to their own stereotyped views," he added.
At a press conference later Thursday in Los Angeles, where he will address a conference of the National Assn. of Black Journalists, Sullivan suggested that Stark is in no position to judge whether he is a credit to his race or profession. "What Pete Stark thinks doesn't matter a damn," he declared.
Stark's remarks--unusual for their racial overtones--came toward the close of a press conference here Thursday intended to promote the introduction of an anti-smoking bill. The bill would require tobacco companies to reimburse the government for smoking-related health care costs incurred by Medicare and Medicaid patients.
Stark, a white liberal Democrat, is on the same wave length with Sullivan on the smoking issue. In recent months Sullivan has launched an all-out public attack on cigarette companies, including those that sponsor sports events and those that have targeted marketing campaigns to specific groups, such as minorities and women.
Sullivan, formerly president of the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, was instrumental in getting one company to halt its plans to market a cigarette aimed at blacks.
But the two are on opposite ends of the spectrum in other matters. Stark said in an interview that his comments were sparked by his increasing anger over Sullivan's anti-abortion stance and his recently announced opposition to national health insurance. Stark has called for a federal program of national health insurance. Sullivan advocates making improvements in the existing system, which he called a public-private partnership.
"Louis Sullivan comes as close to being a disgrace to his profession and his race as anybody I have seen in the Cabinet," Stark said at his press conference.
Stark later refused to apologize, saying that Sullivan "will have the right to ask for an apology as soon as he apologizes to the 37 million uninsured, impoverished people" in the country, "a disproportionate share of whom are black and other minorities."
Stark added: "He is taking the elitist stance. He is supporting the Bush Administration and the top 1% of the wealthiest in the country, the people who want no public programs (to help the poor), the people who want free enterprise to take care of it.
"He came here suggesting he wanted to help the impoverished," Stark continued. "Now he wants to help the health insurance companies and private enterprise."
Citing an award from black physicians and what he said was the support of black organizations, Sullivan declared at his Los Angeles press conference: "The last time that I looked, Pete Stark was white and Pete Stark was not a physician. . . . I think it is inappropriate and paternalistic to have a white man tell a 56-year-old black man who has worked all of his life forming a medical school for blacks . . . how I should define my positions and actions."
"There is diversity in the black community," Sullivan said. "There is room for that diversity in the black community as there is in the white community. And because I don't conform to Pete Stark's thinking about how we should approach issues of health care does not represent a basis for him as an elected official to then engage in personal attacks."
"What I see here is Pete Stark is unhappy because he has a position that he is having difficulty getting support for," said Sullivan. "So rather than engage in a discussion of ideas, he then turns to personal attack. Which is surely a sign of indeed a weak position."
Sullivan denied Stark's suggestion that his public positions have been dictated by the White House. But asked to identify issues on which he differed with the Administration, he said: "There are a number of things on which I disagree, but that disagreement occurs within our private meetings. It is not my position to have public disagreements."
The White House jumped to Sullivan's defense. A statement released by White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater called him "a role model for black and white youth in America."
"Congressman Stark's bigoted assault on the integrity and ability of Secretary Sullivan is an affront to the Congress and the Democratic Party," Fitzwater added, characterizing Sullivan as "an outstanding Cabinet officer."
Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the NAACP, when informed of Stark's comments, told UPI that he believes public figures should "disagree without being disagreeable."
Hooks said: "I've been involved in public life for a long time and I deeply deplore a public attack on people because of their views. I think Secretary Sullivan is a very, very decent human being and he is committed to a better way of life for all people."