Republican U.S. Senate primary candidate Russ Fagg on Monday termed "baseless" accusations that one of his video ads, which was removed from YouTube, is racist.
"It never entered my mind," Fagg said. "We are talking about a problem we have in Montana, the devastating problem of meth."
Fagg took the ad, called "Judge," down from his campaign's YouTube page recently. It ran for about six days on television stations around Montana. It included images of men who look Hispanic with tattoos and had a voice-over saying, in part, "criminal illegal aliens threaten America."
The ad was criticized by people quoted in several news stories, in letters to the editor and by human rights organizations.
Rachel Carroll Rivas, co-director of the Montana Human Rights Network, said Monday that her organization received comments and feedback from a variety of people who were concerned about the ad.
"I think a lot of folks felt both appalled and shocked," Carroll Rivas said. "It definitely isn't typical of the political ads we see in Montana, but unfortunately it's also also not so different from some of the political ads that have aired more recently in our national political debates."
Carroll Rivas called the ad racist and said it reflects an anti-immigrant sentiment that has long existed in the U.S.
"Many immigrant groups from the Irish to the Japanese to German folks have been targets and accused of being either of ill health or criminals. … I think the message of this ad, using 'tough on crime' and patriotism, which is not unusual to political ads, is different in this case. It seems to be sort of wrapped in a larger frame of race."
Fagg said that in talking with the drug task force in Billings and in his two decades as a judge in Yellowstone County, he saw first-hand the damage meth can cause in a community, and that most meth comes into the United States from Mexico, brought by gangs.
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In 2014, The Billings Gazette reported Yellowstone County prosecutors filed 365 felony drug possession charges, up from numbers near 200 in previous years. The county attorney estimated half of the charges were for meth, the Gazette reported. The paper also reported at the time that meth in the area was almost exclusively brought from Mexico.
While Carroll Rivas said that law enforcement has talked about connections between meth and gangs from Mexico, ads like Fagg's don't allow for meaningful conversations about the issue.
"Instead, this really narrows the conversation to simply the emotions of fear and resentment," Carroll Rivas said.
Fagg said that as a judge he saw meth addicts who turned to property crimes to get money to purchase drugs.
"It's a huge epidemic," he said.
Fagg called those who were critical of the ad "hardcore Democrats" who "love to label. They love to label what they don't like. … I'm getting some traction so they want to label me."
Fagg described himself as "treating everyone with respect and courtesy whether they're white, black, red, yellow, anything in between. I pride myself on that."
The campaign took the ad down, Fagg said, for two reasons — it "did what it was supposed to do, which is bring people's attention to the issue" and the campaign also received a cease-and-desist demand from Universal Pictures, which said it had a copyright for one of the images used.
Fagg said his producer told him the image came from Google and was in the public domain, but rather than get into a legal battle, he took down the ad. It had already finished its television run.