A Hispanic activist leading a statewide campaign against bilingual education distanced herself on Wednesday from California millionaire Ron Unz and his “insensitive” remarks about U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige.

“This doesn’t have anything to do with whether you’re black, white or brown,” said Rita Montero, chairwoman of English for the Children of Colorado. “I have indicated to him I thought he was clearly insensitive.”

Unz, who so far is footing the $130,000 bill for Montero’s group, is drawing fire for a Monday e-mail to supporters about Paige. In Denver last week, Paige spoke against the proposed statewide ballot initiative limiting bilingual education in Colorado schools.

In his missive, Unz describes Paige as “a black former football coach” who is “widely regarded as the dimmest member of the Bush Cabinet” and who “is believed to have obtained his job largely due to George W. Bush’s intense support for ‘Affirmative Access.’ “

U.S. Department of Education spokesman Dan Langan labeled the remarks “insulting, and frankly outrageous.”

John Britz, spokesman for English Plus, the Colorado group opposing the Montero/Unz campaign, called the e-mail “unbelievable.”

Unz said Wednesday that his remarks were “quite, quite insensitive.” He also admitted he has never met Paige but based his comments on media reports.

But Unz said Paige’s race is relevant because blacks in general “have been speaking English in the United States for probably 300 years” and have less “personal connection” to the pros and cons of bilingual education.

“It’s fair to say blacks in America have much less personal connection than do Latinos or Asians or Italians or Greeks or Jews,” Unz said.

“The bottom line is, if you’re talking about somebody who is a Latino immigrant, I honestly think they probably understand the issue of bilingual education better than I do on a personal level,” he said. “I come from an immigrant background, but I, myself, am not an immigrant.”

Britz said English Plus does not intend to make Unz’s remarks a “central issue” in its campaign against the proposed initiative. “I think it will matter politically to the African-American, Asian and Latino communities,” he said.

Montero said she does not believe Unz’s comments should become a campaign issue. Her group is trying to gather more than 80,000 signatures by Aug. 5 to place the proposal before voters in November.

“Ron is merely the financier of this effort,” she said.

“The statements he made are not a reflection on the committee doing the work here in Colorado. The issue to us is not about race, it’s about language.”

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