The Associated Press

JACKSON - A local Head Start leader said Republican gubernatorial candidate Haley Barbour insulted poor families when he said some of the program's children would be better off in a "whorehouse" than in their current homes.

"I thought it was terrible. It was degrading," Sadie Jones, administrator of the Mid-Town Head Start Center in Jackson, said Wednesday.

But, Arvern Moore of Holly Springs, president of the state Head Start association, said he talked to Barbour and accepts the candidate's explanation.

"He said that it was not intended to be a negative reflection on Head Start," Moore said.

In DeSoto County earlier this week, Barbour told a Catholic school principal: "Head Start is a godsend for Mississippi. Some of those kids in it would be better off sitting up on a piano bench at a whorehouse than where they are now."

Barbour did not return calls to The Associated Press on Wednesday to elaborate on his comment or to respond to criticism from Democrats and some Head Start leaders.

Barbour campaign spokesman Quinton Dickerson said Barbour was praising Head Start and used "a strong metaphor" to talk about some students' home lives. Dickerson said Barbour supports the 38-year-old program for preschoolers.

Dickerson said he did not know whether Barbour regretted the choice of words.

Barbour, a former Republican National Committee chairman, hopes to face Democratic Gov. Ronnie Musgrove in the Nov. 4 general election.

Head Start was founded as part of President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Most of its students are from families at or below the poverty line, defined as an income of $18,000 a year for a family of four. About 26,000 Mississippi children participate in the program.

Moore said when he first read Barbour's remark, he didn't know what to think.

Jones said Barbour's comment was a hot topic of discussion Wednesday at her center in Jackson.

"That's ridiculous," Jones said. "It's just not a professional thing to be saying about young children and a program. Head Start is a very good program. It's professionally run."

Athenia Jefferson, administrator of Cedars Head Start Center in Vicksburg, said she reacted with "horror" when she first heard Barbour's remark about children's home lives. Jefferson said Head Start helps parents learn how to help their own families.

"We have them involved in activities that would help them to be better parents, to help them realize they are the child's primary teachers," said Jefferson, who has worked 36 years for Head Start. "We give them the skills and opportunities to become better advocates for their children."

State Democratic Party Chairman Rickey Cole said Barbour was trying to stir up class resentment.

"I think it's a clear indicator of Mr. Barbour's elitist attitude where he would somehow equate poverty with wickedness," Cole said. "The families who put their children in the Head Start program do so voluntarily because they want their kids to have a better life. But Haley Barbour is so stuck in his 19th century plantation paternalism that he can't see that."

Many Mississippi children in Head Start are black, and Barbour has said he wants to appeal to black voters this year. About 36 percent of Mississippians are black, and campaigners say their votes could be key in deciding the governor's race.

Mississippi Republican Chairman Jim Herring said he doesn't think Barbour's "whorehouse" remark will affect efforts to attract minorities.

"I think he should be taken at his word that he thinks the Head Start program is a valuable program for children," Herring said. "That's all there is to it. Trying to read something else into it, I think, would be unfair."

Dickerson said Barbour has toured Head Start centers across the state and spoke recently at a state Head Start conference on the coast. Musgrove also spoke at the conference.

Musgrove said in a written statement Tuesday that Barbour, a lobbyist, has "spent too much time in Washington" and that people in Mississippi do not appreciate the kind of language Barbour used.

Musgrove campaign manager Lisa McMurray said the governor did not want to comment further on Wednesday.

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