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Paul Ryan Confronted Over 'Inner Cities' Remark in Tense Exchange

Image: House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI)

House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI) was confronted during a listening session in Racine, Wisconsin Wednesday by a constituent who said Ryan’s recent comments regarding inner city men and poverty appeared to him to be racial. Frank Thorp / NBC News

JANESVILLE, Wisc. -- Paul Ryan's recent comments regarding inner city men and poverty received a stiff rebuke Wednesday from one of the Republican congressman's constituents, who accused Ryan of playing the race card.

Alfonso Gardner, a black man from Mount Pleasant, Wisc., asked the House Budget Committee chairman about his recent remarks on Bill Bennett's radio show last week. In an interview, Ryan he said there was a "tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work."

"The bottom line is this: your statement wasn't true, that's a code word for 'black,'" Gardner told the former vice presidential nominee during a listening session in Racine, referring to Ryan's use of the term "inner city."

Ryan responded: "There was nothing whatsoever about race in my comments at all, it had nothing to do with race."

"Sometimes when you're on radio you try to take a bunch of ideas and collapse it into a couple sentences and you oversimplify, and it can be misinterpreted, that's what's happened here," the Wisconsin congressman added.

Ryan's explanation hardly won over Gardner, though, who responded, "If you didn't mean this, you wouldn't have said it, OK? People don't say something that they don't mean."

The confrontation was emblematic of the difficulties some Republicans have encountered as the party has tried to improve its outreach to minorities and other non-traditional GOP constituencies.

Ryan has actually been one of the most aggressive Republican figureheads to speak to impoverished communities and minority groups. He's been a quiet champion of comprehensive immigration reform, and has sought to publicly emphasize the Catholic principles that underpin his budgets -- which Democrats criticize for their cuts to social programs and entitlements. Ryan recently released a 200-page report on the inefficiencies of federal welfare programs ahead of what he says will be proposals from his office on how to implement reforms.

"You don't know me so you don't know who I really am," Ryan told Gardner. "Race has nothing to do with this. This is about getting people to work, and this is about making sure that we can actually fight poverty more effectively."

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Later, in an interview with NBC News' Luke Russert, Ryan expanded: "People aren't getting out of poverty, and I think we can improve our approach ... So later on after this budget season is over, I want to add some ideas to the debate about some improvements on our poverty fighting strategies."

The imbroglio over Ryan's comments on the radio -- which were publicized in part by the liberal blog Think Progress -- hasn't fully gone away. Ryan came under fire last week from members of the Congressional Black Caucus who called his comments "highly offensive" in a letter inviting the Congressman to attend one of the CBC's weekly meetings to discuss the issue with the caucus. Ryan's office quickly responded to the letter saying "he looks forward to meeting with the CBC in the near future."

Rep Barbara Lee (D-CA) also released a statement calling the comments "a thinly veiled racial attack (that) cannot be tolerated." Ryan responded saying that he had spoken to Lee over the phone, and admitted that he had been "inarticulate" during the interview.

The question from Gardner was only one of dozens Ryan took during three "listening sessions" he held in his district Wednesday. Among the other topics discussed in the wide-ranging town-hall style meetings were immigration, foreign aid, and the Affordable Care Act.