Congressman said he's sour on the town hall meeting format because many in his district are conspiracy theorists.
WASHINGTON - For a well-known straight shooter, Rep. Collin Peterson has caused a lot of collateral damage this week.
The Detroit Lakes Democrat was forced to apologize Monday for telling a Capitol Hill newspaper that a quarter of his constituents are conspiracy theorists -- a statement that immediately drew ire from political opponents back home.
"Twenty-five percent of my people believe the Pentagon and Rumsfeld were responsible for taking the Twin Towers down," Peterson told the website Politico, explaining why he does not like to hold town hall-style meetings.
The Minnesota Republican Party pounced on the quote, calling on Peterson to apologize for his "offensive and outrageous comments." Minnesota GOP chair Tony Sutton said that "Peterson revealed just how out of touch and disconnected he has become in Washington." The organization later announced it was launching an ad campaign against him.
"If anyone was offended by my off-handed comment, I sincerely apologize -- I certainly wasn't trying to make fun of anyone," Peterson said in a statement Tuesday.
He said he was referring to constituents who have "called me and talked to me" about alternate explanations of 9/11 and others who try to "hijack" public forums.
Because of this concern, Peterson has kept his several town hall meetings a year focused on specific topics like health care, agriculture or the economy.
But Republicans on Tuesday saw the gaffe as an opportunity to make headway in Peterson's conservative Seventh Congressional District, which he has securely held for many years. In 2008, he won 72 percent of the vote.
"This has really I think energized activists in the area and is going to lend [itself] to a first-tier candidate coming forward to run against him next year," said Minnesota GOP deputy chair Michael Brodkorb, adding that there has been an "absolute explosion" of interest in the seat in the past 24 hours.
Peterson has made a name for himself in recent years as a forceful, moderate lawmaker in a Democratic Congress. Part of his trademark style has been his frankness. In June, he told the New York Times that "banks run the place," referring to Congress.
"He's very, very blunt," said Barb Hedrick, a political science professor at Minnesota State University, Moorhead, in Peterson's district. "And sometimes his bluntness gets in his own way."
Paul Wright, the Seventh District Chair of the Minnesota DFL, said Peterson probably made the Politico comment because he prefers to focus on "bread and butter" issues when meeting with constituents. People occasionally have diverted the conversation at those meetings, Wright said, though it is not a common occurrence.
"When it has happened, it's kind of bothered [Peterson] because, sure, he's got face time with that individual who's bringing up the issue, but it's detrimental to the experience of the rest of the people at the meeting," Wright said.
Another Minnesotan was surprised by Peterson's comment but for a different reason.
Retired University of Minnesota-Duluth Prof. James Fetzer, who founded a group that questions mainstream knowledge about the 9/11 attacks, said rural areas such as Peterson's district, with limited Internet access, are generally less exposed to alternate theories about controversial events.
Fetzer said he would have expected "a higher degree of acceptance of the official account of 9/11 in that area, and therefore I'm fascinated that he's reporting something like the opposite." He called Peterson's estimate a "positive sign" that alternate theories are gaining traction.
Eric Roper • 202-408-2723
--Staff Writer Bob von Sternberg contributed.